An American Editor

November 6, 2013

On Language: Are There Rules?

A colleague wrote on another forum: “Yet these [rules of grammar] are elements of correct use of language (and key in quality editing/writing).”

What is correct use of language is arbitrary. “You and I” can be as correct as “you and me” — it just depends on the dominant grammar trend at the time of usage. Grammar “rules” are simply conventions that some self-appointed group of “authorities” has determined reflect current values in expression, which values many current writers and editors accept and agree with. If that were not true, then the rules today would be identical to the rules of 500 years ago and would be immutable, yet we know that grammar rules are always in a state of flux.

I am of the opinion that there is only one true grammar rule: The manner in which something is spoken or written must be such that the listener or reader can make no mistake about the speaker/writer’s intent and meaning. Aside from that, all so-called rules of grammar are here-today-gone-tomorrow rules of consensus.

Consider style manuals and usage manuals. If rules were universal and permanent, there would be no need for more than a single style manual, usage guide, or even dictionary, as there could be no difference and no room for interpretation. Yet we have many of each, and each has differences from the others.

Consider this example: “early rising people” versus “early-rising people.” Which is grammatically correct depends on which style manual, grammar book, and usage manual one looks at and applies. Or, better yet, consider the serial comma — now abandoned in British and Canadian English, except for when it would enhance clarity, and under assault in American English. Yet for decades, using the serial comma was the rule (and one that I think should be kept because its use improves clarity).

Correct use of language is neither a black-and-white proposition nor written in stone. Rather, it is more like silly putty.

The sibling proposition is that “to break the rules [of grammar], you must first know the rules.” In a sense, that proposition is true. But with the rules being in a state of  flux, it is difficult to nail them down so that one can know what rule one is breaking. I think that perhaps the rules being broken are less rules of grammar than they are rules of current consensus and spelling.

In discussions with colleagues, I have noted that when the talk gets to grammar, the discussion really becomes one of word choice. Grammar is the structure of sentence, word choice (and its companion spelling) is using the correct word spelled correctly (e.g., taught vs. taut). Yet sentence structure isn’t rigidly defined even though some grammarians would have us believe otherwise.

Sentence structure, like most things in editing, really revolves around understanding, communication, and clarity: Is the sentence written so that a reader can understand it? Does the sentence communicate the message the author wants to communicate or is it communicating a different message, even if only to a few readers? Is the sentence so clear that there is no possibility that a reader will misinterpret the sentence and what is being communicated by the author?

Rules of grammar are intended to promote those three principles without becoming so inflexible that either the meaning or the drama of the sentence is lost. How sterile is “to go boldly” compared to “to boldly go”? Ultimately, the rules of grammar boil down to this question: What is in charge?

If rules are in charge, then there is no room for flexibility; either the rule is met and satisfied or it is ignored and broken (consider, e.g., the “rule” against splitting infinitives). If the rule is ignored and broken, and there is no effective mechanism for enforcing compliance with it, then it is not a rule; at most, it is a suggestion based on past experience that has been created by a self-selected group. When was the last time you nominated and voted for someone to be part of the grammar rule-making board?

Today, we know that the rule against splitting infinitives was a misguided attempt to squeeze American English into a mold into which it could not fit. Yet the attempt lasted for decades. I remember losing points on essays in high school for not adhering to that rule. Not one English teacher questioned the rule or its soundness; every one enforced it by lowering a paper’s grade. Yet, inexorably, the rule met its death because it could not be enforced outside the classroom. Consequently, one must question whether it ever was really a rule with willy-nilly enforcement or just a suggestion.

Today’s rule in opposition to the serial comma is similar to the split-infinitive rule. Is it more deceptive to the reader to have the extra comma than to forgo it? What harm does the inclusion of the comma cause? Even in an economic sense, the cost of the serial comma probably doesn’t amount to even pennies on a print run.

The movement is afoot to minimize punctuation. The trend began in British English, which is where the trend to do away with the apostrophe seems to have also been born and taken root, and has spread. But the rule is not much of rule because it has the clarity exception: If clarity is improved, keep the serial comma.

The importance of this recently surfaced in a discussion I had with a client. My client complained that in a book that was to follow Canadian English, we used the serial comma, and Canadian English does not use the serial comma. As I noted to the client, such a broad statement is wrong. Canadian English would prefer not to use the serial comma, but accepts it where it enhances clarity. So, I asked my client, who decides the issue of clarity? The answer is the editor initially and the reader thereafter. Consequently, if the editor decides to include the serial comma, it is not wrong. “Which,” I asked, “is clearer: eats shoots and leaves or eats, shoots and leaves or eats, shoots, and leaves?”, making reference to Lynne Truss’ excellent book. “The answer,” I wrote, “depends on which is meant and that between the second and third option, the addition of the final comma makes a world of difference in clarity.”

My client, as is the right of clients, was unimpressed and instructed that Canadian English does not approve of the serial comma and, therefore, we were not to use the serial comma. To the client, this was a rule of grammar, and as a rule, not to be violated.

