An American Editor

January 30, 2013

The Business of Editing: Why a Company?

In my last blog post, The Business of Editing: Domains & E-mail, I discussed having a company domain name and ended by promising a discussion of why I want to be viewed as a company and not as an individual. In this article, I’ll tackle some of those reasons.

In The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices, I gave one reason: I like to have the terms of my invoices honored, not dismissed. Dealing with clients on a business-to-business basis seems to make honoring my invoice terms happen with significantly greater regularity than when I was seen — and treated — as merely an individual freelancer (which was when I first started in the business).

Yet there are even more important — to me — reasons why I want to be viewed as a company rather than as an individual.

As I have noted many times in this blog, I like to work on very large projects — much larger than one editor working alone could probably handle, especially if the turnaround time is at all tight. I find them financially more rewarding. It is not unusual for me to receive a project that requires multiple editors. In the olden days, on such projects, I would receive a few chapters to edit and some other editors whom I didn’t know would also each receive a few chapters. The client then expected us to coordinate our stylesheets — but to do so on our own time.

I don’t disagree about the need to coordinate style among multiple editors, but why complicate the situation? Once I began convincing clients that I really was a business and not an individual (I always speak of we, not me, when speaking about Freelance Editorial Services with clients), clients would send me the whole project and I could determine whether I needed additional editors or not.

If I do need additional editors, then I hire them, not the client. And the client has no input on whom I hire (of course, I am responsible for the job and its ultimate quality; if I make bad choices in whom I hire, the client will complain about poor work and not hire my company again). As a company, I do not discuss personnel issues outside the company. This does not mean that I do not tell the client who the other editors are who are working on a project, if I’m asked, because I do tell them. In fact, because I use an online system to which the client has access, the client can see who all the editors are on a project just by logging on to my website. But I remain in control, which is as it should be.

As a company, I often receive multiple projects from a client simultaneously. Clients rely on me to manage the editing aspect of projects and to deliver a quality-edited manuscript on time. This allows me to increase my revenue flow and helps prevent the most dreaded of all freelance problems: a period of no work!

Being viewed as a company also means that I receive inquiries for work that goes beyond copyediting and into other aspects of the editorial/production process. This gives me the opportunity to expand my offerings and to earn additional income, without sacrificing basic copyediting work because of a lack of time to do the work myself.

Because I’m viewed as a company, clients expect me to have multiple editors available. Consequently, the only inquiry I receive these days is “Do you have an editor available for _______?” Clients do not limit me to what I can actually do myself.

Another matter is perhaps even more important than any of the already-mentioned items: privacy.

How many times have you been asked to produce proof that you are a freelancer? It used to be that I would be asked to produce a copy of my tax return or 1099 forms. I have never provided that information, and won’t. I always politely responded that, as a privately held company, such information is not disclosed as a matter of company policy. However, I do say that the company would, I am sure, make an exception if they would provide me the salary information for their employees or a copy of their (i.e., the client’s) tax returns. Once you are accepted as a company, it is assumed that, like all other companies, you work for multiple clients. Proof is not requested.

Ultimately, being viewed as a company rather than as an individual means being treated as the client would treat every other company vendor. This means minimal interference with how I conduct business. It also means that I can have company “policies” that I will not violate, which clients, especially corporate clients, understand because they face the same situation. Here is a good example: Have you ever been told that you must sign an agreement prepared by the prospective client or not get any work from the client? Have you tried negotiating the agreement but been rebuffed?

Over the course of my 30 years as an editor, I have had occasion to be presented with these sign-or-no-work agreements. I have always carefully read them and I have always offered counter terms. The agreements are so one-sided as to be wholly unfair (I remember one that wanted me to file any disputes in a court in a province of India, even though the prospective client had U.S. offices). I make it clear that my company’s policy prevents me from signing such agreements without the changes in terms I indicated. Sometimes the prospective client has said sorry, but either sign or get no work, in which case I opt for no work, but more often they either agree to modify the terms or simply to disregard the agreement as a precondition for work. As a company, and because I always speak of we and not I, the relationship is viewed as more of one between equals and less of one between master and servant.

