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.

Technology & Culture Update 6/4/13

Mary Rose cutaway

Mary Rose Museum“Britain’s Pompeii”: Looking like the love child of an old sailing ship and a flying saucer, the Mary Rose Museum made its debut in Portsmouth last Friday. The unique facility houses an equally unique historical artifact: the hull of the ill-fated Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet. The ship sunk under mysterious circumstances during an engagement with an invading French armada in The Solent in 1545.

maryrosedogA veritable Tudor time capsule, the Mary Rose offered up a wealth of amazingly well-preserved artifacts. The treasure trove comprises clothing, personal items, longbows and arrows, musical instruments (including the only extant example of a still shawm, a medieval ancestor of the oboe—you can listen to a sound clip here), the master carpenter’s and barber-surgeon’s sea chests (with a full complement of the tools of their trades)—even the skeleton of the ship’s dog (a whippet-terrier cross) and one of the rats he no doubt terrorized.

Remains of nearly half of the 400-man crew (all but 35 went down with the ship) were recovered, 97 of which were near-complete skeletons. Of these, seven were selected to serve as models for facial reconstruction, utilizing techniques employed by criminal forensic artists (view a fascinating video of the process here). Tentative occupational identifications were determined by location of the remains (see diagram above) and forensic analysis of the bones.

Wikipedia has a very thorough entry covering the ship itself as well as the recovery operations. Finally, you should take the time to watch this 45-minute documentary, “Ghosts of the Mary Rose”; it offers a new and highly plausible hypothesis for the ship’s untimely demise:

Rockin’ the cosmos: I recently profiled a fella who made music in outer space; this week I’ll introduce you to some folks who make music from space itself. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a grad student performing an internship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She’s working on a project that uses a process called sonification to translate data drawn from X-rays emitted by the EX Hydrae star system into sound patterns. The researcher can manipulate pitch, volume, and rhythm to produce something akin to music.

One day a colleague, Gerhard Sonnert—who also happens to be a bass player—noticed that the sound patterns Diaz-Merced was generating were reminiscent of a common Afro-Cuban rhythm called a clave. Enlisting the aid of his cousin, Volkmar Studtrucker (a professional composer), the pair wrangled the cosmic waves into musical compositions in a variety of genres. They’ve even released an album: “X-Ray Hydra.” Now that’s what I call avant-garde!

Network mad as hell“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoot & Leaves fame) advocates a subversive “no tolerance” approach to punctuation errors in signage—she’s even depicted in her author’s portrait poised before an offending sign with marker in hand and a mischievous grin plastered across her mug. But balaclavas notwithstanding, one would hope Truss didn’t intend to encourage “grammar terrorists” like Leonard Burdek.

Borrowing a dash of indignation from Howard Beale in the movie Network, Burdek waltzed into the reception area of the State of Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and declared that he had intended to blow up the sign outside because it was missing the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘and.’ To reinforce his point, he then sat a pressure cooker with wires hanging out of it on the counter.

Burdek claimed his home-brewed bomb misfired because there were so many grammatical errors in the online instructions he had trouble deciphering them. This decline in literacy should concern the organization responsible for certifying teachers, the mad bomber allegedly informed the shocked receptionist and her boss. He beat a hasty retreat when they dialed 911, but was soon arrested without incident (hey, he’s a grammar geek, not the Boston Marathon wingnuts). The “explosive device” was found to be fake and the whole affair a stunt to get attention and make a point. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Technology + words = art! I’d like to wrap up by calling your attention to a wonderful photographic study of the evolution of the typewriter by Vincze Mi Klós. Beginning with the first patent for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” in 1714, the portfolio continues on through the electronic Brother WP-1 in the mid-1980s. Would you believe that the first electric typewriter made its appearance in 1870? Steampunk aficionados, prepare to drool!

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 5/25/13

things come apartTechnology and culture embodied in art: Since we’ve still got a few days of Bike Month left, I thought I’d share some velo-centric goodness with y’all. To kick things off, get a load of photographer Todd McLellan’s wild photo of a dissected vintage road bike. This image, taken from the artist’s “Disassembly Series,” is just one of many quotidian items rendered as objets d’art that McLellan says, “have, are, or will be in our everyday lives.” The complete study is now available as a coffee table book called Things Come Apart.

Bike helmets work! Well, there’s a shock. I’ve addressed this issue before, and I’m gobsmacked that it takes a well-funded scientific study to conclude that you’ll protect your eggshell-like brain bucket by wearing a helmet. I’m equally appalled when I see a cyclist riding sans helmet—a transgression occasionally compounded by a helmet dangling from the handlebars. D’oh!

Some folks believe that commuting by bike is dangerous and are petrified of experiencing a Close Encounter of the Automobile Kind, but that seemingly rational fear has been proven fallacious. Still, when New York City announced its plan to launch a bike-share program, skeptics insisted that it would be unsafe, due to the automotive congestion (and the notorious recklessness of the cabbies of Gotham).

Mayor Bloomberg caved, so while it is apparently perfectly sensible to legislate the volume of sugary drinks New Yorkers can consume to protect them from diabetes, protecting his constituents’ heads from brain damage would be compromising their personal freedom. Go figure.

