An American Editor

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

I am a subscriber to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), as I have mentioned a number of times in previous posts. Recently, I was reading in the NYRB, an article titled “Can Romney Get a Majority?” (September 27, 2012) in which the author threw me a curveball by using ultramontane to describe Paul Ryan’s social views.

This was the first instance when I wished I had been reading the NYRB on my Nook or Sony reader, which would have given me instant access to a dictionary. Alas, I didn’t have a print dictionary handy when reading the article and I didn’t recall ever having encountered the word previously.

Eventually, I did get to a dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) and discovered that ultramontane has two meanings: first, “of or relating to countries or people beyond the mountains,” and second, “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church,” which was the meaning in the article. Or was it?

Actually, the article intended a variation of the second meaning: “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national (state) authority” without the limitation of “in the Roman Catholic Church.” (It is worth noting that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th ed. includes this “sense” as a usage; it is questionable whether it is a definition. I have multiple dictionaries because of my work; how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?)

I understand that the demographics of NYRB subscribers and readers are a cut above the usual in terms of education and literacy (at least that is what their demographics information portrays), but not only did ultramontane cause me to pause, it made me wonder whether its use was good or bad. Unlike many unfamiliar words that I come across, I didn’t come close to deciphering this one via context. I didn’t miss the gist of the sentence, but I also didn’t get the true meaning.

When choosing words to be written in a communication there are at least two major considerations; first, that the word precisely communicate, and second, that it in fact communicate. In this instance, ultramontane was the wrong word choice on both counts: neither dictionary definition was appropriate as is and it is such a rarely used word that I suspect the vast majority of readers would stumble on it and not derive the correct meaning.

With modification of the meaning, ultramontane presents a compact way to get a message across within the context in which it was used in the NYRB. But that is one step too many to meet the singular, ultimate goal of the craft of writing: to communicate. In the absence of this step, the word is clearly the wrong word to use, because the author was not trying to communicate that Paul Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over the Catholic Church; rather, the author was trying to communicate that Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over American government authority and the authority of all religions and moral views, Catholic or other.

We have discussed the question of word choice before (see, e.g., Choosing Words — Carefully), but the context was different even though the result was the same. Here the question is more than choosing that which expresses precisely what you mean; it is choosing that which both expresses what you mean and also is likely to be understood by your readers. This latter means that words also need to be chosen for the broadness of their use among the reading public. Sometimes the precise word needed will require the reader to use a dictionary, but the goal of careful writing should be not to encourage dictionary use but to be understandable as read. It is to that end that correct word choice also means choosing a word whose definition fits the intended meaning as is, without further interpretation.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what should an editor do when faced with a word like ultramontane?

This is a difficult question. If you are of my view, then you would substitute for the word and include an explanation for the author as to why you substituted, giving the author the opportunity to undo the change. The alternative views are (a) to simply leave the word as is or (b) to leave it as is but query the author, explaining why it may be the wrong word choice.

I think a more active approach is best because the one thing that is true about all of us is that we are protective of our creations. In the case of our writing, we are protective because we know what we meant and expect others to know it as well. Who among us is ready to admit that perhaps our writing lacks the clarity it could have? Additionally, a word like ultramontane makes us feel linguistically accomplished and allows us to demonstrate to others our skills. But if we are faced with a change that makes it better and given the opportunity to revert to the original, we are more likely to think about what we have written and what the editor suggests. We are required to react, something that the other two approaches do not require. (As most, if not all, editors have experienced, simply querying doesn’t always get a response from an author. It is not unusual for a query to be ignored. I have yet to find, however, an author who will ignore my query when I have actively changed wording and then queried my change.)

Which approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?

July 9, 2012

On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny

One thing I hate about article titles is that they are length limited and thus tend to sweep with broad strokes. Such is the case with this title.