Being viewed as a company has yet another advantage. It has opened possibilities to me that would be foreclosed if I were viewed as an individual. For example, a client recently consulted with me about doing a joint bid for a very large project. They made it clear that they were asking me for several reasons, including the quality of my company’s work (based on our existing relationship) and because, if our bid were to succeed, they “know” that my company could expand and hire the additional editors needed to complete the work. Whether or not we win the bid is beside the point. The point is that, because I am a company, I was given the opportunity to make the bid. If it was work I wasn’t interested in, I could have declined the opportunity but being seen as a company meant I had the opportunity to bid or not bid. An individual — someone operating as a freelancer rather than a company — would not have been offered the opportunity to bid.

It is important that you not misunderstand the idea of being a company. Being a company doesn’t mean that you must have employees other than yourself. It doesn’t mean that you must use subcontractors. It is very common to have a company of one. But regardless of whether you are a company of one or several, you do need to act, think, and speak in terms of a company and of we rather than I. A company is a second persona, distinct from you the person, and you need to act accordingly — just as if you were employed by someone else, rather than self-employed.

Think of being a company as having opportunities that would otherwise be foreclosed to you.

January 28, 2013

The Business of Editing: Domains & E-mail

In a previous article I discussed invoices and the importance of a professional look for them (The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices). A professional-looking invoice that establishes you as a business is only part of the solution to being perceived as a business, rather than as someone who is just looking for “vacation money.” Your e-mail address is another facet of the “look.”

When I see an e-mail from yourname@gmail.com, I wonder how well the sender is doing: Why would I buy a product from a gmail address? Having your own domain name is neither expensive nor difficult these days. Editors who write me seeking work from addresses such as gmail.com, aol.com, and yahoo.com give an initial first impression that editing is part-time work for them. I do understand that this may well (and often is) a misperception, but we are talking about first impressions — not true impressions, just first impressions. Such addresses make me wonder whether the editor is in the business as a business or just looking for occasional work more as a hobby.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not think an editor needs to have a website. I think having one can be beneficial, but depending on how you run your business and who your clients are, a website may be unnecessary. But having your own domain is an absolute must. If you buy goods over the Internet, as most of us do, do you prefer to buy from what appears to be a company or from an unknown person with a generic address?

You use your invoice to convey the image of a business. Why would you tarnish that image by not having a business domain name and an e-mail address based on your domain?

One argument I have heard is that it costs too much money. The reality is that it doesn’t. 1and1, for example, which hosts my websites and is the registrar of all my domain names (37 of them), offers the first-year registration of a .com domain for $7.99 ($10.99 for subsequent years). Website hosting for the first year is as low as 99¢ a month ($4.99/month in subsequent years). Other ISPs offer similarly low prices. Even if this did cost more, it’s an investment in your business and is still worth doing.

Another argument I’ve heard is that “it doesn’t matter; my clients don’t care.” I’m sure there is some truth to this sentiment, but it fails to address the underlying concern: How do current and prospective clients view you? Do they view as a “real business” or as someone looking for extra income to pay for two weeks at Disneyworld? Perhaps your clients don’t care, but they can not care just as easily if you have your own domain name. You really have no way of knowing whether prospective clients care or not, unless you keep track of the ones who never respond to your queries. For all you know, an unprofessional e-mail address is why.

Years ago, when I taught a marketing class for editors, I said that whatever you do and however you do it reflects on whether you are viewed as a professional and a business or as someone who is doing editing work just to earn extra play money. In those days, impressions were generated largely by telephone and snail mail; today, that impression is given by websites and e-mail addresses.

Ultimately, looking like a professional business is like a three-legged stool. The stool requires all three legs to be stable; editors today require more than topnotch skills and a good-looking invoice to give and reinforce the impression that they are a business. In today’s Internet world, we have to give an impression of ourselves using somewhat anonymous tools, of which invoices and e-mail are two such tools.

Not only should an editor have their own domain (I advise against domain names that are simply your name, such as janesmith.com) but, once the editor has established a business-like-sounding domain name, the editor needs to create an appropriate signature for e-mails.