As editors, we fail our clients and public by referring to rules of grammar rather than to grammar suggestions. Today’s “rules” of grammar are simply reflections of today’s language fads. Tomorrow, different rules will come about that abrogate the former rules. Although I have yet to succeed, I continue to try to educate clients that there are no immutable rules of grammar except for the three principles of understanding, communication, and clarity. If those three principles are met, then the rules of grammar have been satisfied and how we structure the text to meet those three principles using grammar suggestions makes the text more conform or less conform to current grammar suggestions.

July 8, 2013

Business of Editing: The Disappearing Client

I’ve been a freelance editor for nearly 30 years. Over those years, I have seen clients come and go. I remember the first time I “lost” a major client. I nearly had a heart attack — I had thought an editor-client relationship, where the client was a big publisher, could and would last until the day I retired.

When that first client disappeared, I faced losing between $50,000 and $70,000 a year in income. True, it was not my only client, but it was my biggest client at the time.

Fortunately, I had my business experience to fall back on (as well as other clients). My business experience had taught me never to rely on existing clients but to keep trying to add new clients. The real issue was not what to do — find new clients — but how to do it.

From the beginning of my freelance career, I have made it a point to promote my services and my company constantly. During times of plenty, I would be less aggressive in my promotion; during times of stress (i.e., when a client disappeared), I would become aggressive in my promotional efforts.

The two keys underlying the search for and finding of clients are these:

  1. market/promote yourself constantly, both when your plate is full and when it is leaning toward empty
  2. find clients before they think they need you, not when they are looking for an editor

Those two points really sum up the effort that any business person needs to make.

Clients disappear for lots of reasons. Sometimes it is because they no longer think you are a good fit; sometimes it is because you start working with a new in-house person and your personalities clash; sometimes it is because the client goes out of business; sometimes it is because the client is bought by a nonclient who has its own stable of editors. There are myriad reasons.

I have lost clients over the years for just about every possible reason. One long-time client decided to cut the ties with me on the grounds that its authors were complaining about the copyediting I was doing. When asked for examples of the complaints so I could figure out how to improve my editing, the client was unable to give me any. Ultimately, I learned that the real reason was the client could get the work done for half my price. That became important to the client because, as a small publisher it wanted to reduce its costs to make it more attractive for purchase by a larger publisher.

I have also lost clients as the result of mergers and buyouts. That was the story with my first disappearing client. It merged with another publisher who shortly after the merger began laying off staff from my client and kept freelance editors who worked with my client only if they would accept a much reduced fee, something I was unwilling to do at the time.

As I said earlier, it is important to always be on the search for new clients — before they know they need your services. My objective is not to contact a potential new client and immediately get work (although that would be nice), but to make the new client aware of me so that when the next project comes up, it thinks of me.

I know we live in the Internet age and networking and socialization is done over the Internet, but I stand before you as a dinosaur and say that if you rely solely on such networking to find clients, you will never fully succeed — unless your clients are individual authors as opposed to businesses.

The networking that can be done over the Internet does put you in contact with individual authors who would otherwise be hard to locate, but even in this case, there are methods you can follow to reach them other than by networking. For example, if the people you want to work with are lawyers or doctors, you could both Internet network and place an ad in a journal or newsletter that targets them or on a website they are likely to visit.

The point is that you need to expand the avenues you take to promote yourself and not rely solely on Internet networking. You may get the occasional inquiry and job via LinkedIn, but remember that there are thousands of editors looking for work the same way. There is nothing that makes you stand out. But combining that effort with more “traditional” methods might be the difference between your being one of the crowd and being remembered.

In my efforts at promoting my business, I spend a good deal of time, money, and effort using “traditional” marketing methods. I know editors who seek work by sending an e-mail. The problem with an e-mail is that other editors are taking the same approach, the recipient probably gets hundreds of these solicitations, and likely sees an e-mail solicitation from someone he doesn’t know, and quickly hits the delete or spam button.

In my experience, people tend to first read, even if just by skimming, material that comes via standard mail. They are less annoyed by standard mail than by e-mail, and thus are more likely to respond. However, this is not to say that e-mail does not have a role; rather, I am saying that you need to think about the various approaches, what you hope to accomplish, and whether your intended audience is likely to respond in the manner you hope when you adopt a marketing approach.

Disappearing clients are the norm in the business of editing. Some editor-client relationships last many years — I had several that lasted more than 20 years — but things change in the business world and you need to be prepared to deal with that change.

One way to successfully deal with such changes is to constantly market yourself to your target audience. When you are swamped with more assignments than you can handle, go gently; when you have gaps in your schedule, become aggressive. In both cases, go after clients before they know they need your services and keep after them. Remember that the goal is implant your name in the client’s mind so that when a project does arise, it has your name at the top of the to-be-called list.

Marketing is not an as-needed project; marketing is an always-needed project.

September 3, 2012

Choosing Words — Carefully

Filed under: Books & eBooks,Business of Editing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

The advantage writing has over speech is that writing gives the author time to rethink what he or she has written. With speech, there is just that fleeting moment before the words form to think about what is about to pass the lips.

A recent gaffe by Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was a stark reminder of the importance of word choice. Although I will repeat his gaffe in a moment, I do not want to discuss the rightness or wrongness of what he said; rather, I want to focus on choosing words carefully and why it is important for authors to think carefully about their writing, something which too few seem to do.