This is the partial saga of my encounter with an 8-volume fantasy series called “Clarion of Destiny,” written by Franz S. McLaren. The series begins with Home Lost, which is available free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, as well as at other ebooksellers. I admit that I enjoyed Home Lost. I found the characters interesting and the story engrossing. Alas, I also found the repeated misuse of words distracting and annoying. But given that the book is free, it is still worthy of 4 stars.

The agony arises with the second volume, To Save Elderon. As soon as I finished Home Lost, I logged into my B&N account and looked for the next book. I found To Save Elderon, but was a bit taken aback by the price — $3.99. It is not that the price is high; rather, it is that it is high if this volume suffers from the same problems that the first volume did. The higher the price of the book, the less tolerant I am of fundamental spelling and grammar errors, errors that would have been caught and corrected by a professional editor.

Yet I had enjoyed the first book enough that I really did want to continue with the story, so, after hesitating over the price for a few seconds, I took the plunge and bought the book. After having read the second volume (which I rate at 2.5 to 3 stars), I was simultaneously sorry and pleased — the all-too-often agony and ecstasy of the indie book. Again, the story is intriguing, the characters interestingly developed, and I want to go on to the third book — yet I am not. I have decided that at $3.99 I should not be continuously insulted by language misuse.

How do I know I will be so abused? Smashwords offers sample previews of each of the volumes. Every volume suffers from the same illness: an author who seems not to know what either a dictionary or a grammar guide is for or how to use it. The only thing that could make this worse is if it turned out that McLaren was a public school English teacher.

How many times can I accept, for example, forth for fourth, there for their, were for where, then for than? McLaren writes disburse when he means disperse, to long ago when he means too long ago, that when he means who, cloths when he means clothes. And the list goes on, almost without end. I’m not convinced that he knows what purpose the apostrophe serves, because so many possessives lack one (e.g., the mornings work rather than the morning’s work) — perhaps a better way to say it is that too few (what should be) possessives include an apostrophe. And let’s not delve too deeply into the missing hyphenation in compounds or the missing commas, both of which ensure a struggle for readability and comprehension.

I need also mention that the author does a sloppy job of remembering his own characters’ names. The fairy Uwi becomes Renee before returning to Uwi; Niki becomes Nike and then Niki again. This problem of getting character names wrong happens several times with several characters throughout the series.

This is a case study of a good series that desperately needs attention from a professional editor. The story is intriguing and for a fantasy buff like me, even compelling, except for the necessary slogging through illiteracy. For free or 99¢, I can accept a lot of insult; for seven volumes at $3.99 each, my tolerance is very limited.

I grant that for a good story, $3.99 is not a lot to pay. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it, but there has to be a convergence of good writing, good editing, and good story for me to shell out $3.99 seven times just to get a complete story. (It is not that each of the first two volumes cannot stand on their own; they can. Rather, it is that each tells only a part of the adventure and all eight volumes need to be read to get that complete adventure.) Those of you who have been reading An American Editor for a while know that I praise the writing of some indie authors, such as Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, and L.J. Sellers. I would not hesitate to buy one of their books at $4.99, let alone at the $2.99 that they charge, because their books are well-written, well-edited, and well-told stories. They use the correct words and understand the importance of punctuation.

It is the well-edited that is the missing leg in McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series, which, when combined with a “high” price, causes the discerning reader to agonize over whether or not to read indie books. Unfortunately, it is books like McLaren’s that give a bad reputation to all indie books — at least among readers who care about grammar, spelling, and word choice. The most common statement I see on various forums regarding indie books is that the commenter won’t buy them because the quality too often is poor. I buy them knowing that of 10 indie books, only one or two will be readable or worth reading. I don’t mind having to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that is also why I won’t spend more than 99¢ on an introduction to a new indie author and I prefer that the first book from an unknown author be free.