The signature should reflect that you are a business. It should include your name, business name, mailing address, website URL, e-mail address, and blog information if you blog. Here is the text of my signature:

Richard H. Adin
Direct Line: 845-471-3566
rhadin*at*freelance-editorial-services.com
rhadin*at*wordsnSync.com

Blog: http://www.americaneditor.wordpress.com

Freelance Editorial Services
52 Oakwood Blvd.
Poughkeepsie, NY 12603-4112
www.freelance-editorial-services.com
www.wordsnSync.com

(I do use the @ sign, not *at*, in my signature.) It is a little fancier than it appears here (but not much), but the point is that every e-mail includes this signature, and with every e-mail I reinforce the idea that I am a company by repeating the company name, Freelance Editorial Services.

My invoices include the company logo, company name, physical address, and telephone number (and, of course, my Employer Identification Number — not my Social Security number). They do not include my name. Many years ago, my invoices did include my name; in fact, the head on the invoice was almost a replica of my e-mail signature. But clients wrote checks to me or looked to make a direct deposit into an account that bore my name, neither of which did I want. I want payment made to Freelance Editorial Services because that is my company name and I want to be viewed as a company, not as an individual.

(Here’s a tip regarding invoices: For many years my invoices included both a telephone number and an e-mail address. About 7 years ago, I stopped including the e-mail address on my invoices. I found that a couple of clients were using the e-mail as a means to create a payment delay — it was so easy to not receive e-mail replies! I stopped including my e-mail address on my invoices and now only include a telephone number and physical address. If there is a question about an invoice from accounts payable, accounts payable calls me, which enables me to resolve all problems immediately without back-and-forthing. I can do this because of the types of clients I serve; you may not be able to do so.)

I’m sure you are asking, why does it matter? Why do I want to be viewed as a company rather than as an individual? We’ll discuss that in the next Business of Editing post, The Business of Editing: Why a Company?

January 23, 2013

The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices

Have you given much thought to your invoice form and what it says about you?

It seems like an odd question, but it really is a basic business question. The ramifications of how your invoice presents you are several, not the least of which is how you are viewed by clients when it comes to payment terms.

Some companies require freelancers to fill out and sign an “invoice” form. They do this for several reasons. First, it ensures that the information the company needs to pay the freelancer is all there and easily accessible. Second, it acts as reinforcement for the idea that the invoicer really is a freelancer and not an employee in disguise in contravention of IRS rules. Third, and perhaps most importantly to a freelancer, it acts as a way to classify a freelancer and thus apply payment terms.

Have you ever noticed that companies often ignore your payment terms: Your invoice says payable on receipt but you are paid in 30 or 45 days. Your invoice says payable in 30 days yet payment may take 60 days. Good luck trying to impose a penalty for late payment. In the battle of wills between publisher and freelancer, it is the publisher who holds all the cards, except if the publisher doesn’t pay at all.

(I have always found it interesting that a publisher feels free to ignore the payment terms and to ignore any late charges on invoices that a freelancer submits, but should the freelancer buy a book from the publisher and not pay on time, the publisher will hound the freelancer to death for both payment and any publisher-imposed late fees.)

What brings this to mind were recent discussions I had with colleagues who were complaining about how a publisher unilaterally extended the time to pay their invoices, yet that same publisher continues to pay me within the 15-day payment term my invoices set.

The primary reason for this difference in treatment is how the publisher views my business. I am viewed as business vendor, not as a freelancer.

This difference in view extends not just to how I am paid, but also to how clients treat me. For example, one client who insists that freelancers complete a publisher-provided invoice form and sign it, accepts my invoices as I print them and without my signature.

Another publisher sends files in which the figure and table callouts are highlighted and instructs freelancers to not delete the highlighting — but that does not apply to me. (In this instance, it doesn’t apply for at least two reasons. First, the publisher doesn’t view me the same as it views other freelancers. Second, I spent some time explaining to the publisher how I rely on EditTools while editing to increase consistency and accuracy and sent a sample file showing the highlighting EditTools inserts in action. I then explained that I could either leave all the highlighting or remove all the highlighting, their choice. The publisher chose removal. What is important is that the publisher did not immediately dismiss me by telling me to do it the publisher’s way or find work elsewhere. Instead, the publisher held a business-to-business discussion with me and saw and understood the value in the way I work.)