Todd Akin was questioned about his views on abortion, a very hot topic in American politics, and he said: “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” so the woman cannot become pregnant (emphasis supplied). Politicians seem to be adept at providing editorial fodder.

This is a classic example of the importance of word choice and applying the test of correctness. The test is the anti clause, that is: What is an illegitimate rape? This faux pas by Akin also demonstrates why it is important to consider the appropriateness of a particular word choice. And I’m not referring to the political consequences; instead, I mean the communication-miscommunication conundrum.

Many of us have read at least one of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was one of the great masters of language. Virtually every word was chosen with extreme care because each word could direct one to a clue or misdirect one away from a clue. Sherlock Holmes was a master detective who could see what everyone else missed, but Conan Doyle had to convey what Holmes saw in a manner that would allow the reader to solve the mystery along with Holmes or be confounded and then praise Holmes’ superior acuity when he lays out for the reader all the “obvious” clues. The point is that Conan Doyle had to consider a word and what I call its anti version (i.e., the antiword) to be sure that the word conveyed only the meaning (or obfuscation) that Conan Doyle intended.

I suspect that for Conan Doyle the word and antiword conflict resolution came quickly and easily. Poets, too, seem to have an innate grasp of this concept as they try to convey much by little. But for many of us, it requires some effort. It is clear when reading many novels that for many authors, a conscious effort is needed to resolve the conflict. It is clear because so many do not seem to ever come to grasp with the problem and even fewer seem to resolve it.

(In essence, antiword is a substitute for opposite [as in legitimate vs. illegitimate] but neither opposite nor antonym is, I think, a broad enough term or concept for this problem. I think, perhaps wrongly, that anti, which does imply opposite and antonym but also implies other characteristics, is a better descriptor. Thus my use of antiword.)

Consider whether something is legitimate or illegitimate, as in the Akin quote. In the quote, the question is less whether something is legitimate than whether it is illegitimate. It is the antiword that throws into question the accuracy of the word chosen. For legitimate to be correct, illegitimate must also be correct. Yet illegitimate in the context of the quote is incorrect.

Which brings us to the next step in the analysis: Why is the antiword impossible? Or illogical? Or implausible? Or simply incorrect? In the case of the Akin quote, it is because by definition rape is always illegitimate and therefore the antiword to illegitimate — legitimate — must be incorrect in the sense that there can be no such thing as legitimate rape. (Understand that it is the use of legitimate with rape that presents the problem. Akin could have said “uncoerced sex,” in which case, the antiword coerced is as accurate as its antiword uncoerced and renders a different meaning to the quote.)

I know the argument appears to be circular, but it really isn’t. What it boils down to is that both the word and the antiword must be capable of being correct in the exact same sentence. The Akin quote would more accurately reflect his “claimed” views had he used coerced sex rather than legitimate rape. More importantly, there would have been no miscommunication (which, I know, assumes that there was miscommunication in his original statement).

This is the dilemma that a good writer faces: How does one choose to describe something so as to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author wants? The good writer creates believability when both the word and the antiword can be correct, because the message sent, albeit stealthily, is that “I considered the antiword, but it fails to bring you to where I want you to go, even though it, too, is possible.”

The best storytellers are those who weigh the word and the antiword, even if they do so subconsciously. In fact, I suspect that the better a writer is the more this process takes place subconsciously. But it does take place, which is what matters. That it takes place is what separates the craftsperson-writer from the amateur writer.

The value of the word-antiword process is that it enhances the likelihood that the correct word is chosen and that communication, rather than miscommunication, between author and reader occurs. Anyone can sit at a computer today, pound out a 100,000-word novel, and self-publish it. Very few people can rise to the level of a craft-author, that is, one whose words convey clear, precise meanings and messages. It seems to me that we can see this difference in many forms of writing, including less formal writing such as blogs.

The greater the care that is taken with word choice, the more accurate the communication and the better the writing — a goal to which every author should strive.

February 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

Today’s guest article is by Ruth Thaler-Carter. Ruth is a freelance writer and editor and is the owner of Communication Central, which sponsors each year a fall multiday conference for freelancers.

____________

The Business of Editing:
Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I spend a lot of time – some colleagues would say too much time – participating in more than a dozen LinkedIn discussion groups, as well as several e-mail discussion lists — the Copy Editing List (CEL), a Google Group for freelancers that I manage, a Yahoo Group list for DC-area publishing professionals that I co-own, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) members-only list, all of which are pretty active, and a few others that are more sporadic or occasional in nature. Not to mention Facebook!

I’m not sure that the relationship between an editor and such online activity is the same as that of oil and water, but they do mix, even as they also can separate.

I could easily spend entire days doing nothing but reading and responding to online discussions. I’ve joked with my husband that these groups make it much too easy to stay glued to the computer, even when my better instincts and extrovert nature say to get off my duff and out in the real world, or at least get a little exercise.

