The Copyeditor’s Code

Proust MS

Marcel Proust, original ms. “Du côté de chez Swann,” public domain

The Copyediting blog recently posted a graphic based on editor Erin Brenner’s earlier article, “The Typographic Oath” (with a nod to Stan Carey for the borrowed title). The original piece was the final installment in a three-part series. The text, which is laid out on a background of weathered parchment, constitutes the copyeditor’s ten commandments. Brenner notes that she’s riffing on a couple of similar lists as well as feedback sparked by her series, and readily acknowledges that the collection is not complete (“It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all,” she jibes).

Now I realize that her title is offered with tongue planted firmly in cheek; still, I’m a little uncomfortable calling these collective tenets an “oath.” As copyeditors, we’re all about le mot juste, and here’s how M-W 11 defines “oath”:

1 a (1) : a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says (2) : a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.

Pretty heavy stuff. I prefer the more secular term “code,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “a set of ideas or rules about how to behave”—as in an “ethical code” or the “Digital Warrior-Poet’s Code.” I view it as a kind of philosophical framework that informs my approach to the craft.

So with a tip of the editor’s visor to Ms. Brenner and a frank admission that none of the following is original by any means, I offer you the current manifestation of my Copyeditor’s Code.

  • Do no harm. The copyeditor’s Golden Rule. Minimize your footprint and like a conscientious camper, leave no trace (er, other than those messy Tracked Changes, that is). Apply textual triage first; only resort to major surgery where absolutely necessary to save the patient. You may find it helpful to chant this mantra: “It’s not my book, it’s not my book, it’s not my book…”
  • Seek clarity. This, my friends, is the storyteller’s Holy Grail.
  • Stet! Let it stand. The client wields the veto power and reserves the right to ignore your changes. This is his prerogative, so long as the check’s good. If seeing your lovely work undone causes you grief, see mantra above.
  • Be as a green twig, Grasshopper. Breathe. Stay flexible, nimble, and intellectually open. After all, there’s an outside chance that the client who stetted your well-intended edit just might be right.
  • Be an advocate and an ally. Assure your client that you are partners in the pursuit of excellence. The copyeditor bears the dual responsibility of being the reader’s advocate and the writer’s best friend.
  • Don’t condescend. This is a corollary to the point above. Always be professional and collegial. Treat your client as you would like to be treated: be respectful, be diplomatic, be empathetic. Never chivvy, deride, or browbeat. Do your best to instruct and inspire through the medium of editing. Share the love.
  • Collaborate with your client in the service of the reader. Don’t forget for a New York second that the most important member of the storytelling triumvirate is the reader. After all, where would we be without engaged and delighted readers? A truly great editor is a shapeshifter, capable of projecting himself into the psyche of the reader and kenning exactly what will effect that magical connection we so highly prize.
  • Don’t be a prescriptivist. Rule #1: There are no rules. There are only conventions, shibboleths, personal preferences, and pet peeves. Language is perpetually evolving, and you must strive to improve your understanding of the currently accepted guidelines regarding grammar, usage, and style. Study, rinse, repeat. Read good writing—lots of it. Then, with supreme confidence in your mastery of the conventions, acknowledge the universal truth that they are transitory and may be safely ignored to achieve the desired ends of clarity and consistency. Copyediting is a subjective craft; rather than being the pedantic determination of right or wrong, editing is often a choice between good, better, or best. This is the art of editing. This is what distinguishes great editors from good ones. When you can manage this feat without altering the author’s “voice,” you are serving your client well. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Yes, it is kinda Zen…
  • Think. Have a sensible, justifiable reason for every change you make—and verify, verify, verify!
  • Trust your editorial intuition. You’ve invested a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears in fine-tuning it, so listen to your inner editor. If something just doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.
  • Fear not the large vocabulary. There is a time for concision, and a time for indulging in luxurious language (turn, turn, turn). Edit with your heart as well as your head. As a copyeditor, you must be vigilant and fight the Strunk & White curse. Don’t be afraid to allow a difficult word to remain unscathed—even if it has several syllables. Never disrespect your reader by underestimating her intellect. Elegant prose is an endangered species; be a conservationist of succulent verbiage.
  • Strive for efficiency. Time is money. Utilize every trick in the book to streamline your editorial process and workflow, but never let technology trump your education, experience, and common sense.
  • When in doubt, query. Never hesitate to seek clarification—diplomatically, of course.
  • The style sheet is your friend. Don’t depend upon memory, write it down. Aim for consistency. A good style sheet will save your sanity. Tedious? Yes. Indispensable? Absolutely.
  • Never promise “perfect.” As a mere mortal, you will never achieve perfection, and promising your client otherwise can only lead to dark places (see Muphry’s Law). Ernest Hemingway sagely counseled, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master” (and Papa knew from dark places). Whether he was referring to writing or life matters not; they are one and the same.