My point is that I have spent many years cultivating the view that I am a business, not a freelancer. Too many “clients” (both actual and prospective) view freelance editors as something other than a “real” business. I used to hear clients refer to freelance editors as part-timers and as people for whom this is a “vacation income.” I don’t hear that anymore but the attitude hasn’t changed.

Colleagues have told me that they get calls from clients who see no reason why the freelancer can’t do a job on a rush basis over the weekend at the same price as they would do it leisurely during the business week. Even when they try to explain that they are a business and that they can’t just drop everything, especially without additional compensation, the message doesn’t get through.

The solution to the problem is complex, not simple, but it begins with how we present ourselves and how we insist on being perceived. To my mind, it begins — but does not end — with the invoice. When your invoice asks that checks be made payable to Jane Doe and includes your Social Security number, you are feeding the image that this is a casual secondary source of income for you. Yes, I know and you know, and maybe even the inhouse editor knows this isn’t true, but accounts payable and the company as a company doesn’t see it that way.

If the invoice instead gives a business name, a name that makes it clear that the check will require depositing into a business checking account, and an employer identification number rather than a Social Security number, that anonymous accounts payable clerk is likely to begin to view you differently.

I think it also matters how the invoice is presented. I know that when I receive an invoice from someone that is just a Word or Excel document I think “not very professional,” especially if everything is in a bland Times New Roman font. Your invoice should be a “designed” form into which you enter data, and printed in PDF if sent electronically (color is not needed and even best avoided; it is layout that matters). I understand that the information will be the same, but information is not what we are talking about — presentation is important in establishing credentials as a business.

We’ve had these types of discussion before. For years I noted that to be treated as a business you must act like a business. Years ago, that began with the way you answered your telephone, which either lent credence to your being a business or to your editing being “vacation income.” Today, when so little is done by telephone, it is important that the material that a client sees conveys the image of a business. The image begins, I think, with the most important item we send a client — the invoice for our work (perhaps equally important are your e-mail address and e-mail signature: not having your own business name domain sends the wrong message, which is a discussion for another day).

Remember that the people who make the decision on how fast you will be paid are not the people who evaluate your editing skill. They are far removed from the editing process and make decisions about you based on things they see that are unrelated to your editing skills. Consequently, you need to create a professional image on paper, beginning — but not ending — with your invoice.

January 21, 2013

The Business of Editing: New Year, New Books

It’s a new year and one of the first tasks I undertook as the calendar changed from 2012 to 2013 was to create the “books” I will use during 2013 to track how my business is doing. It doesn’t take me long to create the new books, less than an hour, but it is — aside from obtaining business to keep track of — the most important task I will undertake in the new year.

I know that there are many ways of keeping track of how well one’s business is doing. Over my 30 years as a freelancer, I have modified not only what information I keep, but how I keep it. About 10 years ago, I settled on my current system, which has been holding up well for me.

But before deciding how to keep the records, the decision as to what records to keep must be made. Once I decided on the information I needed, I then decided on how I was going to keep and use the information.

Basically, in addition to the usual chores of tracking income and expenses, there is certain information I want to know about each project I work on. Item #1 in the must-know column is how much time I am spending working on a project. Even the editors who subcontract to me are required to include on their invoices the number of hours worked.

Don’t misunderstand: I do not care if a subcontractor takes 10 hours or 30 hours to complete a project; I care that the effective hourly rate I am receiving from a client is sufficient to warrant continuing to do work for the client and I care that the subcontractor is making a reasonable effective hourly rate. (I discuss effective hourly rates in Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand.) As part of the effective hourly rate discussion, I also keep in mind my Rule of Three, which is a critical determinant of whether I keep or fire a client. (Note, however, that this rule does not apply to one-shot projects such as are often encountered when working directly with authors.)