In some ways, social media are like reading the newspaper, both in (some) content and how they become part of a daily routine. My husband is retired and gets up later than I do, so checking e-mail and social media sites is my first-thing-in-the-morning routine these days; I read the newspaper with my second cup of coffee, when he’s up, and the rest of it still later in the day, when we have dinner together; anything I haven’t finished by then, I read in the evenings.

From a business perspective, my online activity has two sides. The negative is that it can be a timewaster or distraction — it takes time away from consciously and organizedly prospecting for new clients; it could take time away from doing work; and it could be considered economically foolish, because I’m giving advice or answering questions without getting paid for doing so.

The positive side is that I’m increasing my level of visibility and status as an expert in writing, editing, proofreading, and freelancing in general; I’ve gotten some new, well-paying clients through my activity in most of these environments; I’ve made wonderful friends and gained valuable colleagues; I’ve learned a lot, especially from CEL; I’m usually up to date on breaking news, both in my profession and in the world at large; and I like to think I’m helping people do things better and more professionally than they might otherwise. That’s a mitzvah — a good deed, a service to other people — and I do believe in networking from a helping perspective, not just for promoting or getting something for oneself.

The important thing is that I don’t let this activity interfere with actually getting my work done, no matter how much fun, and occasionally how rewarding, it is to participate in these online communities. Work comes first.

I do get frustrated at some LinkedIn discussions. So many of the people in these groups aren’t at a level of expertise, experience, skill, or professionalism for me to consider them as equals, but that can make someone with actual editorial experience and knowledge an important member of a group. And it can be annoying to see the same questions and comments come up again and again and again. It is incredibly frustrating to see accurate information be argued against by people with no training who have no idea what “professional” means in terms of writing, editing, proofreading, or other aspects of the editorial business, much less what it means to be a professional freelancer.

A recent LinkedIn discussion, for instance, started out by posing this question: “Would I be burned as a witch if I were to posit that all style guides are worthless?” and added: “Especially since I’m not a professional in the field of publishing?”

For one thing, you get burned at the stake for fiercely upholding a conviction, and somehow this scenario doesn’t fit (I can’t quite pin down why the image doesn’t work; I just know it’s off somehow). For another, and more importantly, why is someone who isn’t even in publishing pontificating about whether style guides are worthwhile? And — perhaps even more importantly — why should those of us who are in publishing care what someone like that thinks or says?

It seemed worth responding if only because style manuals are so basic to our work as editors that their role and value should be defended whenever and wherever possible. The asker might be one of the thousands (millions?) of people who want to publish their precious ideas these days and considering whether to hire an editor, so it could be worth trying to make him understand why a professional editor would use a style guide. Most of the other participants in the discussion agreed that style guides and manuals are important to professional-level writing and publishing, especially in nonfiction work. It became clear that the original poster really didn’t want to be convinced or educated, though, and I finally left the discussion in annoyance at myself for spending more than five minutes’ time and one answer on it.

In a LinkedIn group for self-professed “grammar geeks,” some discussions answer grammar and usage questions accurately and interestingly, but many of the responses are from people who know even less than those asking the questions. It’s especially funny — albeit a little aggravating — to see non-native speakers of English present themselves as experts and give erroneous answers to fairly basic grammar questions. I chime in to make sure no one takes such answers as gospel. Someone has to provide accurate information.

One LinkedIn irony of the past week was seeing someone called a “top influencer” and knowing that was because she was unusually active over several days with increasingly incoherent and inflammatory posts complaining about being moderated (censored, in her words) in several groups.

Answering questions in various online forums often does help me fine-tune my own thinking about a topic, and has given me ideas for articles to write and conversations to have with my real peers – colleagues at CEL and my Google Group e-mail and Yahoo e-mail lists, and members of the EFA, American Copy Editors Society, Society for Professional Journalists, American Independent Writers, etc. I much prefer e-mail lists for discussions of the editorial profession and the freelance life, but LinkedIn adds a different dimension — and can be a good way to reach and educate people who need either editors or insights on how to be better ones.

The trick to making smart use of these online forums is to use some discipline. I have colleagues who are also active in discussion lists and online groups, and many of them find the volume of messages overwhelming. They are time-takers, even when they provide useful information.

Some people set aside certain times of the day to participate in online conversations – first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening; I like to start the day by clearing out the overnight accumulation of forum and list messages, but will post responses only if I’m not on deadline for a current assignment.

I have a sorting process: First to be read in e-mail are messages from real people — clients, colleagues and friends; then my various discussion lists; then, and only then, LinkedIn; Facebook once in the morning and then at the end of the day or in the evening.

Some colleagues only check on e-mail at certain points during the day; I keep my e-mail program open throughout the day in case some of my on-call clients want to reach me for fast-turnaround assignments, but I’ve trained myself to take a quick glimpse at incoming messages and not respond to them if I’m in the middle of a writing, editing, or proofreading project, because work comes first. If I’m immersed in a project and need a short brain-break, though, I’ll stop and respond to a couple of list messages or group posts as a way of refreshing my brain — after I’ve gotten up and jogged around the apartment for a few minutes, that is.

It’s tempting to receive discussion lists as individual messages, because then you get to be the first person to answer someone’s question. However, constant individual messages from a busy list are overwhelming, so I receive my livelier lists in what’s called digest mode — batches of messages that arrive together a few times a day, instead of dozens or a couple hundred that flow in individually throughout the day. That’s a good way to manage the influx of information and messages.

