An American Editor

July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, America!

Today is America’s birthday — or maybe not. I guess it depends on what one considers the birthday — the day the Declaration of Independence was signed (well, not really signed; July 4, 1776 is the date Congress approved its wording and has become the accepted birth date; for more information, see its history here) or perhaps the day the Constitution was ratified (June 21, 1788). (Coincidentally, June 21 is also the summer solstice and my anniversary, making the date one of even greater import than you previously imagined :).) The truth is every country needs a birth date, and July 4 is America’s by consensus and tradition.

Interestingly, July 4 is the one day of the year when I can rely on both Republicans and Democrats being willing to bury the hatchet for 60 minutes to jointly wish long life to the grand experiment. Sadly, that burying really gets strained after 60 minutes. What is it that makes red and blue Americans think unpatriotic thoughts about those who disagree with them?

Today’s partisan fights are similar to those that were fought in America’s toddler years but with a significant — nay monumental — difference: In America’s toddler years, with all of the partisanship sniping that occurred, there was a magic word that everyone uttered and practiced: compromise. Today, compromise has a different meaning.

Today, compromise means dig in one’s heels and refuse to give any ground. Ideology means much more to partisans than does negotiation — and political parties are greatly more partisan than ever before. Also different are the people who are the soldiers in the partisan wars.

In America’s toddler years, it was understood, as part of the makeup of partisan politicians, that to gain a little, you give a little and, as you meet in the middle, you are really accomplishing what is ultimately the best for America as a whole. Such attitudes required intellects of genius (does anyone dispute the intellectual prowess of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Burr, Adams, and the congressmen who wrote and approved both the Declaration of Independence and, ultimately, the Constitution by which we are still governed?) and, much more importantly, flexible spines (character). Sadly, today’s congresspeople seem to lack both characteristics — there is no Jefferson or Franklin coming to the fore to lead us, and the spines are rigid; if they flex, they will snap, not bend.

Today, every advocacy group has its pledge to be signed and then rigidly adhered to — or else. And the “or else” is what is causing America the heartache and angst of its teen years. Every teenager (and every two- and three-year-old) goes through a stage that every parent dreads — the stage where they shut down their hearing and their flexibility and take firm, rigid stances, usually in defiance of their parents — the infamous “no syndrome” that for toddlers we call the Terrible Two’s. The “or else” is the threat of no fund raising and no votes for the political candidate who violates a signed pledge regardless of the radical interpretation given to the pledge’s meaning or the harm it may do the country.

And that is the change, the change that has defied the natural order of growth in America. Over the course of 235 years, America has created a class in what was supposed to be an egalitarian (or relatively egalitarian) society that believes it is entitled to harvest all that it can for personal gain at everyone else’s expense: the class of politicians who believe that their number one priority is not America, but perpetuating themselves in a powerful and highly financially rewarding job.

The difference between Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams of 1776 and Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Pelosi, and Reid of 2011 is that the class of 1776 did not consider themselves indispensable. They did not see their political role as a career path toward riches and power; rather, they saw themselves as guardians of a fragile newborn. Remember that many wanted to make Washington king of the new country, but he turned it down. And it was Washington who established the tradition of serving no more than two terms as president when he could have easily been elected to more.

Do you believe Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Pelosi, or Reid — or nearly any other member of Congress today — would imitate Washington if given the chance?

Yes, today is America’s 235th birthday and, for the most part, America has grown and matured. Alas, it has not grown into adulthood yet. Our political class continues to hold America back, continues to act irresponsibly, continues to make the ostrich look like an intellectual power, and continues to make many Americans wish for the reincarnation of the class of 1776. As I wish America a happy birthday, I hold open the door to the political class of 2011 to look back to that first class and think about emulating the America first approach of our founders.

My first birthday wish for America is that the political class of 2011 do some growing up and stop signing pledges that box them — and America — into a corner from which there is no easy escape. My second birthday wish is that the political class awaken to the notion that, by putting America as a whole first and their personal careers last, they will create a foundation from which America can continue to grow into greatness for another 235 years.

Happy 235th birthday, America! May you have hundreds more!

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

May 20, 2011

Worth Noting: So You Think You Are a Proofreader

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders wonders if you are up to a challenge. To dispel the myth that anyone can be a proofreader (or an editor), the Society has specially created a proofreading test. Give it a whirl and see how you do. The test can be found at the Society’s website. Just click the proofreading test link in the “So you think you can proofread?” box. Or you can click this link to go directly to the test. Don’t worry — the results are private and I won’t ask how you did. 🙂

May 11, 2011

On Words: The Power of Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

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

Yet, here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2011

What’s Wrong with this Sentence? The Editor’s Eye

I was reading some fiction recently, when I came across this sentence (and it is the complete sentence as it appeared in the story):

“As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial.”