Keeping track of hours and my effective hourly rate also serves as a clue as to whether I am working as efficiently as I can. The data give me information so that I can determine that over the course of time my effective hourly rate for a project should be at least $x; that is, the average of all my projects over that period. If that number is $75 an hour and I find that my most recent projects came in at $35 to $50 an hour, I know I need to do some investigating. So, accurate hours are important — even though I charge a per-page or project rate rather than an hourly rate, my thinking is geared toward the effective hourly rate (EHR) statistic.

Another bit of information that I want to know is how projects break down by individual publishers and within individual publishers, by inhouse editor. Am I getting a balanced workload from a publisher/editor or are the projects skewed in one direction? If skewed, are they skewed toward a low EHR or a high EHR?

Along with that information, I also want to know how problematic a project was. For example, was the project loaded with incomplete references that were almost uniformly in the wrong style and thus requiring an excessive amount of time to edit? Consequently, I also rate a completed project on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being easy, 5 being average or “balanced,” 10 being excessively difficult). If I find that a particular inhouse editor sends me only projects that rate 8 or 9, I think about whether I want to continue to accept projects from the editor.

There are a lot of factors that go into my rating a project, including how much information I did not receive about a project that I needed and how extensive the client’s style exceptions are (e.g., it raises the difficulty number if the client tells me to adhere to AMA 10th ed. style, but then sends me a list of 100 exceptions). This is the most subjective of the data I keep, but it is important because the last thing I want is to find that nearly all my projects are in the 8 to 10 range, but is without compensation that matches the difficulty level.

Of course, I also track page count, but do so for more than calculating the EHR: I want to track ratings along with manuscript length. This ratio is one reason I prefer very large projects (i.e., thousands of manuscript pages) — such projects allow me to get a rhythm going and make more effective use of editing tools such as EditTools. Page count also tells me how busy I am and whether or not I should consider doing more books in a particular series.

There are other little bits of information I track, but the above are the keys. I use both QuickBooks Pro and Microsoft Excel to maintain my records. QuickBooks Pro makes it easy to compare performance over time; for example, I can easily compare income and expense information for the first month of 2013 against the first month of 2012, 2011, and as far back as my first use of QuickBooks Pro. QuickBook Pros also allows me to check on sources of revenue in detail. And tracking accounts receivable is a breeze. (It also makes it easy to generate the reports I need for my accountant for tax filings.)

Excel lets me easily keep duplicate information about billing (I like to know that should one program fail for some reason, I have an alternative handy) and it allows me to track the bits of information I am interested in collecting and to manipulate them for analysis. QuickBooks Pro doesn’t require a resetting of the forms each year — it is a continuous history; Excel, however, does require me to reset the forms each year. I’m sure that a more advanced user of Excel wouldn’t have to reset the forms, but using Excel is not my job, editing is, and it is pretty easy to reset the forms for each new year. (I do retain, however, the prior years’ forms for a comparative history. I have Excel information going back to my first days as a freelancer.)

Now that we are at the beginning of a new year, you should think about what data you want to keep and how to keep it. The key is to make sure that you have enough data to make business-related decisions on facts and not on supposition. Keeping track of data is not time-consuming; it is necessary to maintaining a healthy and prosperous business.

January 18, 2013

Worth Reading: Why Online Book Discovery is Broken (and How to Fix It)

I came upon the following article thanks to a lead from The Digital Reader, one of the blogs I read regularly. The article is from paidContent; I think the article makes some interesting observations and raises some interesting questions. I encourage you to read the article and consider its implications for the future of books.

Why online book discovery is broken (and how to fix it)

Worth Noting: Building a Death Star

Filed under: Articles Worth Reading,Worth Noting — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: ,

Someone got the bright idea to petition the White House to build a Death Star. In order to evoke an official response from the government, the petition needs to be “signed” by a minimum of 25,000 Americans. As expected, this petition crossed that threshhold. And so we now have the government’s official response, which is well worth reading:

This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For!