Do you keep a list of editorial do’s and don’ts? Please share! What would you add or delete?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

Nothing But A Breeze

Jesse Winchester, "Nothing But a Breeze"One day I’ll be old gray grandpa
All the pretty girls will call me “sir,”
Now, where they’re asking me how things are
Soon they’ll ask me how things were
Well, I don’t mind being an old gray grandpa
If you’ll be my gray grandma
But I suggest we go have our milk and cookies
In the shade of the old paw-paw

~ Jesse Winchester

 

 

What’s that? You never heard of Jesse Winchester? Here’s what Bob Dylan had to say about him: “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.” Winchester’s songs bore a whimsical elegance and an occasional touch of melancholy; his tunes were admired and covered by a wide variety of artists, from the Everly Brothers to Elvis Costello (whom he actually brought to tears)—and his soothing southern drawl served him well as a solo artist and front man for Jesse Winchester and the Rhythm Aces (the group went on to become the Amazing Rhythm Aces). Winchester was a pioneer of what we now call “roots music,” an eclectic and distinctly American genre.

Jesse was a gentle soul, a man of peaceful convictions who opted to emigrate to Canada when he received his draft notice in 1967. Thankfully, he was allowed back into the U.S. in 1977 when President Carter offered amnesty to those who had evaded the draft during the Vietnam conflict. Winchester relocated permanently to Virginia in 2002.

Jesse Winchester contracted esophageal cancer in 2011 and thought he’d whipped it, but it came back to claim him. He  passed away at his home in my own humble burg of Charlottesville as peacefully as he had lived. I will miss him. I still remember reviewing his “Nothing But A Breeze” lp for Cash Box magazine back in ’77—I loved it. To this day, whenever I get a little stressed out, I listen to Jesse teasingly reminding me that “it ain’t nothing but a breeze” and I smile and feel better. Thanks for the memories, Jesse.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Creative Nonfiction: The True Story of a Lone Literary Genre that Rescued Academic Authors from Obscurity, Enlightened the Masses, and Saved the World.

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 - Rijksmuseum

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 (Rijksmuseum)

In the orthodox liberal arts community, tenure-track professors are expected to teach courses while burnishing their scholarly bona fides through research and publishing efforts—the familiar “publish or perish” model. The soporific tomes churned out under this rubric are often arcane, heavily footnoted monographs relegated to “assigned reading” status; no one expects them to be bestsellers and they aren’t. With the legitimacy of liberal arts curricula being challenged daily and university presses being warned that they’ll have to start turning a profit or else, it seems obvious that the self-serving approach of scholarship for its own sake must be reconsidered.

Ironically, academic publishing could be its own salvation.

Rather than accepting an outdated publishing model as a necessary evil, scholars are increasingly choosing to write for a broader audience—the general public. They are exploring the potentially lucrative realm of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (a.k.a. literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of storytelling that presents actual events in a narrative style using techniques commonly applied to fiction writing (think: In Cold Blood, Angela’s Ashes, and A Midwife’s Tale). From an academic perspective, producing books that people actually enjoy reading yields a cascading torrent of positive outcomes: it helps educators build name recognition and strengthen their personal “brand” (and become better communicators in the process), brings prestige and a much-needed revenue stream to beleaguered university presses, and of course, makes knowledge more accessible to all, rather than rationing it out to the privileged few who can afford to shell out the inflated prices of textbooks and specialist journals. Further, successfully tapping the mainstream market makes a strong argument in favor of building and maintaining robust humanities and social sciences programs in our colleges and universities.

University press acquisition editors who once turned up their noses at such plebian literary efforts are beginning to see the potential of publishing titles that hold the promise of reaching a huge market (including digital versions for e-readers and tablets). The canny implementation of social media as an effective marketing tool also alters the calculus. Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing literary market in mainstream publishing, having eclipsed literary fiction. Do I have your attention now?

