An American Editor

April 30, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round IV

How do we find the next literary masterpiece among the 1 million+ books published each year (and I believe that number will rise rapidly as increasing numbers of writers publish direct from their computer to Internet). Don’t we need to find the next literary masterpiece? Don’t we need to separate the Shakespeares from the Joe Schmoes? Or does it not matter if we never find another Shakespeare? Or find another literary masterpiece? Does it not matter what our literary state says about our culture, our state of intellectual advancement?

For me, this is the dilemma. What role does literature play in our society? In our civilizing process? In our civilization? If we view the role as very limited or expendable, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway is unnecessary and having ebooks be the leveler for all writing is acceptable.

But if literature’s role is important, if it is important that future generations be able to point to particular authors as purveyors of culture and builders of social mores, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway takes on great importance and the anything goes from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks are problematic absent some method for finding the next Hemingway.

Too many people think that the leveling of the playing field that ebooks brings is the only thing that matters; they are too dismissive of the gatekeeping role and assume that readers themselves can act effectively as the sieve. By sheer volume alone, this is impracticable, but it is also impracticable when there are no standards for determining the quality or lack of quality of an ebook.

Books serve many purposes in a society. They can be, for example, pushers of social change or recorders of social injustice. Books can be the purveyors of ideas that change a society’s direction. But to do these things, books must be read and read by more than a handful of people. The elitism that came about with having one’s book published by a traditional publisher also gave the book the social standing to be a game changer. With a leveled playing field, such books do not stand out — they are lost in the mass (morass?) of available books.

eBooks are clearly the new medium for idea dissemination and pbooks are clearly in decline. And just as the number of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks continues to increase, there is a parallel decline in literature — because society cannot create a consensus that a work is worthy of being called literature; too many books with too few readers to build consensus.

When following the traditional publishing route, an author strives for excellence because the author needs to separate his or her work from that of the masses. The competition for gatekeeper recognition that drives an author to strive for excellence doesn’t exist in the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook world. I’m not suggesting that the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook authors do not strive to do their best, but rather that the pressure to do whatever it takes to be the best no longer exists; that an author more quickly reaches the point of saying his or her work is good enough. No gatekeeper is saying more work is needed, much too often there is not even an editor reviewing the work, and the author knows that his or her ebook is going to be hard to find among the hundreds of thousands other good-enough ebooks. Good enough becomes the great leveler.

The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature. It can be sufficient for the casual read (although I would argue that it is insufficient for any read), where the book will be read once, never read again, and forgotten completely within hours, if not within minutes. Good enough is not the Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird standard; it is not the standard met by a book that is still being read 50 years after its birth. Good enough, although a common standard for going direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook, is not a high enough standard for literature.

eBooks will be the downfall of literature and the arising of good enough! We already see that; and our current complaints about poor quality ebooks are likely to escalate in numbers and frequency. Future generations will miss out on today’s and tomorrow’s literature because what could be literature will not be recognized as such among the mass of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks that the new publishing paradigm encourages.

The real devaluation of books is not low price but the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook model of publishing.

April 29, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round III

OK, I know you aren’t convinced that ebooks and print on demand (POD) will be the downfall of literature, and perhaps there is no convincing you or perhaps I’m wrong. One commenter suggested that the great will rise, like cream, to the top. I hope they do, but I don’t think they will.

As ebooks and POD continue to supplant traditional publishing, the traditional ways of separating literature from nonliterature will also be supplanted. The question is: Supplanted by what? That is the big unknown.

Many commenters point to customer reviews at ebookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. So here is my first question: Excluding anger and protest reviews (such as the 1-star reviews because of price), for how many ebooks that you have bought and read have you written a review? How many of those reviews were in-depth reviews? In my case, the answer is zero. I counted up my ebook purchases over the past 2.5 years, and discovered I have purchased more than 500 ebooks and of that number have read 283. Yet I haven’t written one review (except for a couple here on An American Editor and on MobileRead). And of the pbooks I purchased and read in that same time frame, the only ones I have reviewed are the ones I reviewed on An American Editor.

Yet if you look at the reviewers on, for example, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, some have written more reviews than books I have read, yet they supposedly (according to their profiles) have numerous other interests that must take some time. I haven’t written reviews for several reasons, not least of which is that I don’t have the time to write an in-depth, thoughtful, and balanced review. I’m not a believer in the “Great book 5 stars” review, but then you probably guessed that from my suggestion that New York Review of Books reviews are the gold standard for book reviews.

I am quite skeptical of the reviews found at the ebookstores. And the 2-paragraph reviews I find at many of the ebook review sites aren’t much better (plus I have no idea who the reviewers are or their competencies). So who will become the new opinion shapers? How will we find them?