January 16, 2013

On Today’s Bookshelf (XII)

I can’t keep away from books, which is probably why I retired from my life as a lawyer and became an editor. Once books and reading get hold of you, they never let go — somewhat like that alien being in the latest science fiction thriller. It has been quite a while since the last On Today’s Bookshelf (March 2012), so here are a few of the hundreds of books and ebooks I have acquired since then —

Hardcovers —

  • Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States by David Hackett Fischer
  • Princeps by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner
  • Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri
  • Henry Ford’s War on Jews by Victoria Saker Woeste
  • On Politics: A History of Political Thought by Alan Ryan (2 vols)
  • When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna
  • The Atheist’s Bible by Georges Minois
  • Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran by Habib Levi
  • The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal
eBooks
  • The Witness Quartet: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, Expert Witness, Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
  • Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard
  • The Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham
  • The Devil’s Cradle by Sylvia Nobel
  • Night Swim by Jessica Keener
  • Leaving Before It’s Over by Jean Reynolds Page
  • El Gavilon by Craig McDonald
  • Cooking the Books by Bonnie S. Calhoun
  • The Savior of Turk by Ron D. Smith
  • To Serve the High King by Fran LaPlaca
  • The Death of Kings by Marcus Pailing
  • Paradise Burning by Blair Bancroft
  • Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson
  • Cephrael’s Hand by Melissa McPhail
  • Song of Dragons: The Complete Trilogy by Daniel Arenson
  • The Phoenix Conspiracy by Richard Sanders
  • Circles of Light (6 vols) by E.M. Sinclair
  • Whispers of a Legend by Carrie James Haynes
  • The Other Worlds by M.L. Greye
  • Anca’s Story by Saffina Desforges
  • Blaze of Glory by Sheryl Nantus
  • Blue Murder by Emma Jameson

Many of the books and ebooks in the above lists I have yet to read. The lists are not recommendations, just a compilation of books and ebooks I have bought (or received as gifts) in the past few months. It is not a complete list. I’m sorry to write that my appetite for books grows much faster than my ability to read the books.

I looked at my to-be-read pile of books and discovered that I have more than 2,500 books waiting for my attention. (At the time of On Today’s Bookshelf (XI), my TBR was approaching 500 books, of which about 70 were hardcovers. I wish I could say I made a serious dent in that TBR pile before going on a shopping spree, but I didn’t.) Fortunately, most of the books are ebooks, so they take up little physical space.

One part of my problem as regards hardcover books is that most of the hardcover books in my TBR pile (and in the list above) lead me to buy other books. I will read an interesting point in a book, look at the note to the point, and decide I need to buy a copy of the book cited by the author in support of the interesting point.

A second part of my hardcover problem is that I have a long-term subscription to The New York Review of Books, each issue of which I faithfully read — both articles/reviews and the advertisements — which leads me to buy even more hardcover books.

Then I run into the problem of favorite authors coming out with new books, some of whom are very prolific, publishing a couple of new hardcovers every year.

At least when I retire, which is likely to be years from now, I won’t wonder what I’ll be doing. I’ll be attacking my ever-increasing TBR.

January 14, 2013

The Dictionary Conundrum: Thoughts About Meaning

I just finished reading The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, a book about the creation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the “Third”), which the author calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published.” He may be right because the dictionary was the first major American dictionary to become descriptive rather than prescriptive. (I am pleased to say that I received a hardcover version of the book as a holiday gift — as I had requested! The book is well worth buying and reading.)

(A tidbit of history: American Heritage Company [AH] wanted to buy the G&C Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries and the Third, and tried to use the controversy surrounding the Third to induce the Merriam shareholders to sell to American Heritage. When the shareholders continued to refuse to sell, AH decided to create its own dictionary from scratch. Thus, it would be fair to say that the Third was the progenitor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Also worth noting is that the Third is the progenitor of the usage notes that are a hallmark of the AH dictionaries, beginning with the first edition. The usage notes were devised as a response to what critics considered as a major failing of the Third.)

Reading the book and the controversy over what direction the Third should take in light of the overwhelming success of the encyclopedic Webster’s Second, brought me to pondering what a word means. I know that I and other editors rely on dictionaries for more than spelling. It is important to also know that a word with which we are not fully familiar is not only spelled correctly but used correctly — and that is the problem. How do we know it is used correctly?

