An American Editor

February 12, 2014

To Serial or Not to Serial?

One thing I have noticed over the years is that what was once controversial in editing comes back to be controversial again. Like the cycle of life, editorial controversies are never put to permanent rest.

The current resurrected argument is whether or not to use serial commas.

My first thought was “what difference does it make whether serial or nonserial rules the manuscript?” My second thought was “what is the primary task of an editor and how does that task mix with the to-serial-or-not-to-serial question?”

We probably should begin with composition, because that is where this controversy has its origins. The more characters there are in a manuscript, the longer the manuscript. If “unnecessary” characters can be omitted, space will be saved and the cost of production will decline. It might not matter greatly if only one copy is being published, but multiply the savings over thousands of copies and over many manuscripts, and the savings become significant. Welcome to the age of bean counting.

(This attempt to save money is also at the foundation for the notion that there is no space on either side of a dash. But I digress….)

What is the primary reason to have a manuscript edited? I see the primary purpose as clear communication. What is the primary purpose of punctuation? To afford the reader clues as to the message the author intends to convey.

Consider this phrase: pregnant women and children. A professional editor would not let such a phrase stand. Why? Because it is not clear whether both the women and the children are pregnant or just the women. Of course, many arguments can be made as to how pregnant does not modify children, but there only needs to be one argument that it does to make the phrase questionable.

Similarly, as Lynne Truss famously pointed out, a professional editor would not let the phrase “eats shoots and leaves” stand without querying it. Whereas in the “pregnant women and children” instance rewording for clarification is the appropriate path, in the “eats shoots and leaves” conundrum, the correct path is punctuation.

Yet how much punctuation? If the intended meaning is that the actor “eats” some food, then “shoots” another actor and “leaves ” the premises, then serial commas are needed: eats, shoots, and leaves. With the serial commas, there is no mistaking the meaning. But those who oppose serialization would prefer a single comma: eats, shoots and leaves.

How clear is the single comma version? Not at all. There are two vibrant possibilities: the actor “eats” and what the actor is eating is “shoots and leaves”; the actor “eats,” then “shoots” another actor and “leaves” the premises. How is the reader to know which is meant?

Clearly there are a multitude of ways to avoid this situation (e.g., “eats bamboo shoots and leaves”) but the question under consideration is serialization. The premise of the antiserialists is that excessive punctuation interferes with the reading flow, thus minimizing the amount of punctuation enhances the reading experience. Proserialists, on the other hand, see punctuation as necessary to ensure understanding and thus as an enhancer of reading flow because the reader does not have constantly stop and attempt to discern what the author intended.

I admit that I fall in the proserialist camp. I see the role of punctuation as the same as highway signage — I need enough of it so that I do not need to stop in the middle of the highway to think about whether to turn right or left.

Editing is about comprehension, not about saving space. Editing is intended to laser focus on author meaning, not on fulfilling the latest lexical fashion. Serial commas rarely mislead a reader, unlike absence of a serial comma. So what harm comes about by serializing? A professional editor’s goal is to make the reading experience so smooth that the reader absorbs the author’s message without consciously realizing she is doing so.

Sufficient punctuation is one of the tools that brings this about. Insufficient punctuation requires a reader to either stop and attempt to decipher the author’s meaning or to gloss over the author’s point in hopes that either the point was not critical or that it will become clear subsequently. But having a reader battle with insufficient punctuation is not in either the author’s or the reader’s interest.

In the case of “eats, shoots and leaves,” the reader either inadvertently draws the correct conclusion or stops to ponder what is meant. What is the negative to the serial usage, assuming the intended meaning is “eats, shoots, and leaves?” There is none and there rarely is a problem using the serial comma (assuming its use conveys the correct meaning). So why have a rule that insists that the serial comma be avoided whenever possible? Why not make the rule always use the serial comma?

I am convinced that the rationale for the avoidance rule has nothing to do with communication, understanding, readability, or any of the other metrics that a professional editor should be concerned with when editing. I believe that it is an accountant’s rule: Omitting the “excess” punctuation lowers the financial outlay for a manuscript. The accountant’s rule does not address any of the metrics that might cause a manuscript to succeed or fail in the marketplace; instead, it laser focuses on cost.

Yet it strikes me that the cost of misunderstanding, of missing the author’s message is far greater than the financial cost of serializing. If readers have to struggle to understand an author, reviews and recommendations are likely to be negative and thus decrease sales. Ease of reading and understanding cannot be divorced from the decision to serialize or not serialize. The professional editor does not work with absolute rules. For the professional editor, all rules bow to the one rule regarding comprehension, and all rules (except that of comprehension) are flexible.

The difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor lies in the rigidity with which the editor applies the “rules” laid out by style manuals and third parties. The more professional the editor, the more the editor determines for herself what the appropriate rules are that govern a particular project, even if it means explaining to a client why a client’s “rule” is being ignored.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 1, 2010

Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy

I know that readers of this blog probably assign me to the doomsayer caste when it comes to literacy based on my previous posts, but I am concerned about the state of our educational system and our decline from the world’s educational leader to a pack follower whose standing keeps receding. Today, I want to consider one possible solution to the problem I see. I want to suggest a change in how education works in America.