As long as I can enforce some discipline on myself, I’ll stay involved with my online groups and lists with the goals of adding to my client list and making the world a better place for editors and those who use us. For this freelance writer/editor, LinkedIn, other online activity, and editing do mix like oil and water — in a good way!

February 24, 2012

Worth Noting: Amazon is an Author’s Friend — Or Maybe Not

Filed under: Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

An article worth reading about one author’s travails with Amazon and its KDP program: Who Controls Your Amazon E-book Price? by Jim C. Hines.

Hines’ experience is one of the problems that authors — and consumers — will increasingly face as Amazon’s control over the ebook market grows. The more authors think short-term, the more they will hurt themselves long-term. Similarly, the more consumers think short-term and refuse to worry that today’s consumer-friendly Amazon may not be tomorrow’s Amazon, the more likely consumers will be the recipients of the treatment Jim Hines received — and other authors, as well — from Amazon.

Particularly worth noting is the following recent change Amazon made to the terms and conditions of the “contract” with KDP authors:

KDP relies on complex systems and processes. We strive to make our systems and processes error-free, but we cannot guarantee that they will be, and we will have no liability arising from system or process failures, interruptions, inaccuracies, errors or latencies.

Just remember — Amazon is my friend and will do me no harm! Like Fantasyland at Walt Disneyland, as long as you believe…

July 19, 2011

In Search of the Semicolon

The trend in punctuation seems to be less is more; that is, it is better to have less punctuation than to have more punctuation. The trend began with the comma, but seems to be spreading to other non-sentence-ending punctuation; to-wit, the semicolon.

The semicolon is a time-honored punctuation mark to separate two or more independent clauses that are joined without a coordinating conjunction or by use of a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, thus, and furthermore. The semicolon is also used to separate elements in a series that is long and complex or that has internal punctuation.

The purpose of using the semicolon is to bring clarity to what might otherwise be a confused or misleading sentence.

I recently edited a book in which I made consistent use of the semicolon — only to receive instruction from the client to replace the semicolons with commas. When I asked why, the response was that neither the particular inhouse editor nor the author approves of semicolons and thus they wanted use of semicolons minimized.

What does a professional editor do? The reality is that the professional editor has little choice. He who pays the piper can call the tune! Unfortunately, this attitude toward the semicolon is symptomatic of a very minimalist trend in editing: The author’s choices are sacrosanct unless … (with unless never really being defined so that it can be consistently applied).

With the passing of each day, we move further away from good grammar being a goal to strive for and closer to the Twitter standard of language — short and ungrammatical, isolated statements that convey an imprecise meaning.

Minimizing punctuation is not inherently a nefarious goal. After all, the purposes of punctuation are to interrupt an illogical flow and to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Another purpose is to define the parameters of a written idea. Consequently, the less disruption via punctuation that is necessary, the clearer the statement being made and the better the communication from author to reader.

Yet being ruled by a broad mandate to “minimize the amount of punctuation” is to ignore the fundamental purpose of punctuation and grammar: to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Stated another way: to enhance communication between writer and reader. What good does it do to spend hours creating a message that no one can understand?

I recently read a newspaper article whose headline was “For a full ride to graduate school, a tweet is the ticket.” (The headline differs depending on the source, but the article remains the same.) The University of Iowa was offering a full scholarship, worth about $37,000, to the best tweeter of a 140-character tweet in lieu of a second application essay. I understand that it takes time to read, analyze, and evaluate an essay, but a tweet in lieu of such an essay?

The University of Iowa is not the only institution to offer a tweet scholarship, and this worries me. As an editor I recognize that tweets are intended to be informal quips. I also understand that it takes great skill to condense a 1,000-word article (essay) to its 140-character essence. But to make that condensation something has to give, and what gives is spelling and grammar. I’m not so sure that I want to be medically treated by a doctor whose claim to fame is the he or she is a Twit who successfully condensed his or her life story down to 140 characters. Nor do I feel comfortable in following the business advice of a 140-character Twit. After all, it will be my money on the table, not the Twit’s money.

More important, however, is the message that is being sent about communication skills combined with grammar and spelling skills. Before Twitter, most of us considered grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be essential parts of good communication. Lack of skills in one meant a deficit in the others and incomplete communication at best, miscommunication at worst. That is being turned topsy-turvy as Twittering becomes the established route to success. With Twitter, every character counts, so it is better to write 8 than ate.

This also affects the professional editor because Twitter has no grammar or spelling standards. If the Twitter language becomes the norm and accepted, what we end up with is a free for all with no rules — no punctuation, no grammar construction, no misspelling — because every character counts. If authors and inhouse editors begin to accept this lack of rules as the standard, we will see a decrease in the need for editors and an increase in poorly written material (poorly, that is, in the sense of poorly communicating the author’s message to its audience).

I see the death spiral of the semicolon and comma as the harbinger of chaos to come. It is not that we should flood our work with punctuation but that we should be guided by what is best and necessary to communicate clearly and accurately, not by a desire to participate in the newest minimalist trend.