The Internet is both a great leveler and a great fragmenter. As a leveler, it makes new audiences available to authors, audiences they would not otherwise be able to easily reach. However, as a fragmenter, the Internet makes it easy for readers to find their niche and not expand out from it. Consequently, ebookers tend to take a narrow look at books rather than the more expansive look readers had to take when the only reviews were in generalist publications.

So how does a consensus get built that XYZ book is literature? You have the problems of sheer volume, Internet fragmentation, and questionable reviews that need to be overcome. Although the advent of ebooks has given everyone who wants to write an outlet for doing so, it has also made the task of finding the next J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway or Ursula Le Guin exponentially more difficult, if not impossible.

The lack of gatekeeping will cause a continual flood of ebooks, and picking and choosing among them will not be easy, perhaps even impossible. The idea that all that matters is that one find a book and enjoy it is OK as far as it goes, but it does nothing to help identify literature for new readers or future readers. The way we learn to appreciate good writing is to be exposed to good writing. But because ebooks make publishing a trivial experience, it is not possible to isolate good writing from poor writing (and pretty soon bad writing becomes the standard).

Just as poor grammar and spelling are commonly seen in ebooks (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), so those ebooks reinforce already poor grammar and spelling skills of readers (readers with good grammar and spelling skills are unlikely to have the patience to wade through the dreck of bad writing, bad grammar, and bad spelling). As writing falls perilously close to the lowest common denominator, the concepts of literature — of correct spelling, of correct grammar, of good writing — diminish until they are meaningless.

The lack of gatekeeping standards, the lack of publication literary standards that ebooks bring to the marketplace, and the sheer volume of ebooks available solely because of a person’s ability to bypass traditional publishing, indicates to me a downfall in literature.

It is not that the next Steinbeck isn’t out there — rather, it is that the next Steinbeck won’t be found.

The debate continues and concludes in round IV…

April 28, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round II

When you have 1 million books to choose among, how do you choose which to buy and read? Even when the number was just 10,000 (last seen probably in the late 18th century), the task was daunting. But there was a process that worked — perhaps not with the greatest efficiency — until the rise of ebooks and print on demand (POD).

Admittedly, the process let any number of worthy books fall through the cracks. I have no doubt that among the lost were another Philip Roth or Ray Bradbury or Elizabeth Peters. No matter the method, none is perfect. But the process, in its original incarnation, nurtured writing and enabled the discovery of literature (see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I for a discussion of literature).

In the early days, every author was self-published. But as the numbers of publications grew and the cost of publishing grew, self-publishing became publishing companies looking to make a profit. Along with the profit motive came a gatekeeper role (for an earlier discussion of ebooks and gatekeeping see The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role). Publishers both created and reacted to the reading market.

As gatekeepers, publishers separated author manuscripts according to house criteria. Two of many criteria were likelihood of sales and literature value. Publishers separated the haves from the have nots. I grant that the process didn’t stop there and that further culling of the haves occurred. After all, this was a business. But this initial culling made the universe of manuscripts signficantly smaller and thus made it possible for a consensus to be built about the literary merits of particular books.

Book reviews continued the process even after publication. Nearly every newspaper had a book reviewer and reputations for quality reviews were built. A cadre of professional book reviewers came into being, reviewers who were supposed to look past popularity and look for literature. A favorable book review from a recognized reviewer was important to the success of a new book.

Also important was book club acceptance. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, organizations like the Book-of-the-Month Club wielded enormous clout. Consequently, a book that reviewers deemed literature got that extra shove and was pushed on a broader population. Book clubs and reviewers acted as consensus builders and when publishers, book clubs, reviewers, and readers all came together on a book, the book was closer to literature status than ever.

eBooks and POD have come about in an era when book clubs barely exist and wield little to no power and when reviewers with broad reputations are scarce. Whereas every newspaper once had a book review section, now only a handful do and those are declining.

But I can hear the clamor now: There are thousands of book reviewers on the Internet! First, I ask you to compare. Compare a review in the New York Review of Books with a review from your usual book review site on the Internet. The difference in quality should be obvious in most instances. Second, what do you know about your Internet book reviewer? What makes him or her qualified to review a book other than that they may have read it? A well-written book review, like a well-written book, is much more than a rehash of the plot and a thumbs up or down. The review itself is worthy reading.

Compare these reviews of Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: a “professional” reviewer’s review from the New York Review of Books, customer reviews at Amazon.com, and reader reviews from LivingSocial.com. It isn’t that the latter two sources aren’t useful, it is that the NYRB review is worthy writing itself.

The credibility of the reviewer is also important. It isn’t that customer reviews aren’t worth considering, especially for a book’s readability; but what about subject matter knowledge? Isn’t that an important component of a review? What about having read prior works on the same topic and comparing past books with the new effort? Isn’t that an important review component?