Everything good or bad about education boils down to the classroom. A good teacher can inspire and can educate; a poor teacher simply takes up space. The key is to make better use of good teachers and if you can’t rid the school of poor teachers, improve them. We need to remember that students spend more awake time in school, under the care of educators, and doing school activities and homework than with any other care provider or doing non-school-related activities/work.

This puzzle has perplexed greater minds than mine and perhaps I have a simplistic perspective, but I toss out these ideas as discussion starting points.

My first suggestion is to do away with “education” degrees and require every teacher to obtain advanced degrees (notice the multiple) in their specialty subject area. It is not that these advanced degrees shouldn’t include the “how to teach” aspects, it is that the emphasis should be on subject matter and not on administrative matter.

Schools should provide incentives for this, including the basic incentive of keeping one’s job. And, because time is limited, school schedules should be devised to free teachers for part of the day to pursue these degrees, not force them to do it only after school hours and on weekends. Schools also should be responsible for up to 75% of the cost of getting these advanced degrees, but under no circumstance 100%. Just as in the private sector, teachers should have some responsibility for doing what is necessary to keep and maintain their job — as long as they know about the requirement before accepting the employment.

Second, there must be a core group of literacy-related courses that every student must take and do well in as part of graduation requirements. Even students who prefer to take a vocational path rather than a college preparatory path. There is no reason why every person, regardless of his or her ultimate career choice, should not be equally literate, certainly at least through the middle school years, if not through the whole primary and secondary education career.

Third, I suggest a change to the current process where students have teacher A for kindergarten, B for first grade, C for second grade, and so on. Instead, we should divide the curriculum into broad fields — say Language Arts, History, Science, and Foreign Language — and we should create teaching teams of educators who have advanced degrees in these specialty areas. In this case, a team of 4 teachers, and this team will be responsible for student education from kindergarten through fifth/sixth grade. After fifth/sixth grade a new team would take over for the middle school years, and perhaps a third team for the high school years of tenth through twelfth grades, although we could consider returning to the current rotation system for these last years.

Teacher pay, bonuses, and performance evaluations would be team based. This would give each team member an incentive to help poorer-skilled members improve or move them out of the system. It would also enable scheduling to occur that frees a team member to pursue advanced degrees in his/her specialty. And it would encourage — if not require — team members to better integrate subject matter teaching among the various disciplines.

Consider a class on Latin American history. The Language Arts teacher could encourage students to read Simon Bolivar’s biography and discuss how his circumstances shaped his views; the Foreign Language teacher could introduce Bolivar’s writings and the writing of his contemporaries, including local newspaper accounts of daily life, in Spanish, and have the student’s read them to understand what it was like to have lived in those times; the History teacher could discuss the surrounding events and Bolivar’s place in them, the history of his campaigns as well as the history of the places where he fought and the people he inspired; and the Science teacher could discuss how technological events of the day helped or hindered Bolivar, what effect they may have had on his strategies — or the strategies of any similarly situated person, as well as on those of Bolivar’s opponents.

Or how about the Lunar Society of the 18th century. How many students (or teachers, for that matter) are familiar with either the Society or the effects it had on our knowledge. Members included, among others, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood; and it was multinational, not limited to the England. For Language Arts and History, students could read and discuss The Lunar Men: Five Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer Uglow; for Science, students could discuss how Priestly “discovered” oxygen and the scientific method of the time, as well as how the group influenced Erasmus Darwin and whether that subsequently filtered down to Charles Darwin; Foreign Language could discuss the biological classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus and its influence on the group.

If the teachers were very creative, they could each portray a character from a different era of history from their particular specialties and have a roundtable discussion of how they viewed a seismic historical event, such as the French Revolution: What effect did it have on language? Science? History? The arts?

OK, perhaps my examples are not a great ones, but you get the idea. Students would be taught more than isolated events because there would need to be coordination among the specialties. Students would learn that disciplines are interconnected and interrelated — they do not stand in isolation. Students would learn that there are many paths to understanding a problem and to solving it. Such understanding should lead to better comprehension and, hopefully, inspire curiosity. And the better the students do, the better the team does in its evaluation.

This team approach, because it doesn’t rely on compartmentalization of subject matter, will bring a connectedness to the process of education that is sorely lacking today. I believe that as students see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, they will strive to become more literate — they will learn the necessary analytical skills that form the core of literacy and comprehension.

Subjects, like teachers, are, today, too compartmentalized. And it is too difficult to coordinate lessons especially as classrooms shift hourly. By making teachers work as teams with a set group of students for whom they are responsible not just for an hour, a day, a week but for multiple years, schools will bring a sense of stability to student and teacher lives. Students won’t have to deal with the anxieties of changing teachers and classrooms and trying to shift mental gears as the subject matter changes. Teachers will learn about their students and will be able to focus on what is necessary to improve their comprehension skills, as well as provide any necessary individual aid.

These ideas may not be panaceas for all that ails education, and perhaps these ideas won’t work at all, but unless fundamental changes are made to what and how we teach our students and how they learn, the declining trend in comprehension and literacy will only be extended, not reversed.

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

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