What do you think?

July 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: Will We Never Learn?

I no sooner published On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?, my last article lamenting authors ignoring the need for professional editing before offering their ebooks for sale to the reading public, when, lo and behold, along comes yet another glaring example of poor editing: Walker’s Revenge by Brad Chambers.

Unlike some other ebooks, Chambers at least got the title right. Unfortunately, that is all he got right. Consider his description of the book — the text that is supposed to induce a reader to plunk down his or her $2.99, which will cause, if enough people plunk, Walker’s Revenge to rise on the indie bestseller list:

Dean Walker finds things for people. It doesn’t matter what it is he can find it. He doesn’t like being hired with a knife to his throat but the money makes it worth while. Not to mention finding out who the beautiful woman holding the knife is. Searching for a necklace from a two year old robbery sounds like a normal job, but finding the girl wearing it isn’t

Chambers doesn’t appear to understand either the purpose of punctuation or why choosing the correct word is so important. Consider the very first paragraph of the ebook, a paragraph that is in desperate need of professional editing:

Water splashed away from Dean’s boots as he walked down the dark alley. He was filled with frustration and didn’t care that he was getting his pants wet or that the bottom few inches of his long coat were soaked. All he could think about was Eve and the way she had thrown him out. She had screamed, “I never want to see you again!” so loudly he was sure the whole building must have heard and he hated that. He was a private person and didn’t want the world knowing his problems. He reached the end of the alley and turned up the wet street. Raising his head a little so he could see more than three feet in front of him, he dumped water off his hat and it went down his back. Great that makes me feel better, he thought. All he had done was be an hour late for their date. So what if he had spent the time with a woman. It was business and he had to see her or lose a lot of money. He had found what she was looking for and he needed to collect the money. That was how he made a living. Finding things for people. And she was mad at him for making a living. It wasn’t his fault the woman had shown her appreciation with a kiss. He smiled. It had been a good kiss too. If he had just remembered to wipe the lipstick off, he would be on his way out to dinner with Eve now.

I’m sold — on not buying this book! I’m also sold on the certainty that this book needs professional editing.

I know it seems as if I’m crying (I am), but I find it frustrating that (1) authors whose primary job is to communicate don’t know how to communicate, and (2) the people to whom the communication is directed don’t recognize when the message is a misfire. It also frustrates me that (3) neither side of the equation grasps the notion that miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, making both author and reader losers, and that (4) although everyone thinks they can be a competent editor, not everyone can.

An author’s stock in trade is words. If an author cannot use words to create a picture for the reader, to communicate a philosophy, to explain a difficult subject, to engage the reader in discourse, then the author has failed. Similarly, an editor’s stock in trade is a grasp of grammar and all that grammar entails — syntax, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc.

A basic requirement is that the author (and the editor) must him- or herself be literate. The idea that word processing programs give everyone a license to become a published author or a professional editor is false. To compound that erroneous notion with the belief that the spell-checker in a word-processing program is the author and editor’s vehicle to literacy — the vehicle that will ensure proper spelling and word use — is to live in a fool’s world.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most authors — and I daresay that means 99% of authors — need the help of a professional editor before launching themselves on the public. I’ve also said many times that one needs to be more than well-read to be a professional editor. At least among discerning readers, which I would venture are the readers who spend the most money on books, the surest way to be dismissed as an author and cut short one’s career is to ignore the need for professional editing.

Authors need to absorb the relationship lesson of Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process. The editor doesn’t displace the author; the editor complements the author. To complement the author positively, the editor needs to be well-grounded in the fundamentals of language, a grounding that is one of the key differences between an amateur and a professional editor.

Sadly, distributors like Smashwords simply are unwilling and/or unable to undertake any gatekeeping role. This isn’t part of their business model. Perhaps it should be. The Agency 6 opposed the $9.99 pricing threshold that Amazon was promoting, arguing that such a price would devalue their books. What do they think happens when they put out sloppily produced and edited ebooks at high prices and when they do nothing to help indie authors at least put out literate tomes?

If the Agency 6 are really interested in preventing ebooks from devaluing books, then perhaps they need to undertake an education program — aimed as much at themselves as at the indie author — that explains and convinces indie authors (and themselves) that the failure to have ebooks professionally edited and proofread, combined with flooding the Internet with the resulting drivel, hurts everyone in the reading chain — the traditional publisher, the author, and the reader.

In addition, the Agency 6 should promote true literacy in the schools, beginning with the teachers. It is insufficient to push children to read more; children need to be taught spelling, grammar, syntax — all the parts of communication — which means their teachers need to be educated first. Teachers cannot pass on to students what teachers themselves cannot grasp, and the evidence keeps mounting that today’s teachers have an insufficient grasp of literacy fundamentals. The more I see published books like LaVall McIvor’s So Your Afraid of Dieing, Andrew Cook’s A Crown of Thorns, and Brad Chambers’s Walker’s Revenge, the more convinced I am that literacy is dying in our schools. It also makes me wonder who will be the editors of tomorrow.