With the demise of the traditional publishing system and the overtaxing of readers by numbers of books published, it is increasingly difficult to create a consensus as to whether or not a book is literature. Where previously dilution was minimal (relatively speaking), with the addition of self-published ebooks and POD books dilution is extensive.

Of the 1 million books published in 2009, how many did you read? Not just buy, but actually read? How many do you think any reader read? How can we build consensus when we read so few of so many?

eBooks and POD will be the downfall of literature because it will become ever more impossible for a sufficient number of readers to come to agreement on whether or not a book deserves the accolade of literature. This is not to say that controls to limit the number of books published should be imposed; rather, it is to say that there needs to be some method for separating dreck from literature.

The debate continues in round III…

April 27, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I

My previous article, Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?, turned out to be quite controversial, provoking lots of comments around the Internet, few supportive. Arguments against my article ranged from free speech (which is a legal concept that really doesn’t apply) to with so much dreck the cream will rise to the real culprit being print on demand to literature includes dreck by definition to … pick your own dart. Many commenters lauded the ability of anyone with a computer to “publish” their ebook. Swimming through an open floodgate is not, in my view, a good way to swim; it is only a good way to drown.

It is obvious to me that — although others assure me to the contrary — I failed to articulate my point very well, or that if I did articulate it well, it was too subtle or esoteric or whatever because no one really zeroed in on the issue. So I not only want to try again, because I think the point is deserving of debate, but I plan to do so over the course of several articles (thus the round numbering).

So, let’s start the great debate (divide?) by defining literature. As some commentators pointed out, the dictionary definition of literature is all-encompassing — it includes all writings in prose or poetry form. The dictionary definition, however, goes on to say especially “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Literature is something more than words assembled in a logical stream. It is this “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” that is the literature of my discussion. 

I use literature to be synonymous with that small portion of writing that by consensus is of such caliber that it will still be remembered, read, and pointed to as an exemplar of literary merit long after the particular style has gone out of fashion and the author has died. I use literature to mean that body of work that society in its amorphous whole has determined should be put on a pedestal, distinguishing it from all other publications.

I do not use literature to mean popular or fashionable or award winning. James Patterson’s books are popular but I do not see society declaring his novels to be literature. I guess what I mean by literature is what many call great literature — works such as Shakespearean plays that are still read and performed hundreds of years after the death of the author. It is possible for a work to be both literature and popular, but whether something is literature is independent of whether it is popular. The terms literature and great literature are synonymous here.

When we look at what has been denominated great literature over the course of time, we can observe that there is something more to the work, something that may be indefinable or something that caused a revolution in thinking or perspective. It is that intangible that separates literature from simply being in print.

Consider music. People recognize the greatness of a Beethoven symphony — a masterpiece of music that has withstood the test of time. Yet, not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were well-received at the time of their premiere — other composers were more popular, but once they died they became dust in the dustbin of musicology. The great composers — the Mozarts, the Bachs, the Beethovens of music — had patrons and publishers who acted as gatekeepers.

The same is true of art. Consensus is that van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Da Vinci, for example, were true masters. But that hasn’t stopped your neighbor from painting and trying to sell his or her artwork. The great artists were represented and their works competitively sought after by galleries that acted as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers began the separation of run-of-the-mill art from great art.

Writing is similar to art and music. And before the advent of ebooks and print on demand (POD), the process of separating literature from the rest of what was published or available to be published was easier. eBooks and POD have changed the landscape. In 2009, at least 1 million new books were published, 75% nontraditionally, i.e., as ebooks, POD, and micro-niche publishing.

With 250,000 traditionally published books it was already difficult to separate literature from run-of-the-mill work. We relied on gatekeepers to start the process. But in 2009 we were overwhelmed. Name 1 novel that was published in 2009 for which there is consensus that it is great literature and will withstand the test of time?

When J.D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, it was but a short time until a consensus was reached that this book was literature. By the 1960s it was standard reading in high schools across the country. Publishers, book reviewers, teachers, and readers were already comparing new works by other authors to Catcher, looking for the next book that could be called literature. Catcher had become a standard. Probably the next book to reach that status was Harper Lee’s 1962 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Catcher, Mockingbird became a literary staple, a standard, and required reading near universally. We continue to celebrate these books today.

So, out of the 1 million books published in 2009, name the novel that is today’s equivalent of Catcher or Mockingbird. Perhaps there is one, but I admit I don’t know of it.

Literature is significantly more than numbers, more than a good story that is well executed. Literature comes about by building a societal consensus, something that is easier to do when there are fewer choices.

The debate continues in round II…

April 26, 2010

Documenting Me

As you know, this is not a political blog. But sometimes I just have to stray into the political arena, which is where this article is headed.