The sentence brought me to a halt. What is wrong with the sentence? Nothing? Something? I’ll wait for your editorial eye to tell me the answer, and how foolish I was to be stopped by a perfectly good sentence.

(Waiting for time to pass and your editorial eye to grapple with the question and come to a resolution.)

Okay, enough time has passed. Either you are ready to tell me how foolish I am or how magnificent an editor I must be. Which is it?

Grammatically, the sentence is fine. It has everything one could hope for in a succinct bit of prose. The problem, if there is one, lies with Beelzebub and Belial. Beelzebub is a name for the Devil, as is Belial. To the average reader, the sentence reads, “As well ask [the Devil] to rein in [the Devil].” To distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial requires a sophistication that the average reader of the type of fiction in which the sentence is found is unlikely to have. To make the distinction requires some familiarity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work few of us have mastery of, and perhaps knowledge of Late Latin translations of Biblical Hebrew.

A confused reader is likely to turn to a handy dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in which the primary definition of Beelzebub is “The Devil; Satan” and that of Belial is “A personification of wickedness and ungodliness alluded to in the Bible.” It seems to me that the former includes the latter and the latter includes the former; that is, they are one and the same.

But when we get to Paradise Lost, we learn that although both Beelzebub and Belial are evil incarnate, each is a different fallen angel. Milton uses Beelzebub as the name for the fallen angel who is the Devil and Belial as the name of the fallen angel who represents impurity. With Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence becomes clear (or at least clearer); without Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence is muddy. How many of us have Paradise Lost in our hip pocket?

I ask the question because it raises an editorial question. If the book I was reading had been a book about etymology or language or Paradise Lost or any number of nonfiction topics, the sentence should pass without hesitation, assuming there was explanatory context for it or a reader would be expected to know the allusion. But the book was fiction, which means it was addressed to a different audience with a different expected level of literary sophistication. Consequently, the editorial question becomes: Should the editor have flagged this sentence, questioning whether it would be understood by the expected readership?

I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

I grant that with some of the new electronic reading devices learning the difference between Beelzebub and Belial is pretty easy. On my Sony 950, for example, I can double-tap on the names and the Oxford American Dictionary pops up with definitions/explanations. But as quick and easy as that is, doing so interrupts the flow of the story. Alternatively, I can just ignore the sentence and assume it has some deep meaning that is of little relevance to me or the story, but isn’t that accusing the author of wasting my time with irrelevancies? Is that the reputation an author wants to develop? Being a time-waster?

Presumably an author has chosen words carefully to convey a particular meaning. In fiction, an author wants that meaning conveyed immediately, with as little fuss on the reader’s part as is possible. A good author includes in his or her story only those words and phrases that are relevant for conveying the tale the author wants to tell. Consequently, in the fiction I was reading, the sentence, “As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial,” had great importance — it was important to convey in a compact way the difficulty of getting a character to do/not do something. Which means, does it not, that the sentence needs to be understandable so that the meaning is conveyed?

Which brings me back to my original question: What is wrong with this sentence in light of who the expected reader is? Is this the best way to convey the information to be conveyed to the reader? Will using two names that are often identified with the same “thing” be helpful or confusing? What should the professional editor do when faced with this type of sentence?

Although there is no definitive answer to any of the questions, how an editor answers them and what the editor does can speak volumes.

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

February 1, 2011

Do Words Matter?

I know this is an odd question to ask of editors, but the recent hullabaloo regarding the vituperative exchanges from the far right and the far left and their influence in the recent Tucson massacre brings this question to the fore yet again: Do words matter?

To listen to the pundits, the Tucson incident and statements by people like Sarah Palin have little to no connection. I suspect that there is no direct connection, but I’m not sure that one can so easily dismiss responsibility for incitement or for creating the conditions under which deranged minds would think such actions are expected and normal.

Let’s go back in time — not very far — to the summer of the debate over the health care reform bill. Sarah Palin declared that the health care bill would create “death panels.” Forgetting about the falsity of her charge, consider only the import of her description. The name was chosen because of the image it would send: of doctors deliberately withholding treatment from grandma in order to kill her and save taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, go back a few more years and consider how conservatives described the estate tax as the “death tax.” The implication was that every citizen’s estate and family would have to pay a tax at death, yet the reality was (and is) that it would apply only to multimillionaire estates or less than 3% of U.S. citizens.

And consider what we do as editors and authors. Do we not evaluate words and try to choose words that convey the message we want to send clearly and directly? Do we not try to minimize obfuscation? Isn’t the difference between a great author and all other authors how the author has used words to craft a “spell” over the reader?