The decline of literacy in its multiple facets will continue as long as we sanction the idea that there are no minimal standards for authors to meet to be published — even self-published — and for editors to meet to be considered professional. As the availability of drivel increases, so will acceptance of drivel as the norm, until one day we realize that authors and readers are not only miscommunicating, but are not communicating at all!

June 2, 2011

On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?

Generally, novels seem to fall primarily within two types of characterizations: plot-driven and character-driven. A plot-driven novel has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot. There are defenders of both, but I find both lacking. I think the difference between literature fiction and nonliterature fiction is the hybrid novel that finds a careful balance between being character driven and plot driven.

I broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the topic.

I’ve said many times that I consider fiction read-once-then-throw-away books, which is my justification for buying nonfiction in pbook form, select fiction in pbook form, and the vast majority of fiction in ebook form. It is also my justification for not rereading a novel, again, with a few exceptions, such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Yet there really is a more important difference and that is the difference between classifying something as simply fiction, or a novel, on the one hand, and on the other hand classifying it as literature, something to be read now and in years to come.

On one of the fora of which I am a member, the question arose about starting a literary book club as opposed to just a monthly book club. The idea being that the books chosen would be literary classics, not just today’s bestseller. But there was no agreement on what constitutes “literature” — How do you define it? How do you recognize it? How does a group recognize it? And so on.

I had no answer until it dawned on me that every book I would consider literature (as opposed to simply a good fiction read) is simultaneously character driven and plot driven, that is, it is a hybrid whose characters and plot are both memorable years after first reading.

A well-plotted novel keeps a reader’s attention while reading the book. But it is the rare plot that can be said to be so unique as to stand apart from all other plots. Generally, one plot is reminiscent of another plot, with the difference being in the details and how well the author crafts the storyline.

A well-characterized novel absorbs the reader in the characters. Perhaps little is remembered about the plot, but the character(s) is(are) memorable. Here there is greater uniqueness, but even so, one can recall other books with similar characters. Again, the author’s craft is in how well constructed (and deconstructed) the character(s) is(are).

Literary fiction (or literature), on the other hand, is a finely crafted balance — not necessarily an equal balance — between plot and character so that remembering one causes you to remember the other. We celebrate the authors who find that balance by buying and reading their books year after year. For these authors and books, publishing’s long tail has significance, especially as new generations of readers discover them.

I can hear folk saying but J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is considered a literary classic, really is a terrible book. I admit, it is far from my favorite. Yet that notion of like and dislike is really not a criterion for classifying the book. Consider this: Many of us read Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s yet we still recall Holden Caulfield and his story. How many books, of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of books you have read since, can you say that about? In my case, it is a handful, probably less than 1%, yet isn’t that “literary immortality” what many authors want?

Does this mean that the difference between a good author and a not-so-good author, between a good book and a not-so-good book is whether the author has achieved that fine balance? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is either plot driven or character driven. Rather, what is at stake is whether a decade from now — perhaps even a year from now — the author and his or her writing are remembered by anyone, whether the books and the author are being discovered by new generations. For some authors literary immortality is not on their horizon; for others, they strive for it, sometimes making it, more often not making it.

But I think the key to that literary immortality is finding that balance for a particular book. The balance doesn’t have to be 50-50 or 60-40, but it clearly cannot be 90-10.

There is yet another reason why it is the hybrid model that leads to literary immortality but plot and character driven do not: human nature! By that I mean we humans seek to identify with others, seek to escape from daily life for a few minutes, seek something that we do not have through literary escapism. A well-written plot-driven novel about unlocking a secret has starred in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The books sell millions of copies on release, then are rarely heard from again. In a decade, the question will be Dan Brown who?

Similarly, if Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, written in 1927, had been solely character driven, it would have died on the literary vine, just as The Da Vinci Code has done. Ask yourself this: Do you know anyone who is discussing the characters or the plot of The Da Vinci Code today? Yet Elmer Gantry is still on reading lists and still banned by some evangelical churches — more than 8 decades after publication, Elmer Gantry is still causing a furor. Yet Elmer Gantry, although a hybrid, is heavier on the character-driven side of the balance.

Heavier on the plot-driven side are the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. People remember not only the plots but the characterizations. Watson draws sympathy from readers for his dealings with Holmes and movies are still being made based on the stories — because the characters give a sense of realism and the books are hybrids, just heavier on the plot than on the characterizations.

To my way of thinking, only a well-written hybrid can be a 5+-star book. Plot-driven and character-driven books can be 5-star books, but they cannot be that little bit more that is needed to put them in the literary immortality category. Something to think about, but not necessarily something that requires anything be done. Quality craftsmanship is still quality craftsmanship and is the first requirement; worrying about literary immortality is something that should occur after mastering the art of writing.

May 11, 2011

On Words: The Power of Words

Within the past few weeks, Jack Lyon, a regular reader of An American Editor, sent me an e-mail pointing me toward this video:

I found the video poignant and an excellent reminder of the power of words and the role an editor plays in helping an author to shape those words.

In Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process, we explored the relationship between the author and the editor, but not the power of the words put to paper. Advertising, as an industry, relies on the power of words. Choosing the wrong word can destroy a product. Two good examples from the world of politics are “death panels” and “death taxes,” both of which conjure a particular image regardless of whether there is any correlation between the conjured image and the truth.