For those who follow the news, Arizona’s legislature has passed and its governor has signed a new law that is supposed to discourage illegal immigration. The law authorizes law enforcement officers to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship. And to make sure law enforcement does its job, the law authorizes citizens who believe officers are not diligent enough to sue the government agencies to force more vigorous efforts.

I’m canceling my vacation to Arizona.

I have lots of problems with this law but I’ll focus on the fundamental flaw that compels me to sidestep Arizona: How do I prove I’m a citizen?

We do not have national identity cards. Last I looked, New York, where I live, doesn’t issue New York Proof of Citizenship cards. I have a driver’s license, but all that proves is that I’m licensed to drive, not that I’m a citizen. My Social Security card? We all know fake ones are readily available and the real ones don’t carry any personal identifying information.

Would a birth certificate do it? Mine doesn’t have any identifying information on it so what does showing it prove? That I have a piece of paper that says somone with my name was to born to my parents on such a date in such a place. Doesn’t seem to me to prove anything.

I suppose I could carry a passport, but as a citizen I object to being forced to obtain a passport to travel to Arizona. Arizona is still part of the United States, isn’t it?

My New York accent would immediately identify me as a foreigner in Arizona. Under the law, that’s probably probable cause enough to demand proof that I’m a citizen — we all know that New York is a magnet for immigrants. I’d sure hate to be stopped by one of those stereotypical southern sheriffs whose got a bug up his behind about New Yorkers.

Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve our union, but Arizona may be onto a way to bust it apart. Imagine if every state enacted a similar law and erected a perimeter of border guards to check citizenship at every entry point. Suddenly we’d be citizens of a state rather than of a nation, but it sure would be a great way for one state to keep out the riffraff of another state.

Even more problematic is how the Republican vanguard in Arizona has done a 180-degree turnabout by enacting this legislation. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republicans of the west and southwest led the fight opposing a national identity card. Who wants big government to be able to identify its citizens! Imagine what our federal government could do to us, its citizens, if we had national identity cards — it might be able to find tax scofflaws and those who flee parking tickets. (Of course, it might also better enable us to fight terrorism and locate child abductors.) There is no unthinkable abuse that we citizens would/could not suffer — at least that’s what we were led to believe by the anti-ID Republicans.

But as is typical of politicians, Republican doublespeak here is really a roundabout way for the Republican party to support national identity cards without having to come right out and say so. The best way to stop illegal immigration is through use of a national identity card. Clearly the enhanced driver’s license idea isn’t working.

Arizona Republicans have given the federal government the perfect excuse/reason to require national identity cards — to prove citizenship — and to require that they be carried on one’s person 24/7/365 — in case one has to prove citizenship to an Arizona law enforcement officer. (Do you think Arizona will have special citizenship-checking lines at airports? What about trains as they pass through Arizona on the way to California? If you are going to insist that only citizens and legally present folk can use Arizona facilities, shouldn’t you do this right? Hmmm, perhaps this is really a full-employment law in disguise. How many more law enforcement officers will it take to check the identity lines at the local burger joint? Oh, those sneaky Republicans — no bailouts for them, just backdoor employment opportunities.)

I’m not personally opposed to national identity cards; what I am opposed to is political doublespeak, something that Arizona politicians seem to have mastered with this law. They demand you prove something that you really can’t easily prove under our current system. Under our current system, we work on the basis of trust.

We trust that the birth certificate I display really is mine and that it is legitimate. We trust the political agency that issued it and that the information was recorded correctly (well, except in the case of Hawaii, whose birth records are awful suspicious thus Arizona’s other new bit of legislation requiring presidential candidates to prove they are natural born citizens — or is it just in case John McCain runs again?). We do a lot of fundamental trusting — unless you live in Arizona and your name has a non-American flavor to it or your skin color is non-American.

Now if only Arizona could explain what makes a name or skin coloration non-American (a country and state of immigrants, it should be noted), I’d sleep better at night — but I still wouldn’t travel to Arizona. Who knows how long I’d be there trying to prove I truly am a citizen.

April 23, 2010

A Musical Interlude (II)

Filed under: A Musical Interlude — americaneditor @ 6:59 am
Tags: , ,

It’s time to take a break from work. Below are some musical videos to provide a few minutes of diversion. The first is one of my favorite songs, Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, this time with Sarah Brightman and Antonio Banderas.

You may have already seen the following video but I think this is one of the finest renditions of Lloyd-Weber’s Memory I have heard. Susan Boyle really masters Lloyd-Weber’s music.

One more Susan Boyle before moving on. Listening to her sing I Dreamed a Dream not only makes me smile but brings tears of joy. I find this rendition most inspirational, especially when I see the reactions of the judges and the audience. A true Cinderella story.

There’s something about an ABBA song that continues to enrapt audiences. Keeping with my “opera” theme, here is ABBA performing Dancing Queen at the Royal Swedish Opera.

Let’s close this interlude with one of my favorites from the 1960s — still the finest rock music era — Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Da Vida.