What I do mind, however, is to find an author who spins a good story — a story worth reading and recommending — but who is so careless with language, yet wants a higher price for his or her stories, that the story cannot overcome the barrage of insults the reader needs to absorb. The point is that the lower the price the author asks, the more tolerant the reader should be; conversely, the higher the price the author asks, the less tolerant the reader should be!

So, now I am in a quandary over McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series. I am inclined to reward the author for writing a good story, one that holds my interest. Simultaneously, I am disinclined to reward the author for his apparent indifference to the fundamentals of good writing — correct language use and grammar. The asking price of $3.99 is probably the fulcrum point where the competing inclination and disinclination are at balance. I am certain in my mind that were the asking price $4.99, I would not have even considered buying the second book in the series; at $3.99 it was an OK gamble, albeit a gamble that I lost as the misuse got worse. It is also clear to me that because the story is as good as it is, were the price $1.99, I would hesitate but I would buy.

I am aware that $2 is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. For me, it is not so much about the $2 as it is about the message I send when I spend that $2. Buying the seven books at the $3.99 price tells the author that his misuse of grammar and language is OK. Is that really the message I want to send?

As I said, $3.99 is, for me, the point of balance between inclination and disinclination. I am undecided as to what I will do. For now, I will set aside McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” and move on to other books and series. In a month or two, if I still remember the series, I’ll revisit the issue. If I remember the series, it will be a sign that I should spend the money; if I forget about the series, my not spending the money was a wise decision for me.

Regardless of what I ultimately do, I think the time is rapidly coming when indie authors who do not want to simply give all their work away for free need to encourage readers to buy their books by ensuring that they are well-written, well-edited, and have a compelling narrative — the three legs that form the support for success.

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

A client asked me to look at some excerpts of material that had been offshore outsourced for editing and to give my opinion whether something struck me as wrong or incorrect. In the past 6 months, I have had several requests from clients asking me to clarify style rules and whether material comports with those rules. The clients have recognized that their expertise is different from mine and that the combination of our skills can result in a better product.

A frequent query involves American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style 10th edition §19.1 “Use of Numerals.” Most non-editorial clients find the AMA’s instructions confusing, especially as it contravenes the instructions given in other style guides, notably the Chicago Manual of Style.

But this client request fell into another category: not was a style guide convention contravened, but did the editing make sense.

The subject had to do with legislation and one sentence in one of the text portions I was asked to review read as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry women to obtain birth control…

Certainly, from a grammatical perspective and taken in isolation, there is nothing wrong with that sentence fragment. But was it culturally correct?

Editing cannot be done in isolation of the world around us. Form (grammatically correct in isolation) cannot control over function (communication and understanding). Instead, there needs to be a meeting of form and function because only with that meeting can we be certain that what is intended is what is expressed.

It immediately struck me that something was wrong with the sentence. A good test is what I call the substitution test, in which I substitute a synonym for a key word to ask does it still make sense. In this case, my immediate notion was that no substitution was necessary but I applied the test anyway, substituting homosexual for gay. Why was this important? Gay in America increasingly means male homosexual exclusively; homosexual means both male and female, that is, gays and lesbians. Other cultures may use other terms for genderizing homosexuality, but since this was a book for American audiences, American culture rules.

With the term gay, the sentence makes sense every which way but sexually; with the term homosexuality, it makes no sense either politically or sexually. In America, lesbians currently are generally not free to marry women for any reason. In a culture that does permit homosexual marriage or civil unions, the sentence would pass the substitution test, but not in the United States, where the overwhelming legal position is that homosexuals cannot marry or even have legally recognized civil unions.

The point is that because of my familiarity with the culture of the audience for whom the book is intended, it is clear to me that there is something wrong with the sentence. The cure is simple, however. All that is needed is a well-placed comma, so that the sentence reads as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry, women to obtain birth control…

Yet there is another problem with the sentence. Logically, why would a gay marry a woman to obtain birth control? That alone, under normal circumstances, should have raised red flags. But, again, I think it may be a cultural thing. I suspect that in more repressive cultures or in cultures in which the homosexuality is more underground than in America, gays may well marry women for a variety of reasons, even as a means of birth control.