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I must stress that for all these benefits to materialize, scholar-authors have to craft compelling stories that resonate with readers beyond the confines of the classroom, the peer-reviewed journal, and the professional conference.

In a New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof cited Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, in explaining the institutional bias against popular nonfiction writing: “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” McCants said. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Writing for a general audience

In recent years, a handful of academics have bucked the establishment with varying degrees of success. Stephen Ambrose began publishing this type of crossover history in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until his 1992 publication of Band of Brothers that he managed to crack the bestseller lists. John Keegan, a military historian of impeccable academic credentials also penned gritty profiles of war and warriors that found an appreciative audience in the public sphere; his Face of Battle is considered a classic of the genre. Fellow history professor Michael Howard annointed Keegan  “at once the most readable and the most original of living historians.”

Proving that creative nonfiction techniques can breathe new life into a crowded field of historiography, Allen Guelzo recently added Gettysburg: The Last Invasion to the sprawling list of over 6,000 extant titles on the subject. His study, which bagged an impressive array of awards, received glowing reviews: Military History Quarterly called it “a stylish, comprehensive, and entertaining narrative.”

Ultimately, it took someone from outside the academy—a mere journalist—to make academicians really sit up and take notice. Having convinced a small publishing house to take on her lean work of creative nonfiction, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, veteran science writer Dava Sobel finally let the genie out of the bottle.

Sobel recounted a dramatic human-interest tale in a terse but accessible journalistic style that would make Hemingway proud. Liberated from academic jargon and the intrusion of hundreds of footnotes and references, Longitude proved to be a breath of fresh air for readers interested in the history of science but unwilling to wade into a dry, academic doorstop.

Much to the chagrin (and utter indignation) of the scientific community, Sobel’s little book sold like hotcakes. In fact, the thin volume was snatched up by Penguin and later optioned for a four-part docudrama starring Jeremy Irons. Could a conventional historical monograph have made such a splash?

The ‘Sobel Effect’

The wild success of this unintimidating read drove academicians mad. One wrote a scathing journal article sarcastically titled, “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The amazing tale of how multitudes of popular writers pinched the best stories in the history of science and became rich and famous while historians languished in accustomed poverty and obscurity, and how this transformed the world. A reflection on a publishing phenomenon.” I’d provide a link, but of course the article was published in an exclusive subscription-only peer-reviewed professional journal of which I am not worthy. Just as “Remember the Alamo!” morphed from being a Mexican army taunt into a highly effective Anglo-republican battle cry, “The Sobel Effect” was soon being uttered by publishers to characterize a very desirable attribute indeed.

One academic science blog reflected, “It is not so much the scientists themselves as the science historians who object to this sort of writing. They are left wondering: why it is that they have spent their entire career in science and can barely sell one thousand copies of their book, while Sobel and company (who are mainly journalists and authors) can make the best seller list? Jealousy?”

Some academics dismiss such “simplistic” renderings of complex themes, arguing that serious scholarship cannot be presented to the lay public in a manner that does not compromise the underlying facts. Apparently, über-popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t get the memo.

Over the past decade, a number of historians have established themselves as superstars of the creative nonfiction medium—David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Civil War historian James McPherson, to name a few.

How to do it

In the wake of Dava Sobel’s enormous success, hopeful writers have struggled to replicate the phenomenon by attempting to reduce it to a formula (replete with impossibly long subtitles) with predictable results. There is no template for successfully mining this genre; it’s just so durned difficult to capture lightning in a bottle. Producing exceptional creative nonfiction calls for the scholar’s research chops and the narrative flair of the professional storyteller. Success requires a good deal of talent, deep subject knowledge, expository skill, and a crackerjack editor. In sum, it comes down to a good (true) story, well told.

Writing really meaty, commercially viable creative nonfiction has much in common with crafting a bestselling novel. Sadly, nonfiction writers—many of whom are recovering academics—are driving themselves to distraction trying to wrestle their thesis, dissertation, or pet research subject into an engaging narrative, because despite years of formal education, they were never taught to tell a good story.

Tips to get you started

When writing creative nonfiction, you must fight the urge to descend into “Great Man” hagiography, dumb-down the facts, or attempt to add color to the story when the stark reality is more compelling than the gilded lily could ever be.