Now it’s time to get back to editing!

April 22, 2010

Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?

According to statistics released by R.R. Bowker and published in Publisher’s Weekly, more than 764,000 self-published and micro-niche books were published in 2009, compared to 288,000 traditionally published books. I wonder if those numbers include ebooks?

We already know that a goodly number of the traditionally published books — all of which presumably were professionally edited and produced — aren’t of particularly high quality, so what does that portend for the three-quarters-of-a-million nontraditionally published books? Odds are that many of them aren’t even of the lowest quality traditionally published books.

I readily admit that among the nontraditionally published ebooks are some gems; I’ve bought a few and throughly enjoyed the writing style even if there were a lot of significant annoyances (see for some examples, On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) — but I wouldn’t name a single one as great literature.

The problem isn’t just in the lack of the finishing touches, the kinds of things that professional editors, designers, and producers can provide (for an understanding of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). The problem is that they really aren’t new twists on old stories and the old twists aren’t particularly well executed.

Pick up a novel — doesn’t matter whether it was written by a world-famous author or your next door neighbor — and the story is probably a rehashing of a story that is at the core of thousands of other books. It isn’t a wholly original story. How many times have you said to yourself that the eighth book in a series is really just a repeat of the first book — just different characters and different locale? How many different ways can someone be murdered or armies clash or elves have pointy ears?

It is clear, however, that there is a distinction between run-of-the-mill novels and literature. Would anyone mistake Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for their neighbor’s mystery novel? I’m not talking about whether I like a particular author or story, I’m talking about whether the story will stand the test of generations: Will future generations be reading the work for anything more than research? (Will researchers even bother reading the work?)

This is the problem I see with nontraditionally published ebooks (and to be honest, even with many traditionally published ebooks). Sure there are some that will sell several thousand copies and be considered a financial success by their authors. But financial success doesn’t equate with good literature. Ponzi schemes bring financial success but no one I know considers investing in such a scheme to be good financial planning.

There are no clear or easy resolutions to the problems that ebooks bring to the reading world. It isn’t possible to equate single-digit sales numbers with poor literary merit any more than 5-digit sales numbers can be equated with it. There is something significantly more elusive about what makes a novel literature as opposed to nonliterature. I admit that I can’t put my finger on that elusive trait and identify it clearly for all the world to see and acknowledge, but readers do know it exists.

Great literature is often the retelling of an older story but in a new way or in a new light. Fantasy adventures, for example, are often a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. (Unfortunately, too many are retellings of the retelling of the retelling — ad infinitum — of the original retelling.) It is how they are retold that separates the wheat from the chaff. And it is the ease of publishing ebooks that makes the separation process so difficult.

Many people have a story that they want to tell. The question is: Should they tell it? Is there really a place for wooden characters, wooden dialogue, and repetitive plots? Should there be? And with the ease of nontraditional publishing of ebooks, will literature soon disappear? Or will it become unrecognizable? Or will it become more readily recognizable?

Although I can’t identify the precise thing that makes one book great literature and another not even poor literature, I do recognize that there is a certain broad, cultural identification of a work as great literature, even if some of the recognizers would not themselves call it such. Consider Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both are considered literary masterpieces of the 20th century; I don’t dispute that accolade even though I think Salinger is well overrated and Steinbeck deserves greater praise. I also think Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry should be in that esteemed company although I have yet to read a Philip Roth novel I would recommend to anyone. My point isn’t that I think yea or nay but that there is a developed consensus that says yea or nay.

How do you develop such a consensus with nontraditionally published ebooks? It takes more than a village of 10 people to move an author from the wanna-be to the great category. Two generations from now, what will be the great literary works of the late 20th-early 21st century that are discussed in schools, that everyone can point to as being in the list of top 100 must-read works? I fear that the future of ebooks will be the downfall of literature as ease of publishing sinks everything to the bottom. I fear that we are seeing the birth of mediocrity as the new great literature.

April 21, 2010

It’s the Little Things: Software Redux

Not discussed in my previous articles was Microsoft Word’s built-in macro language, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). But this resource is exceedingly valuable to an editor. Every editor should at least master using wild cards and should try to learn the fundamentals of writing “simple” VBA macros.

I edit a lot of very long manuscripts — 2,000 to 10,000+ manuscript pages — in the STM (science, technical, and medical) fields. It is not unusual for these manuscripts to have chapters with 300 to 1,500 references, and the one thing I can almost universally rely on is that the references are not in proper form, and are even inconsistent among themselves.

For example, a manuscript I am currently working on has a citation style that looks like this for a journal article:

Surname Initials, Surname Initials. Article title. Journal vol;page-page, year.

In one chapter with nearly 500 references, not a single reference was in that form. The style was all over the place and it is my job to fix it.