Yet there is one other, at least questionable, problem with the sentence, with or without the comma cure, even though it is illogical for gays to marry women to obtain birth control: the use of gays. As I noted above, in America, gays increasingly is gender-specific, referring to male homosexuals and excluding lesbians. So the sentence, even as cured, means that it would be easier for males to marry but still impossible for females to marry. If nothing else were true about legislation affecting homosexual marriage, this would be true: In the United States, legislators would not grant marriage rights to one sex but not the other when granting homosexuals the right to marry.

Although the cured sentence would be better if homosexuals were substituted for gays, and much less prone to possible misunderstanding, there is another cultural reality in America. As noted above, gay has traditionally meant both male and female homosexuals, but it is increasingly being used as the word for male homosexuals to the exclusion of lesbians. As Bryan Garner writes:

Gay and lesbian. Though common, this phrasing is peculiarly redundant since lesbians are gay women.…What is actually happening, no doubt, is that gay is undergoing what linguists call specialization — that is, in some of its senses the word is becoming sex-specific. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 387)

Consequently, in this instance, aside from adding the comma, I think a professional editor would query the author, explain the historical uses of the words, and suggest that homosexuals be substituted for gays. I also think that the professional editor would query the author to make sure that the addition of the comma is correct, that with the comma the sentence now reads as the author intended. Although I cannot think of a valid reason to omit the comma, perhaps the author has one

Alas, in this instance, neither the comma was added nor the queries made. Alas, also, there were several similar sentences in the samples I was asked to comment on, that had very questionable phraseology but passed the editor without query. Several needed no query, just punctuation.

I think this is less a matter of the editor’s skill, although it could well be that the original editor was not a professional editor, but more of a culture-related problem. It is not easy for out-of-culture editors to catch the cultural nuances of material intended for an audience that lives in another world culturally. For publishers, the question is solely one of containing costs. Instead, it should be one of making sure that the published product doesn’t miscommunicate; unfortunately, that is not the trend in today’s publishing. Just as publishers see a worldwide market for their books, they see a worldwide market for service providers. In some instances, that broad sight is appropriate, but not when it comes to editing for a specific cultural market.

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

January 23, 2012

On Words: The Conundrum of Half

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Words — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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I thought I’d veer off into esoterica today. I don’t know why it came to mind a couple of weeks ago, but since it came to mind, I have found myself pondering the matter. Now I’ll share it with you and get your input.

The matter at issue is the numeral designator for half. If we write 2 days, there is no question what is meant. Similarly, if we write 2.5 days, readers correctly translate that to two-and-a-half days. But is it really correct?

I suppose that it is because it has been accepted and understood as correct for decades, if not for centuries. But shouldn’t time be more accurately represented? If a day has 24 hours, then a half day has 12 hours, which means that 2.5 really means two days plus 5 hours. Yet if we were to write 2.12 days, no one would understand that means 2 days plus 12 hours or two-and-a-half days.

Time has always been treated differently from other yardsticks. Probably because time is so important in our daily lives. We have coalesced around certain conventions, correct or not, that are now the accepted methods for portraying time, especially decimally.

Consider the matter of years. we all know and accept that 6 months equals one-half year. Yet we do not write 1.6 years to represent one-and-one-half years; as with days, we write 1.5 years and we all know what is meant.

I work on nonfiction books, which has led me to occasionally wonder if an error will occur when measure shorthands aren’t correlated with the written out version; that is, how likely is it that some reader will mistake 1.5 days for 1 day 5 hours, so I should write one-and-one-half days rather than 1.5 days?

Of course, I only wonder and do not spell it out because I understand that we have accommodated our use of language so that there is no likelihood of misinterpretation. But that doesn’t move me away from wondering how this came about and why such imprecision is accepted by communities that require precision elsewhere.

