Mar 072016
 

househeart

It is hard to edit one’s own work into its final version; you always need a second pair of eyes.

One can, though, review and recast one’s work using intelligent techniques. My former mentor NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen mentions two such techniques in a piece called “We temporarily lost our minds.” Some thoughts on SB Nation’s Daniel Holtzclaw debacle. (Holtzclaw is the “now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect.”)

 

The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.

There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.

Jay’s entire piece is well worth reading. It begins:

On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.

For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”

A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did:  “The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; ‘Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?’ told the story of how they destroyed his.”

Photo by Robert Basil

Dec 192015
 

Picture 1My new favourite website is NewsDiffs.org, which tracks and archives changes made to online news articles over time. Currently it follows nytimes.com, cnn.com, politico.com, washingtonpost.com, and bbc.co.uk; no Canadian publications yet, alas. Click on the image to see how a New York Times article from today has been revised.

This website can be a wonderful resource for high school and university students in writing classes.

Nov 232015
 

Lawyer and language genius Bryan Garner over at LawProse.org spells out, in typically lucid fashion, how to compose documents when you know they will be read on a computer screen rather than on paper.

1.Summarize. It’s important to learn the art of summarizing concretely. Avoid airy generalizations and instead make pithy, practical, vivid summaries. These should always appear at the fore. (By the way, a LawProse survey has demonstrated that 87% of headings that say “Executive Summary” are highly misleading: what follows is a true summary only 13% of the time.)
2.Give bearings. The architecture of your writing must be overt: you must use highly informative headings, preferably full sentences that amount to succinct propositions.
3.Cut the clutter. Clutter is more anathema than ever. With on-screen reading, it’s even easier to flick over pages with just a scan. Readers can skim page after page with just a swipe of the finger. So anything extraneous must be eliminated altogether or radically subordinated. Anything that sets the reader to skimming or skipping must go.
And as for editing:
You must always edit any serious document by hand, after printing it out. Sending an important document without that step is a serious mistake.
This is from Garner’s “LawProse Lesson #237.” The preceding 236 lessons are all worth perusing if you write or edit in a professional environment.
Oct 102015
 

You might be surprised how often this comes up for professional writers and editors.

Bryan Garner, the ace lawyer & editor & language authority, explains:

The more arcane or technical a loanword, the more likely it is to retain a foreign plural, diacritical marks, and italics. The more common it becomes, the more likely it is to lose them.

Corollary: If the loanword becomes widespread, it is most likely to lose italics first, then diacritical marks second, and a foreign plural last.

He provides helpful examples.

You should bookmark Garner’s delightful and erudite blog.

Jul 122015
 

In my classes, as well as in my career as a “communications guy,” I stress the requirement that all written pieces be read by one or several people prior to submission or publication. My friend, the scholar Jonathan Mayhew, has a preference regarding *when* his bright eyes are called upon:

There are two schools of thought about this. Mine is that you should only share work that is done, in ‘penultimate’ form. Giving someone a “rough draft” verges on the insulting. Moreover, it puts the reader in an awkward position. Should I point out rather obvious lapses that the writer could easily catch herself? Or should I assume that he really needs help with some basic issues? I have to guess at what needs commentary and what doesn’t. I don’t want to waste my time with issues that the writer already knows how to fix, with the possibility of insulting him, but I don’t know which is which. Does the writer have problems with organization, or did she give me something before she bothered to organize it? You should only share with me a smooth draft.

Aug 182013
 

I tell students and clients they shouldn’t take feedback on their work as personal critiques. “You are not the words on the paper on which your reports are printed.” This seems like a straight-forward point, but even seasoned editors tend to forget it on occasion, so I tend to make it a lot. “What we have in common is our concern for the usefulness of this prose here, this separate and individual bit of existence that is neither you nor me.” skatepark

The battery of revision tasks mentioned in the post below illustrates this latter point beautifully.

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The word “revision” comes from Latin word revisionem, meaning “to see again.” While an author and an editor might look at a single work of prose more than once, often the work itself needs to be seen, amended, and fixed by other stakeholders and document contributors as well (lawyers, accountants, scientists, project managers, executive assistants), folk who will look at this work of prose just once. What these latter individuals are doing is not, strictly speaking, “seeing again.”

So, perhaps we need a new word to explain what our written works really and more precisely need, over and above “revision.” I suggest heterovision – meaning “seen by others” (hetero coming from the Greek for “other” or “different”). This neologism conveys the collaborative aspect of editing better than the word “revision” does. (Analogous expressions would be heterodoxy and heteronym.)

In sum: While the work itself is looked at again (“revised”), the people who do the fixing, who proffer their critiques, are usually heterovising.

(Could our nifty neologism catch on? I am not betting on it. The prefix “hetero” seems rather charged in our language at the moment, connoting culturally normative and uniform values, I think, rather than what’s inclusive, alternative and welcoming. And editing’s nothing if not “welcoming.”)


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Photo of Leeside Skatepark, in Vancouver, by Bob Basil

Aug 172013
 

TheCanadianStyleSemicolons

Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) is the nation’s official publisher and our largest translation organization. It also publishes a wonderful online style guide and a collection of writing and editing tools that will handily assist students and teachers, authors and editors, and managers and professionals of any stripe. I dare say that creating this guide must have been a labour of love for a number of people. Every section into which I have dipped is utterly clear and helpful, and often illuminating as well.

From the website: The Canadian Style gives concise answers to questions concerning written English in the Canadian context. It covers such topics as the decimal point, abbreviations, capital letters, punctuation marks, hyphenation, spelling, frequently misused or confused words and Canadian geographical names. It also includes useful advice for drafting letters, memos, reports, indexes and bibliographies. In addition, The Canadian Style includes techniques for writing clearly and concisely, editing documents, and avoiding stereotyping in communications.”

The style guide is searchable by chapter as well as by index. (Everything you need to know about the semicolon is here.)

I will be recommending several sections of the style guide to my students this fall, in particular those on the topics of revision and plain language.

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Addendum: The PWGSC homepage also links you to the delightful “Language Portal of Canada.” There you will find all manner of language and writing resources. You will also be tempted by its huge collection of quizzes, one or two of which I have already found more humbling than I would have hoped.

Dec 172012
 

You cannot edit yourself any more than you can tickle yourself, and for the same reasons, Diane Middlebrook once told me. Better writers understand this.

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Here are the 9 C’s I use as an editor of other writers’ work:

1. Completeness

2. Conciseness

3. Clarity

4. Convincingness

5. Currency

6. Correctness

7. Consistency

8. Congruency

9. Courtesy

Almost all writers need a second set of eyes to assess and improve the first four qualities in a document they compose, because they typically already believe they’ve been concise, complete, clear, and convincing enough. To assess and improve the rest often requires that second set of eyes, too.

I believe that *courtesy* comprises all the other qualities, as the basis of successful communication, of fostering and maintaining relationships.

Thank you, Bob Crockett, for suggesting numbers 7 and 8 (though I’m embarrassed I hadn’t already placed “consistency” on the list).

[Note: My list overlaps a lot with this one but was put together independently. It’s not surprising its author and I reached similar conclusions, of course.]


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(photo by Bob Basil)