A significant signpost of correct usage is a word’s meaning. Does the word really mean what the author implies it means via use and location within a sentence? Which leads to perhaps a more fundamental question: How many times have we looked up a word’s definition only to discover that we do not understand the definition any better than we understand the word we are checking on?

The problem is that to understand a word’s definition we must also agree as to the meaning of the words used to define the definition. Consider this definition in Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate (MW11) for tautology:

1 a. needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word; b. an instance of tautology; 2. a tautologous statement

What does that mean? How does repeating the word in the definition define the word? (I also love entries that simply say “see ____.”)

To understand what an apple is, we must have some common experience background and universal agreement that the word apple is a symbol for a particular object. If I call a round, red object a glyzzle, it is unlikely that you will know whether I mean a ball or an apple or something else because we have no universal understanding of glyzzle.

The same holds true of dictionary definitions. To say that a tautology is a tautologous statement is the same as saying the aliens are invading; that is, the definition is as foreign to an understanding as aliens invading are to our reality — unless we already understand what is meant by tautologus. But if we already understand what is meant by tautologous, why are we looking up tautology? The latter is incorporated in the former.

My point is that dictionaries can be helpful but are often unhelpful because they make a leap that is unsupported by the very reason for the dictionary’s existence: The dictionary assumes that the user already has an understanding of the terms being looked up and so the definitions can be circuitous. I grant that this is not true of all words and their definitions, but it is true of too many words and their definitions.

Why does this bother me? Because I can’t figure out how to explain a word’s meaning to someone who hasn’t had the same language experience as I have had. How do I define apple to someone who only knows glyzzle when I do not know if glyzzle and apple are synonymous? The immediate response is that we are talking two different languages — but are we?

Think about regionalisms. Words have different connotations, and thus different meanings, even though the same language is being used, when used by persons from different geographic regions of a country. To a New Englander, apple may well mean the Macintosh variety whereas to a Pacific Northwester apple may immediately conjure a red delicious apple. Yes, they are both apples, being varieties thereof, but the meaning of apple is significantly different — the shapes and taste of Macintosh and red delicious apples are significantly different, so much so that one cannot be readily substituted for the other. (In contrast, the Empire and Macintosh varieties are similar enough to be confused each with the other until bitten.)

Dictionaries are supposed to be revealers of meaning. The idea of a dictionary is not just spelling — because if that were its only function, it could be just a list of correctly spelled words — but also to arbitrate meaning so that every speaker of a language can look up a word and instantly know what the user of the word truly meant because both user and reader face the same definition and have the same understanding of meaning.

Yet as each book I edit goes by, I become increasingly concerned that dictionaries are not fulfilling this primary role (regardless of whether the dictionary’s focus is descriptive or prescriptive) because the definitions provided assume the same cultural foundation has been had by all users. In other words, the definitions are themselves so poorly worded that even two people who grew up in the same town and went to the same schools may not have the same understanding of a word’s meaning.

It is not that conformity is the goal or should be the goal; rather, it is that in the absence of conformity, communication suffers. And the goal of the editor-author-reader relationship is clear communication. Which brings me to the need for an editor to have multiple dictionaries. I have found that the quality of definitions differs on a word basis between dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) (AHD), for example, gives a much better definition of tautology than does MW11. Consequently, I make it a practice to look up a word in more than one dictionary, whether the dictionary be a general dictionary like MW11 and AHD or specialty dictionaries. (It is probably worth pointing out that the greatest offenders of circuitous definitions are specialty dictionaries. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd ed, and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 28th ed., are prime examples of dictionaries that define a word with another form of the word.) Like all professional editors, I like to be sure that I understand what a word means before deciding whether or not the author has used it correctly. I also want to be sure that it communicates correctly to the reader.