Not only have we accommodated our use of language to .5 representing one-half, but this accommodation appears to be fairly universal among languages. Writing 1.5 days will not mislead a French, Italian, Slovakian, Chinese, or Malayan speaker any more than it misleads an English speaker. The convention has crossed linguistic borders (someone once said that math is a universal language, so perhaps the fault for this accommodation lies in math’s universality).

I’m not interested in trying to change the accommodation (some brick walls truly are meant to stand forever), but I am curious about how we came to universally accept and understand that 1.5 days means one-and-one-half days and not one day, five hours.

What is your theory?

December 19, 2011

Working Effectively Online VI — The Books

One thing I have noticed when discussing resources with my colleagues nowadays is that they often rely on online resources rather than printed books for everything they can. For example, rather than opening The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, now in its just-released fifth edition, to check a spelling or a definition, they will go to Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster online.

The good about doing so is that (presumably) the online sources are not only accurate, but are updated regularly and thus more current, than a print book can be, at least if the supplementation is in print form. Even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary has turned to online, offering a year’s subscription for the (relatively) paltry sum of $295.

I don’t disapprove of using online resources — as long as one is choosy about the resource. What is good about the Internet is also what is bad about the Internet. It is easy to post information; anyone can do it. I make use of online resources that are specific to the type of editing I do and that are no longer available in print form or I don’t use often enough to warrant purchase of a print version. Three good examples for me are the National Library of Medicine (NLM)’s Catalog, which provides access to NLM bibliographic data for journals and books; NLM’s PubMed, which comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books; and Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS)’s Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist, a comprehensive catalogue of all known species of organisms on Earth that contains 1,347,224 species, which is probably just slightly over 2/3 of the world’s known species.

But when it comes chemical compounds, spelling, definitions, grammar, and usage, I prefer the printed book.

I was thinking about this anomaly — doing 100% of my editing work online yet still using print resources to check things — and wondering whether my continued reliance on print books as resources lessens the effectiveness of my online editing. Alas, I can come to no definitive conclusion.

The answer is, at best, “maybe or maybe not.” For example, in experimenting with using Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (31st ed.) online versus the print version, I discovered that the online version is ill-designed and requires multiple steps to get to what may be a dead end. Generally, I found using the print version easier and quicker. The same was true when I experimented with Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (28th edition).

I also have a habit of liking to look in multiple sources. As a result, I have built up a good library that is focused on my subject areas. I also like to check history. For example, while Dorland’s 31st likes eponyms to be nonpossessive, the possessive was preferred for years and many editions past. When a client insists that, for a particular book, the possessive needs to be used except in those instances that were specifically noted to be nonpossessive (I always loved that about Dorland’s — there was no rhyme nor reason to when an eponym was possessive or not; they were just possessive or not — before the 31st edition), I simply whip out a copy of an earlier edition, something I cannot do with online sources.

Let’s not forget the expense. A lot of colleagues use only free resources. I’ve always been leery of free sources. After all, it takes time and money to put this material together, to check it for accuracy, and to update it. I know I struggle just to find time to update the list of books I’ve edited, to the point that I have neglected to do the updating for a couple of years. I’ve viewed this like the free antivirus programs — they are great until the first time they aren’t great. We all know that the free antivirus program cannot be as good as the paid version of the same program for the logical reason that, if it were as good, the company would be out of business.

The online sources that I would rely on in many areas are not inexpensive. And the cost grows as one renews each year. In contrast, I buy a print book and its cost amortizes over the years of use; it is a one-time payment, which appeals to the frugal in me.

Regardless of whether we use print or online resources, the bottom-line is whether we use a sufficient number and variety of resources to ensure that we are providing the best quality of editing or information that we can to our clients. I once asked at a seminar, “How many editors present regularly check word usage and if you do, in how many sources?” I was surprised to discover how few check usage and wasn’t surprised that those who do usually check one source. When I probed further, I discovered that usage was checked by Binging or Googling.