Key traits of the creative nonfiction genre include

  • Appropriate POV—Exercise your creativity: the author can be an objective observer, a subjective witness, or even a participant in the action. Creative nonfiction is an ideal vehicle for memoir or relating the story of an “invisible” or disenfranchised person or group.
  • Narrative style—Creative nonfiction lends itself to clear, simple, descriptive language mercifully bereft of academic jargon and erudition. The prose serves the story, rather than being an impediment to it.
  • Character development, motivation, and pacing are key elements of creative nonfiction writing. This is where the storyteller’s art comes into play.
  • Flexibility of form—No need to follow a prescriptive structural model; rather, adapt form to content. Creative nonfiction can take the form of a book, essay, journal article, blog post, etc.
  • Above all, maintainenance of authenticity—History is subjective (read my post about this here), so it follows that creative nonfiction is equally a product of the storyteller’s interpretation of the “facts.” Your truth will always be more fascinating than fiction, so keep it real.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

 

The Elusive J.J. Cale

J.J. Cale - Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

J.J. Cale – Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

Last week we lost a true American original.

A rare talent who never sought fame (though he never shunned fortune), J.J. Cale was the pure manifestation of “laid back.” While on tour opening for Traffic, he reportedly told Shelter Records exec Denny Cordell, “Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.”

His rootsy blending of country and blues with a dash of rockabilly and a leavening of jazz yielded a new genre dubbed the “Tulsa Sound.” Of course he would never have taken credit for such a thing—he often said, “I’m just a songwriter and guitarist.” Yet Cale influenced and was hugely respected by many famous musicians, most notably Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally” is a virtual paean to Cale’s influence on Clapton’s evolving sound). When the iconic rock star was asked, “What living person do you most admire?” he responded without hesitation, “J.J. Cale.”

Cale was a master of understatement, indisputably proving that less is more. In a world rife with self-indulgent musical excess—overproduction, synthesizers, and digital sleight of hand—J.J. Cale penned and delivered tunes of bald-faced honesty, simplicity, and authenticity. All he really needed was a good axe, a Fender Champ, a few veteran session men, and a vintage Airstream—he was “Travelin’ Light.”

He was also a consummate craftsman; Cale always knew exactly what kind of groove he wanted a tune to have, and when he heard it, he quit messing with it. His recordings have a raw quality that sounds like they were cut in a single take—which is not far from the truth. Often, when a soloist would urge, “Let’s do that again, I can do better,” Cale would drawl, “No you can’t. That’s it, we’re done.” Spartan arrangements and his sleepy, breathy delivery drew you in and made you listen a bit more closely to his introspective story-songs. This was no accident, Cale was indeed a troubadour and he knew what he was about: “Let’s keep it simple so people can understand it.” Every word was carefully chosen, every note had its place. No fat, no fluff—just lean. How’d he do that?

While I was at the helm of Performance magazine (a trade pub for the touring talent industry), Cale was launching a rare tour in support of his definitive “Troubadour” album (featuring his anthem, “Cocaine,” which emerged as a signature hit for Clapton a year later). Since he was famous for being not famous, I opted to run a full-page head shot on the cover with the bold slug, “The Elusive J.J. Cale” (he would not have a photo of himself on the front cover of an album for another seven years).

But as luck would have it, his near-legendary anonymity was safe. The printers somehow managed to overlook stripping in the photo, so the cover was entirely blank save that not-so-revealing caption. Cale’s management thought we’d done it on purpose and approved! When I had the opportunity to explain what had actually happened to J.J., he cracked up. That suited him just fine, he said…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Web Content: Is Simpler Better?

Read with Dick and JaneWhile perusing an article about improving one’s writing for the web, I encountered the following passage:

“Simpler writing helps everyone. I was stunned to learn that 43% of people in the US read at a lower level of literacy. Meaning they read more slowly than average and have more difficulty understanding what they read.

“Simpler writing — meaning fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word —  benefits everyone. Reading speed and comprehension increase enormously, even for high literacy readers. When you consider the time saved, and the greater satisfaction people feel when they can understand and make decisions more easily, it’s a no-brainer to take the time to simplify your copy.”

Using the term “no-brainer” in this context rankles. The thrust of this excerpt is that literacy is on the wane, so web content creators should dumb-down their copy accordingly. The premise that lowering the language bar “benefits everyone” is patently false and more than a little alarming. It may benefit marketers, but it sure doesn’t benefit readers.