Fixing the problems means I can do each reference individually or I can identify patterns and write a macro or use wildcards with Find & Replace. For most editors, the easier solution is to use wildcards with F&R. Using F&R means breaking down the references into their parts. It isn’t possible — at least as far as I have been able to determine — to create a single macro or F&R routine to take care of all of the variations that the authors provide. Consequently, I try to address parts of the problem.

 For example, if the authors have put some of the citations in this form:

26, 1988, 1101-1105.

and I want to change it to this form:

26:1101-1105, 1988.

I make use of wildcards as follows:

Find: ([0-9]@)(, )([0-9]{4})(, )([0-9]@)(-)([0-9]@)(.)

Replace: \1:\5\6\7\4\3\8

Similarly, if the authors have really made it complex by using the citation form

2005, Dec;24(12):2037-042.

which I need to become

24(12):2037-042, 2005.

I use a 2-step wildcard F&R as follows:

1st Find: ([0-9]{4})(, [A-z]@;)

 1st Replace: \1;

 2nd Find: ([0-9]{4})(; @)([0-9]@[(][0-9]@[)]:[0-9]@-[0-9]@)(.)

 2nd Replace: \3, \1\4

Every time I figure out the wildcard F&R, I copy the parameters to a word document that I keep handy for the next chapter. This way I only have to copy and paste and click Replace All. I do have to go through several F&Rs, which will correct most — but not all — of the variations; but it is better to have 90% corrected automatically than to have to do them all manually.

And to address problems where, for example, the authors give the reference author names as AW Smith instead of Smith AW, I write a simple macro that I assign to my keyboard (and my XKeys) to make that reversal:

Sub ReverseAuthorName1()

‘ ReverseAuthorName1 Macro
‘ Macro created 4/7/2010 by Freelance Editorial Services

    Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdWord, Count:=1, Extend:=wdExtend
    Selection.Cut
    Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdWord, Count:=1
    Selection.PasteAndFormat (wdPasteDefault)
End Sub

 As you can see, even a simple macro can make life easier and editing more productive. What do you do when an author has added punctuation following the journal name and there isn’t supposed to be any? For example, the author gives you

N Engl J Med. 1998;2:200-210

and the correct form for your client is

N Engl J Med 2:200-210, 1998?

We know how to move the year to the end globally but that doesn’t solve the problem of the punctuation following the journal name. You could modify your wildcard F&R but that won’t remove the punctuation where the rest of the cite doesn’t match the Find parameter. The answer is to write a macro.

Here is the macro I use. It works so I’ve not improved it as I’ve grown more knowledgable about VBA. This macro can be much more simply and efficiently written; it was one of my earliest attempts at macro writing.

Sub RefsRemovePuncAfterJournalName()

‘ Remove Punctuation After Journal Name in References Macro
‘ Macro created 10/7/2004 by Freelance Editorial Services

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “/, ”
        .Replacement.Text = “/,Œ‰”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace [number],[space] with [number],[smiley]‰

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “([0-9])[, ]”
        .Replacement.Text = “\1,” & ChrW(9786) & “‰”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = False
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = True
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace [space][number] with ¿‰[number]

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = ” ([0-9]{4})(;)”
        .Replacement.Text = “¿‰\1\2”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = True
        .MatchCase = False
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = True
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace ,¿ with [space]

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “,¿”
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace .¿ with [space]

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “.¿”
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace [smiley] with [space]

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = ChrW(9786)
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ Replace ¿, Œ, and ‰ with [space]

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “[¿Œ‰]”
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = False
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = True
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = “([A-z]@)(.)(^32)([0-9]@{4})(;)”
        .Replacement.Text = “\1\3\4\5”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = False
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = True
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll

    ‘ This section resets the wildcards to off

    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = ”  ”
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
   
    Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
    Selection.Find.Replacement.ClearFormatting
    With Selection.Find
        .Text = ”  ”
        .Replacement.Text = ” ”
        .Forward = True
        .Wrap = wdFindContinue
        .Format = False
        .MatchCase = True
        .MatchWholeWord = False
        .MatchWildCards = False
        .MatchSoundsLike = False
        .MatchAllWordForms = False
    End With
    Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
   
End Sub

The macro looks more complex than it really is. The point is that you, too, can write these macros for your own needs if you make the effort to learn a little VBA. But even if you don’t want to go that far, you need to learn how to use wildcards. The time that wildcards and macros can save you puts money in your pocket. More importantly, it prevents the frustration you encounter when you face a lengthy reference list and discover that not one author-provided reference is in correct form.

I suggest picking up a book on VBA programming and also checking out the information on macros and wildcards found in Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals by Jack Lyon (available at http://www.editorium.com and through bookstores via ISBN 9781434102362). Jack’s book is one of the best sources for introductory information on macro writing available.