If words do not matter, then why mischaracterize end-of-life options as death panels intended to kill grandma or estate taxes as death taxes applicable to all Americans rather than to the wealthiest few? What these slogans demonstrate — and demonstrate forcefully — is that words do matter. That the choice of words has consequences, both intended and unintended.

Which brings us to the question of responsibility. Should we not hold those who utter the words responsible for the consequences of their words, even if the consequence was unintended? I’m not talking about criminal-law-type responsibility; I’m talking about a moral responsibility. I don’t doubt that Sarah Palin didn’t intend for someone to murder a congressperson when she put up the map with crosshairs, but should she not have thought about the people with access to guns who would look at that as an invitation to justifiable murder?

If words do not matter, then why is the right-wing so upset with being charged with complicity in the Tucson shooting as a result of their incendiary invective? The answer, of course, is that words do matter, just as tone matters, and the one thing that every American can say without contradiction is that the political discourse in the United States has become a bitter lake of violent, hateful words.

Every time I read or hear someone say we need to return to our original founders for guidance, to original intent, I think “nice words that are being spouted by someone who doesn’t understand what they mean.” Our original founders founded the United States by political compromise, not by diktat. Yet those who seek to implement original intent pronounce that our founders were united in single beliefs.

We need look no further than the question of whether we are a Christian nation. Note that none of the founding documents call us a Christian nation or refer to Christianity. In fact, the original constitution was barely passed and was passed only after it was agreed that the first 10 amendments would be added, of which the first amendment talks of religious freedom, not of Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not Christians as current people would have us believe. Franklin was an atheist, Thomas Paine was an atheist, Alexander Hamilton was an atheist, Jefferson and Washington were deists — not one of these founders insisted on America being a Christian nation.

So does it matter that the constitution doesn’t call us a Christian nation? Yes, it does matter, because words do matter. The choice of words that our founding fathers made had consequences — then and now. John Hancock made it clear that he endorsed the word choices — and the consequences that flowed therefrom — made in the Declaration of Independence by boldly signing his name. His is the most legible of all signatures. Hancock understood that by signing the Declaration it was tantamount to a declaration of war and he stood by his word choice.

Yet politicians of all stripes today, but even more so on the right than on the left, dismiss responsibility for their word choices and the consequences that follow. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility. It sure would be nice if those who wish to lead us today could show the leadership skills of our founders, rediscovering both the art of compromise that enabled the United States of America to become a single, independent nation, and the willingness to take responsibility for their words and actions. Alas, I fear that today’s “leaders” really have no vision grander or broader than their own wealth and well being and that the lessons they should have learned from our founding fathers will be left on the ashes of Tucson.

January 26, 2011

On Words: Zombie

It has been a while since I wrote about the etymology of a word, so I thought I’d try to turn back to the roots of this blog, at least for this post.

In recent years, there have been a spate of books and movies involving zombies. Have you ever given thought to the origins of the word?

Zombie (also zombi) is of early 19th century West African origin, deriving from nzambi, the Bantu name for a West African python god thought to raise the dead, and zumbi, a good-luck fetish (Kikongo). In voodoo, zombie refers to the snake deity or to a supernatural force that occasionally reanimates corpses.

Zombie also refers to the belief that voodoo magicians have the power to revive corpses and use them as robot-like slaves. It is speculated that real zombies may have been created from the living by the use of drugs, which led to the belief of rising from the dead.

A derivative of zombie is the U.S. slang phrase zombie food. This phrase means either that eating the particular food will make one a zombie or that little intelligence is required to prepare the food (e.g., opening a jar or microwaving a frozen dinner). Needless to say, it is also an observation about the person willing to eat such food.

 The figurative use meaning “dull, slow-witted person” originated in the 1930s. The transferred sense of a stupefied, stupid, or lethargic person first surfaced in American English in 1946. The idea of a zombie being a brain-eating monster arose with Hollywood and can be traced to Bela Lugosi and the 1932 movie White Zombie. Today, it has evolved into an alcohol drink, so one can get zombied.

December 16, 2010

A Musical Video: Learning Grammar the Easy Way

Sometimes the best way to learn grammar is to use senses other than our eyes. Consider the following videos —

for conjunctions:

for interjections:

for adjectives:

for predicates:

and for prepositions:

It would have been much easier to learn grammar had teaching videos like these been available when I was in grade school. Alas, I had to learn grammar the hard way.

Sometimes I get a manuscript that is so grammatically bad that I get tempted to embed a video like those above that gets the point across without my having to come right out and say, “Your manuscript is an insult to English!” Of course, diplomacy wins out and I neither exclaim my exclamation nor embed a video hint.

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