I belong to a generation that was weaned on the prescriptive style edicts of Strunk and White, so I completely understand how lean composition can increase clarity and impact. Effective as it is, the technique can be misunderstood and abused. Taken to extremes, this canon would yield grade-school drivel (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”) rather than robust, punchy Hemingwayesque prose — which is what Messrs. Strunk and White had in mind. According to S&W, the concept is to “Make every word tell.” Clear, correct, and concise are very good rules of thumb; clarity always trumps cleverness. But enhanced reader experience is predicated on many factors — diction, pacing, tone, and organization, to name a few. Language that resonates with your chosen audience depends on mastering the craft of the well-turned phrase. That’s why good writing is an art.

This trend toward dull, explicit, overly simplistic writing sets a vicious circle in motion initiating, indeed encouraging, a race to the bottom. If we deliver increasingly dumbed-down content, our readers’ ability to think critically and appreciate good writing will decline in turn. How on earth does that benefit anyone, let alone everyone?

Rather than assuming your readers can only handle a monosyllabic vocabulary and flaccid, lifeless prose, why not give them the benefit of the doubt? Your mission: compose content that is appropriate for the target audience and well written. The alternative smacks of disrespect and condescension.

If we, as digital content creators and editors, are concerned about the increase in illiteracy — and we certainly should be — we must accept our responsibility to be part of the solution rather than purveyors of the problem. So by all means, trim the fat from your online content, but do it to achieve clarity and improve communication, not because you assume your readers are dullards and dimwits.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/12/13

This woman is wearing a bike helmet. Yes she is.

This woman is wearing a bike helmet.
Yes she is.

Bike commuters know they should wear a helmet, but hey, the dang things give you “helmet hair” for the rest of the day! That problem led two Swedish design grad students to put on their thinking caps. The result was the Invisible Bicycle Helmet. Unlike the king’s new clothes, the helmet’s really there — trust me. Think of it as an airbag for your head; it deploys when you need it. Do yourself a favor and watch this short documentary video. After graduation, the co-designers went into business to produce their innovative design commercially. They proudly proclaim: “We may be a small company, but we think big and we aim high. Delusions of grandeur are exactly what it takes!” Far be it from me to gainsay them. Diana Eng, watch out!

Growing pains… When a Canadian professor encouraged the 1,900 students in his psychology survey course to edit relevant Wikipedia articles as a voluntary assignment, they did — and all hell broke loose. The unexpected volume of edits made the open-source encyclopedia’s volunteer editors think they were the target of some sort of rogue troll. How could they possibly vet this tsunami of new data? Perhaps social media doesn’t always lend itself to educational applications. If this episode caused so much consternation, what will happen when the MOOCs attack?

PavegenWalkin’ on sunshine: After a successful initial trial during the London Olympics, the power-generating Pavegen tiles are now being installed in walkways all over the globe. Every time a foot depresses a tile, kinetic energy is harvested and converted into electrical power. Pavegen may not be the ultimate answer to our insatiable demand for more electricity, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Crowd-sourced proofreading: As you undoubtedly know, Project Gutenberg is an open-access initiative dedicated to the digitization of books for free distribution. The original tomes are scanned and converted into e-books for enhanced legibility, but OCR isn’t perfect, and all those pages need to be proofed by human eyes. As of two days ago, 100,000 volunteers from around the world have contributed to this noble effort. Project Gutenberg calls this herculean task “distributed proofreading,” and if you’d like to get involved, you can read more about it and sign up here.

Photographic archives are also making their way to the interwebs. The George Eastman House, “the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography,” is teaming up with the Google Art Project to make hi-res sccans of its collections available online. The initial offering comprises 50 photographs from the 1840s to the late 1900s; just a taste of the digital goodness to come.

The Tribeca Film Festival opens on April 17. An evangelist of new media (check out the TFF Spotify Playlist), the festival is showcasing a six-second streaming video category this year that’s open to all comers. Yes, I said six-second. Aspiring filmmakers use the Vine app and their smart phones to plant cinematic seeds. It’s kind of like video tweets. Indeed, twitter noted the similarity as well, and snapped up the start-up posthaste. Robert De Niro, co-founder of TFF, sees the six-second film competition as an artistically challenging exercise rather than a stunt: “Six seconds of beginning, middle and end. … you can tell a whole story in six seconds.” In fact, in order to be considered for the competition, you have to tell a complete story. It took you longer to read this blurb…

Google announced that it will be doing its part to help keep Austin weird by making the progressive Texas city the second testbed for its uber-fast Google Fiber Internet service. The project debuted in Kansas City, but Austin — home to the celebrated South by Southwest technology and culture festival — seems a more obvious choice for such a high-tech venture. So just how fast is Google Fiber? The company claims the new service will be about 100 times faster than conventional broadband. Do we really need the speed? “Need” is such a subjective word, don’t you think? Yes and yes.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

On the Importance of Good Storytelling

Persuasive storytelling is an important skill to master.