January 11, 2013

Humor Interlude: British Commentary on American Politics

The following video, although not directed at our increasingly dysfunctional Congress, might well have been so aimed. Anyway, it is short, worth enjoying, and captures the sentiment of a lot of Americans —

January 9, 2013

On Words: Politics and Alice-in-Wonderland Speak

I have repeatedly written that word choice and grammar are important because words chosen and how they are used (i.e., the grammar rules applied to the words) communicate a message, and both an author and an editor want that message to be communicated without misunderstanding by the reader. No matter how many times I have written that mantra, no one has come forward to tell me I am wrong; ergo, I must be right.

For months I have been pondering what word choices put in sentence form could prove me wrong. I thought about statements that protest gays and non-Christians because they will rot in hell for not having been saved. Afterall, how many of us have experienced and survived hell so that we can know with certainty (as opposed to with belief)  that hell exists and that the unsaved will rot there forever. (I have also wondered how anyone knows that one rots in hell as opposed to having endless, wonderful 24-hour parties that fulfill every fantasy we ever had before we went to hell. Alas, it is just a matter of belief rather than knowledge. But I digress.)

The answer to my pondering came from the mouth of Congressperson Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) who said, in justification of her vote against House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B, which would have made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers earning less than $1 million, “I am here to represent my constituents.” If this isn’t the biggest falsehood of the century, it certainly has to be the biggest falsehood of the year.

I don’t mean for Congressperson Blackburn to be singled out; rather, this statement, perhaps not so succinctly put by other politicians, when made by any politician to justify a vote that shoves us over the “fiscal cliff” is the biggest lie. The reason is that words, although they carry the firmness of a religious sermon demonizing sin, simply can mean neither what they are intended to mean nor the message they are intended to convey. If words could be sins, these words would rank near the top of sins and those who spoke them at the top of the sinners’ honor roll.

If nothing else, these words raise at least this matter of implausibility:

To be true, at least 50.1% of Representative Blackburn’s congressional district must be persons earning $1 million a year or more and against having their taxes raised.

Fewer than 1% of Americans have an annual income of $1 million or more. I suppose it is possible that most of America’s millionaires live in Tennessee in Representative Blackburn’s district, but if that is true, then how can any other Republican congressperson justify voting against making permanent the lower tax rates for the 99%-plus of Americans who do not earn $1 million a year? Someone (or many someones) are simply spreading the big lie!

The words “I am here to represent my constituents” raise other plausibility issues. It hasn’t been asked and answered, but I wonder who Representative Blackburn (and the other naysaying Republicans) really represents. Are the “people” who she claims to represent real or imaginary? I recognize that one of the things Americans are really great at is voting against their own interests and/or letting peripheral, minor issues sway them for or against a candidate, but the one thing no American I know has voted against is giving him-/herself a tax cut. So explain to me how the Republican naysayers’ vote against permanent tax cuts for 99% of Americans is something that “my constituents” want.

Perhaps the problem with the House of Representatives is that it has become a wealthy-person club. Many, if not most, of the “representatives of the people” would themselves — or their family — see their taxes rise and so are really representing themselves, not their constituents.

I’m one of those foolish Americans who thinks the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (starring Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic new senator) is what Congress should be about. Such idealism today on the part of a politician would simply be fodder for the lobby gristmill that is Washington politics.

Anyway, the point is that the words “I am here to represent my constituents” fail to fulfill the concept of words and grammar that I have been advocating for 30 years: they are closer to Humpty Dumpty’s view of words —

     “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.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

As the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse put it:

     The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Hmmm, perhaps being in Congress is like being at a Mad Hatter tea party. Certainly it is hard to differentiate a congressperson saying “I am here to represent my constituents” from an Alice-in-Wonderland conversation. I know that what I understand the words to mean clearly has no resemblance to what the speaker of the words intends the words to mean, as evidenced by the use of those words to justify voting against extending the tax cuts to 99% of Americans. It is evident that words spoken by Representative Blackburn — and mimicked by other congresspersons on a regular basis in multiple legislative areas — fail the test by which authors and editors live:

The words chosen clearly and precisely convey the author’s intended meaning so that there is no miscommunication between the author and the reader.

How refreshing it would be if that was the litmus test for political speech and failure of the test were grounds for recall.

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