Live, learn, and prosper!

April 20, 2010

Thinking Today About Tomorrow’s Books

In today’s newspapers were articles about how the conservatives are gearing up to attack President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. The grounds were the usual — too liberal, too activist, too outspoken, too quiet, too something. Similarly, the liberals were gearing up to defend. Role reversals from the Bush years.

As the articles noted, a mainstay of conservative judicial thinking is a return to original intent. And that got me thinking — no, not about judicial appointments, well yes, about judicial appointments, but no, not for this article — about who I will vote for in the November elections, which got me thinking about what my ideal candidate would espouse.

I think it is time for book lovers to stand up and be counted as a power constituency. I’m tired of having to set aside all that is important to my future because candidates choose to ignore those issues that are close to home for me. So I have decided that the time is right to begin building a new, powerful constituency of book lovers and demand that candidates declare unwavering support for our issues or face the extreme penalty of being lashed with 2 wet noodles. I’ve even got a name for the new power group: BLASTR — Book Lovers Acting to Save Readers. OK, the name is hokey but it’s still early in the movement’s life so name suggestions are welcome.

To get the movement moving, I propose that all candidates be required to pledge eternal support for the following ideas:

First, candidates must agree that our founding fathers’ original intent was to nurture and grow the intellectual capacity of subsequent generations through books, newspapers, magazines, and other assorted written materials, which is why they gave us the free speech and free press clauses. Consequently, promotion of both poor and good quality writing is a fundamental obligation of federal and state governments in accordance with the founders’ original intent — even in Texas!

Second, that all books are equal under our constitution and are entitled to certain fundamental rights. That the due process and equal protection clauses mean that all authors and all written material are entitled, as a federal substantive right, to a minimal standard of production quality.

Third, that these politicians will support the Comprehensive Compulsory Readers Rights Act, suggested parts of which are detailed below, but whose goal it will be to end unedited and poorly produced dreck from entering the publishing mainstream. The CCRRA will be the reader’s coup d’publishing. To begin: 

  • Every book is entitled to competent editing by a professional editor. Thus no book can be brought to market absent it receiving a stamp showing that it has been edited. Britain had the right idea with the Stamp Act but introduced it 200+ years too soon. Because editing can be expensive and authors are subject to the whims of economic times and writing quality,
  • A national Editorial Defense Initiative will be created to provide a professional editor for every author who requests such public aid for his or her manuscript, with the author’s cost based on a sliding fee scale tied to the author’s economic circumstances, writing ability (or lack thereof), and health.
  • Because great editing is insufficient to protect a manuscript’s full right to due process and equal protection, the Production Defense Corps will be created to provide access to other necessary production services such as typesetting, illustration, cover design, and marketing, for which an author will be charged based on the sliding scale.

Of course, what good does it do any author if they write a great book but no one reads it? There has to be a method to lead the horse to the water and make it drink. Consequently, the candidate must support the

  • Official Book Procurement Requirement Act, requiring all books under the foregoing programs to be published as ebooks and distributed to the book-loving public as part of a subscription that every taxpayer must partake in.
  • And to make sure that the books are read, taxpayers will be required to attach to their annual tax returns a 1-page essay for each book they or a member of their family has read during the preceding year that was produced under the CCRRA. For each IRS-approved essay, they will receive a tax rebate commensurate to the assigned value of the book they read.
  • Because assigning values to a book can be arbitrary, conservative, or liberal, as opposed to fair, the Act will create a special new Court of Book Valuation whose judges will be responsible for resolving disputes about the literary merit and market value of a book. To ensure that all viewpoints are respected, the court will have 3 judges, one elephant, one donkey, and one independent but knowledgeable book review editor from the staff of the New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review.
  • The Act will also create a special section of the U.S. Department of Justice will be created whose sole job is to enforce these rights.

The CCRA will solve many of today’s problems tomorrow. It will increase literacy, it will promote the literary arts, it will provide steady employment for the un- and underemployed, it will keep lawyers busy, and it will raise the cultural level of our nation from barely perceptible to somewhere on someone’s radar. Most importantly, it will honor the original intent of our founders that ours be an egalitarian society with access for all to all of the knowledge of humankind.

Were Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams among us today, I have no doubt that they would be founding members of BLASTR. Are you ready to join the BLASTR generation?

April 19, 2010

It’s the Little Things: Software

In the last post on this subject, I discussed two hardware matters that increase efficiency: multiple monitors and XKeys (and forgot to mention my Logitech programmable mouse). Today, I explore (albeit very cursorily) some of the software I use — in conjunction with the XKeys — to increase my efficiency and productivity. All of the software involves using Microsoft Word macros and center on being able to use XKeys for one-button access to them.