Persuasive storytelling is a very important skill to master. It’s all about tone, pacing, character development, and continuity. Oh, and try to steer clear of the clichés…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Is English Evolving or Devolving?

Ave Maria photograph, 1905Long before Messrs. Strunk and White entered the fray, humanist, scientist and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer set out to create a handbook on good composition (for more, see this excellent Brain Pickings blog post). And in The Philosophy of Style (1852), Spencer produced a real honey! Eager to establish the importance of the fundamental principles of crafting compelling prose, he was equally determined to encourage his readers to expose themselves to superb writing and rhetoric: “He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences,” Spencer pronounced, “will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course, and it would be difficult to debate the wisdom of such learned counsel. I still recall querying one of my college professors about what I could do to improve my writing. He responded, “You already have a solid grasp of the mechanics. Read.” Of course he meant read really good stuff, and lots of it. I took his advice to heart and still fall asleep every night with a good book on my chest (for which my optometrist is grateful).

About face(book)!

But what happens if we stand this precept on its head? What if we discount the necessity of learning the rules of grammar and immersing ourselves in great literature? I think we’re about to find out. We no longer “make” students diagram sentences, write essays, or even develop a legible hand. Nor are we making great strides in providing the underpinnings of critical thought — and what’s the point of grammatically correct writing if you have nothing worthwhile to say? In the world of social media, all of this is likely moot.

Language is not static, it’s constantly evolving — a moving target. Therefore there is no absolute “correct” way to express a thought. I get that. The point of the exercise is to clearly communicate an idea with your intended audience. Or as Herbert Spencer expressed it with a classic Victorian flourish, “To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules [of grammar and usage] point.”

Tweeting, ca. 1852

Economy of words (and even syllables) seems to be the handmaiden of linguistic dynamics in the digital age, and we are now challenged to clearly express cogent thoughts in 140 characters or less (including punctuation, spaces, links and hashtags). This progressive simplification of communication becomes wonderfully obvious when one considers how a Victorian describes the beauty of expository economy:

“Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression. … In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.”

Note the need to employ ellipsis — I think Twitter would have given Spencer fits. All I can say is OMG!

Turn, turn, turn

Writing for social media can be a good exercise, as it disciplines the digital scribe to pare away unnecessary verbiage and always consider the reader. But it can be disastrous to the creation of truly elegant, succulent prose. Further, while this practice discourages the development of a broad vocabulary and good diction, many “how-to” guides admonish writers to opt for the simplest possible word choice. I prefer to encourage the selection of the appropriate word (regardless of syllable count) for the rhythm and tone of the piece, as well as comprehension and delight of the reader. To every thing, there is a season…

Perhaps we’ve pursued this quest for minimalism to the point of diminishing return. What we haven’t done is convey the underlying principle for this intense focus on simplicity. The author’s job is not to construct prose that impresses the reader with the writer’s erudition, nor to churn out terse sentences that have been truncated to a series of “keywords” or simplified to the point of being readily understood by the lowest common denominator (unless of course that is your intended audience). The writer’s job is to convey an image; to paint a picture with words — setting the scene, establishing the tone, ensuring artful rhythm and pacing. All of these skills and more are necessary for the creation of engaging and compelling storytelling, regardless of the medium (okay, maybe not Twitter…).

Yes, language is linked to cultural trends; as our daily interactions become less formal, our written and spoken communication follows suit. I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing, only questioning what happens to our “ear” if most of the language we’re subjected to is fundamentally flawed. How can this help but lower the communication bar?

Humans have an innate communal impulse; we want to belong to a tribe. We adopt the fashions of the group we want to be associated with. We embrace its slang and jargon, its ideology and mores. Does this also apply to our writing style? I can’t help but wonder: is the lack of adequate education compounded by the deluge of bad spelling, grammar and usage constantly bombarding us on our electronic devices dumbing us down, or is it actually rendering communication more efficient? What do U think?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Photo: Ave Maria, Mrs. G.A. Barton (1905)/Pinterest

The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.