I admit that I had never thought to Bing or Google a usage question; I have always turned to the various usage books I have sitting next to my desk. Interestingly, the most important usage guide for American English, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition) by Bryan Garner, isn’t available online except as part of Oxford University Press’ Dictionary Pro package, which must be expensive because they don’t post a price — you have to request it.

I guess this is one area where one has to compromise. Some things are readily and reliably researched online; some things are better researched in print. Whatever your editorial field is, you need to keep handy both online and print resources. The biggest advantage that print has is the ability to go back to earlier editions if necessary — online resources tend to always go forward without preserving the previous. Yet, as I have discovered on several occasions, there are times when the answer to a question cannot be found in the current edition, but can be found in a previous edition, which is why I keep past editions of all my resource books.

I suspect that in future years fewer print resources will be used by editors and a greater reliance will be placed on online resources, especially as those of us who grew up using print resources retire and those who grew up on the Internet take over.

November 2, 2011

Deciding Personhood: Words Do Matter!

The October 26, 2011 New York Times had an article about an upcoming citizens’ vote on a proposition to amend the Mississippi state constitution. The initiative would declare “a fertilized human egg to be a legal person.” Proposition 26, according to Ballotpedia, reads:

Should the term “person” be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?

(The official ballot summary of the measure reads:

Initiative #26 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to define the word “person” or “persons”, as those terms are used in Article III of the state constitution, to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.)

I don’t want to get into an argument about the merits or demerits of this proposition, or about abortion, or about when life begins. Rather, I think we should look at the proposition with an editorial eye. If this were a sentence (i.e., Proposition 26, not the ballot summary) in a book you were editing, would the sentence pass muster?

When an editor reads a sentence or a paragraph, the editor should be reading for many measures including construction, clarity versus ambiguity, word choice, and communication. If a sentence is ambiguous, does the ambiguity promote understanding when surrounding sentences are considered? Is it ambiguous only because it is introducing a new topic that has yet to be explored? Are the words chosen meaningful both separately and in combination?

Is the construction confusing? A good example of confusing construction is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Its meaning may well have been understood 200 years ago without discord, but today, the construction confuses the meaning and thus it needs interpretation. Is not this a failing of Proposition 26?

As written, Proposition 26 uses one vague word to define another vague word. Person is being defined by human being (I am treating human being as a single word), which is similarly vague but is wholly undefined unless we say it is being defined by person. Also undefined are moment of fertilization and cloning, both important concepts that are intended to contribute to the definition of person.

If this were a novel, perhaps the choice of wording and the sentence construction would be of less importance. But this isn’t a novel: Voters are being asked to approve a Mississippi constitution amendment that is poorly constructed and whose choice of words is ambiguous.

So, exactly what are voters being asked to approve or disapprove? If 10 voters were brought together and asked to define or explain the sentence, would we get 10 different responses? If approved by voters (which is the expected outcome even though many right-to-life groups and the Catholic Church are opposed to its passage), what, exactly, would be approved?

The danger of sentences like Proposition 26 is that you need Humpty Dumpty to interpret it: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

I think it is sentences and paragraphs constructed like this proposition that make a professional editor’s life simultaneously challenging, rewarding, and frustrating. Here’s my challenge to you:

Given the opportunity to refine Proposition 26, how would you refine it so as to minimize any ambiguities? Can it be made unambiguous? Editorially, how sound or unsound do you find this proposition?

Good luck!

September 16, 2011

A Humor Interlude: Bad Grammar — The Way I Are

Filed under: A Humor Interlude — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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It has been a while since our last humor interlude, so I thought we deserved a break. And here it is — Bad Grammar: The Way I Are.

I’m just not convinced that humourous is the best way to describe the parodied behavior. Bad grammar is rapidly becoming the standard.

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!

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