The software programs are from a variety of vendors, including myself (wordsnSync) and include the following

Each of the software applications provides its own productivity benefits, but all, except Macro Express, are based on Microsoft VBA. Not included in the list is Microsoft Word’s built-in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) programming language. It is well worth every editor’s time to learn at least the basics of VBA, particularly how to do wildcard searches.

Macro Express

Macro Express (ME) is simultaneously a simple and a complex macro writing program. For most editors, nothing more than the simple aspects are required. In fact, I rarely use ME for long, complex macros, preferring to use VBA. But, ME does have a singular advantage over all of the other options: it is program agnostic. Consequently, I can write procedures that I can use in multiple programs or for a specific program. Here’s a simple sample: Think about how many times during a manuscript edit you need to delete a space and replace it with a hyphen. How do you currently do it? Press Delete, press hyphen? I press the + key on the number keypad at the right of my keyboard. It is a simple macro that I have assigned to that particular key and that I have made available for use in all my programs via Macro Express. It means that I can keep my hand on my mouse and simply extend my thumb to press the single key, saving perhaps a couple of seconds with each use.

On the other hand, ME lets me take advantage of some of Word’s features in combination. Back when I wrote this procedure in ME, I wasn’t up to speed with VBA, so ME made life easy. The procedure lets me insert a local bookmark where I am currently at and go immediately to another bookmark. When I begin prepping a file for editing, the first thing I do is insert special bookmarks where the references, figures, tables, and any other special features are. The ME routine lets me travel, for example, from the text table callout to the table and when I’m done editing the table, to return to the callout in the text.

ME lets me create custom “keyboards” for clients and/or projects. These custom keyboards contain macros for the client/project that make life easy. They also contain some universal macros, that is, macros that I know I will use in every project. And ME lets me assign the key combination of my choice to each macro.

When used in conjunction with XKeys, all I need to do is press a single button to run a macro.

Editorium Macros

Jack Lyon has written several macro programs designed to help speed certain editorial tasks. I have tried many of his macros and they all are excellent. You really can’t go wrong with any of them if they fit your needs. And when I started using macros to increase productivity, I used more of his programs than I do now. I still use on a regular basis List Fixer and Note Stripper. For the editing that I do, these are the most useful and valuable of The Editorium macros. Colleagues swear by — and rightfully so — his other programs, particularly FileCleaner and MegaReplacer. I suggest that if you haven’t tried The Editorium macros that you do so and find the ones that are most beneficial for you.

Perfect It

Perfect It is a relatively recent addition to my armamentarium of editing tools. Perfect It is a series of auto running macros that looks for common mistakes after the manuscript is edited. For example, the manuscripts I work on often are riddled with acronyms. One of the things I try to do is be sure that after an acronym has been defined, future spellouts are converted to the acronym form. That’s one of the things that Perfect It checks. It also looks for missing punctuation in lists, acronyms that are defined multiple ways, and numerous other of the little things that can get past even the most diligent editor. It is a valuable program and well worth its price.

EditTools

EditTools is my favorite (I am the author and seller of EditTools), probably because the macros were created to meet my specific editing needs. However, they would be a great boon to any editor.

Among the many macros in EditTools, my favorites are Toggle, Journals, and Search Count Replace.

My Toggle database includes more than 1200 entries and Toggle lets me make corrections with a single XKeys button press. For example, I have a medical dataset for Toggle so that when I come across and acronym that hasn’t been spelled out yet, such as CHF, I press a single key and CHF becomes congested heart failure (CHF). And some clients prefer that in-sentence lists be numbered in parens rather than lettered followed by a period [i.e., (1) rather than a.], and Toggle lets me make the change with a single button press. The key is what is in my dataset, and I am the sole master of that — I can add as I wish.

Journals is another major timesaver for me. It isn’t unusual for me to have a chapter with 300+ references. Journals is a macro that searches for journal (or book) names and if they are correct highlights them in green; if they are incorrect, corrects them and highlights them in cyan. Like Toggle, Journals uses a dataset that I create to meet my needs; my current dataset has nearly 5,000 journal names. The highlighting gives me visual confirmation that I do not need to worry about whether a journal name is correct or not.

Search Count Replace (SCR) solves another common editing problem. As I said earlier, many of the manuscripts I work on are riddled with acronyms. SCR lets me determine how many times an acronym is used in the manuscript and if it doesn’t meet the client’s minimum number requirement, I can tell it to replace subsequent instances of the acronym with something else; if the number does meet the client’s requirements, I can tell it to highlight the acronym throughout the document, which tells me later that the acronym has already been spelled out.

EditTools also makes custom dictionaries accessible and usable. Plus there are several other macros included, including one that corrects page ranges in references.

_________

All of these software programs and macros increase my speed, accuracy, and efficiency and better the final product that I deliver to my clients. Most have trial periods; I suggest you try them. With trial periods, you have nothing to lose — and everything to gain — by doing so.

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