The big lie is what politics is too often about. The big lie is also what forms the justification for oppression that occurs in many countries. In all instances, the big lie is founded on the power of words to describe and motivate and move people in a particular direction. Is not this true, for example, of antisemitism?

Words move readers in particular directions. Choosing the wrong word can move a reader the wrong way, or at least wrong in the eyes of the author who wanted the reader moved oppositely. This is the role of the editor — to help the author find the right words to describe and convey the author’s message.

Choosing the right words to convey the author’s message is a role that a professional editor is intended to play. Consequently, a professional editor needs to be a wordsmith, needs to be familiar with the power of words and the word options available. How different would our country be had the Declaration of Independence been worded differently? How different would the world be if the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had been worded differently? How more/less powerful would an author’s manuscript be had parts of it been worded differently? Is it not the craft of the poet to create an illusion in few, but powerful words?

The power of words is something every author and editor should consider — the author when first putting words to paper, the editor when first suggesting changes to those words. The message may be the same, but the words different, more compelling or less compelling, altering the dynamics. The above video demonstrates the truth of this conclusion.

April 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

In past articles, I have spoken of the need for indie authors to use professional editors (see, e.g., On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or nonprofessionally edited book. This topic has been repeatedly discussed in numerous blogs and on numerous forums — almost discussed to death.

Yet, here we go again.

A few days ago, I was looking at what new-release ebooks were available at Smashwords. I found a couple of doozies. Try this one, first: So Your Afraid of Dieing by LaVall McIvor, for which the author wants $4.99, and which the author describes as follows:

Everyone dies, what happens after we die. Is that the end of who and what we are? I have had two NDE’s and I can tell you there is more to ‘us’ than just the physical life we live on this world. I only lay out my experiences, what you believe to be true concerning an afterlife is up to you to decide.

Setting aside the “your” problem, does “dieing” mean dying as in death or dyeing as in coloring? OK, I get the gist and realize death is meant, but why should I have to guess or assume?

So I checked the sample to see if the title was an anomaly. Here is the first paragraph of the book:

Probably the single most commonality of all of us, is knowing that someday in the future this physical life will end. But what happens when we die, are we just consumed by the elements, is that the end of it? If you are a religious person, you have been ‘taught’ that if you live a good life doing no evil, you (your soul) will be rewarded with eternal life in ‘Heaven’. If you are an atheist, you may believe there is no ‘afterlife’, that when your body dies, that is the end of who and what you are. I was of the latter persuasion until I had two NDE’s (Near Death Experiences).

Then, as I was reeling from the title, the author’s description of the book, and the first paragraph, I came across A Crown of Thorns by Andrew Cook, for which the author wants $2. Cook describes his book as follows:

When the Spencer’s arrive at Millbridge, Virginia meets Rector Byrnes, beginning an emotionally charged and passionate relationship. Rev Byrnes is in a vulnerable position struggling with his wife’s inner demons, and his own loss of faith, and with no one to confide. Virginia is consumed with hatred towards God but they find comfort in each other’s weakness with dramatic consequences.

Tell me: Is the location Millbridge, Virginia or is it Virginia who arrives at Millbridge? No matter because within the first few paragraphs of the book, we find this:

The reason I am writing this is because I want to remember all my thoughts this morning, for it is remarkable to me that it should be this morning that I was again allowing myself the shameful thoughts of death, my own death in fact, while appreciating at the same time the pleasure and beauty of life. The green rolling hills that overlooked the cemetery and continued for miles, the bright blue sky as though painted that morning by an artist, devoid of cloud, the flowers dancing in the breeze celebrating the arrival of spring. It was a day to celebrate life, not to contemplate death. But perhaps I was not considering death in the physical sense. There are many types of death. This morning I once again felt as though my soul had died and I had paled once again into insignificance. If one died emotionally, what would be left? Without love people wither like flowers starved of water.

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published? Would you willingly pay $4.99 or $2 for either ebook?

What these two ebooks vividly demonstrate is that the combination of the Internet Age and easy self-publishing — without any gatekeeping (i.e., vetting of the manuscript, which is the role agents and traditional publishers have played) — has turned everyone who wants to be an author into a published author. Yet too many of these wanna-be-published authors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that accompany publishing, particularly the hiring of a professional editor.

Sadly, I expect both of these authors to sell copies of their ebooks. Even more sadly, I expect that those who buy their ebooks won’t (and don’t) recognize the grammar and spelling problems that are in the ebooks, nor that the ebooks have not been edited — professionally or otherwise — by someone with at least minimal competency.

Companies like Smashwords have done a great favor to both readers and wanna-be authors. They make distribution to the normal book-buying channels possible. Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

I realize that we are early in the evolution of ebooks, but the time to address basic issues is now, not later when the problems become so entrenched that they are insurmountable. Although the distributors need to share in the blame for permitting this drivel to see daylight, those of us who are professional editors also have a responsibility to reach out and educate authors. In this endeavor, we are failing as evidenced by these two ebooks and by the overall decrease in grammar and spelling skills in younger generations (see The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills).

Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process).

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