May 082014
 
Tina Roh, Stanford University Computer Science Student

Tina Roh, Stanford University Computer Science Student

I had the honour of teaching students (as well as mentoring new instructors) in Stanford University’s Writing and Rhetoric program back in the day. Students from every corner of the university – from biology and engineering to sociology and English – take intensive workshops devoted to real-world research and report-writing in fields of their own interest. Tina Roh, pictured above, studied “The Rhetoric of Gaming” and composed her award-winning final paper on “software bugs in video games,” arguing that these bugs are “not necessarily harmful to games.” In preparing her paper she discovered “an entire community of gamers surrounding glitches” (I am not surprised!). She also received lots of feedback on her drafts from her friends, revising her work over and over to get it exactly right.

The video is part of Stanford’s “Writing Matters: Student Edition” series. Any teacher who wants to motivate students otherwise unsure about the utility of a writing course should play some of these videos in class. They make a solid, even inspiring case.

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

Mar 122013
 

In the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, I got a job doing Investor Relations for a public company drafting news releases, presentations, brochures, and the like. I would put drafts of these items together and present them to management and staff. During these meetings one sedulous and normally silent colleague would typically tear my work to pieces: “What about that, and this. And you forgot that,” etc. I did my best to address all these concerns and fill in the lacunae and maintain my professional demeanor.

One afternoon during such a meeting the company President evidently guessed that this regular show was beginning to make my smiling responses seem a tad bit forced, and he asked my colleague, “Where were you when the page was blank?” (I believed at the time that this utterly marvelous sentence was original with my client. It wasn’t, alas.)

While this remark later became my unofficial job description on basil.CA — “Essentially what I do is stop pages from being blank” — it completely silenced our sedulous colleague forever after, sometimes to the detriment of our company’s IR activities.

I tell my students that colleagues and teachers who edit their work have the same goals they do: To make prose on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) more correct, concise, complete, convincing, and current. “It’s about the paper, not you. Don’t take it personally. And certainly never feel hurt by this process.”

Addendum: The company President mentioned above needed no more than three or four elliptical sentences by me on a draft news release to compose a detailed, two-page revision himself. But he was helpless before the blank page. My mentor at Prometheus Books Inc., Doris Doyle, was the same way. Each could compose blemishless prose themselves, by fixing the work of others. My sometimes lame drafts served as “generative devices” to get their own prose going.

“Generative Devices,” wrote my Stanford professor Gil Sorrentino, “are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the ‘laws’ set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of ‘inspiration,’ and its idiot brother, ‘writer’s block.'”

I rather like knowing that I was the “preconceived limitation” that got my colleagues’ writing engines humming.

typing


Photo by Miles Basil.

Jan 312013
 

When interviewing candidates for teaching positions at my university, I often ask them how they provide and receive feedback in the workplace, to get a quick, vivid picture of their character and initiative. When you give clear and useful feedback to your colleagues, you make them better. When you receive feedback gratefully and attentively, you make *you* better.

One applicant told my Search Committee that when she got criticism at work she would run down to a nearby park and throw rocks at the geese. We wished her well.


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(photo by Bob Basil)