A recent piece on NPR reinforced the conclusion that cycle vs. automobile collisions are rare, but cycling crashes (with other bikes, pedestrians, or potholes) are in fact quite common. In any case, a helmet will protect your noggin. It’s just—sorry—a no-brainer. And counterintuitively, the report concludes, “the more people bike, the safer it may become.” Just wear yer dang helmet, people…

Silent spring of (18)62: You might think we’ve pretty much squeezed all the life out of the Civil War, but as Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln revealed, there are always new perspectives to be illuminated. As a Civil War historian myself, I was fascinated to learn that two academics have discovered another way to put old wine in new bottles. Timothy Silver and Judkin Browning, professors at Appalachian State University, received a $100,000 research fellowship to co-author an environmental history of the Late Unpleasantness.

The peripatetic migration of men and animals during the war years was largely contingent upon weather patterns, and the environmental impact of those movements on the local populace and the nation-at-large has yet to be the subject of academic scrutiny. For example, Silver believes that weather, rather than strategy or tactics, resulted in the termination of McClellan’s “On to Richmond” campaign. The environmental historian speculates, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation,” and therefore, no fodder for another Spielberg epic. Interesting theory, but there are a couple of pretty big “ifs” in there.

HhHH cvrMetonymic magic: “me·ton·y·my (noun) : a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.” So says Merriam-Webster. While the media is all atwitter with the announcement of the billion-dollar deal involving the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo! (who concocts these silly names?), I was, perversely perhaps, more entertained by James Fallows’s treatise on this obscure linguistic construct.

Fallows shares his readers’ comments regarding the subtleties that escaped elucidation in the dictionary definition. There are some colorful examples given to illustrate the point, my favorite being, “Calling [Karl] Rove ‘Turd Blossom’ is metaphor – he’s not actually a flower. Calling him ‘the Brain’ or ‘Bush’s Brain’ is metonymy – he is famous for his use of his brain.” To put a finer point on it, I suspect this particular metonym was a play on the German epithet, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (abbreviated as “HHhH”), which translates to: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful novel by the same name—check it out).

This may seem like so much pedantry to the average reader, but you’re not “average,” are you? Language matters. The proper use of our rather rich language is what separates the men from the boys in the world of intelligent, clear messaging (it’s just a figure of speech, so please don’t label me a “sexist pig”—that would be a metaphor, not a metonym).

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 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

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 5/10/13

coffee plantCoffee redux: As previously noted, NPR recently devoted an entire week to a special report on the many aspects of coffee culture. This week it’s Maria Popova’s turn to sing the praises (and dis the dark side) of that most social of beverages in her precocious Brain Pickings blog. In her wonderfully eclectic style, Popova profiles Mark Pendergrast’s sweeping history and anthropological study of coffee, Uncommon Grounds. As usual, her text is generously sprinkled with breadcrumb links that suck you down the rabbit hole and into related essays, all of which are equally compelling. Hopefully, once you’ve been enticed by this preview, you’ll be moved to seek out a copy of Uncommon Grounds, brew up some joe and enjoy…

Thanks to Google Earth, we’ve all become familiar with amazing imaging of our built environment from various altitudes and perspectives; now even men can find their way without asking for directions! A joint effort undertaken by TIME, Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, Timelapse (as it is called) raises the bar exponentially. See for yourself:

The project employs still satellite photos taken from 1984 to 2012 in flip-book style animation sequences. The scenes dramatically document the effects of human activity on the Little Blue Marble. From the explosion of development in Las Vegas (and the concomitant draining of nearby Lake Mead) to the rape of the Amazon rainforest and the travesty that is mountaintop-removal mining, this empirical evidence of our stunning lack of stewardship will take your breath away. On the positive side of the ledger, it’s interesting to see the results of irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. Bonus: use the “Explore the World” dialog box to view the time-lapse changes for any location!

Our geospatial relationship to the planet constitutes the very heart of the geographic information systems (GIS) discipline. GIS enables us to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to identify trends and patterns. It’s also very good at putting historical events in context. Evolving tools, such as Neatline (an app designed by the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab), facilitate the use of GIS by non-programmers. Take a stroll through the Neatline demo and prepare yourself to be impressed!

Archeology News reported on this emerging technology as well, with specific reference to how it can be employed to make history more accessible, using Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire as a case study.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet, there’s plenty of material to work with, and more becoming available every day. For example, the British Library just announced the digital open-access debut of its collection of incredibly detailed Ordnance Surveryors’ Drawings (OSDs), executed between 1789 and 1840. Want more? Click through to Old Maps Online. This site serves as a portal and search engine for the online collections of various libraries and research institutions (of which there are nineteen currently participating). The David Rumsey Map Collection Database and Blog is another great resource. This leviathan sports 38,000 historical maps and related images, and will soon be partnering with the Digital Public Library of America (we’ve mentioned the wondrous DPLA here, here, and here).

And switching gears, I have to post this entertaining video, “Vigilante Copy Editor” (factoid: AP styles “copy editor” as two words, CMOS prefers closing it up). Lynne Truss (of Eat, Shoots & Leaves fame) would be proud…

Have a fantastic weekend!

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 5/3/13

nat'l bike month

The science of safety: May is National Bike month (loads of related activities here) and we should all be spending more time on our bikes. Cycling is good for your body, mind and spirit, it’s easier on your wallet than driving and it’s a blessing for the environment (the trees will thank you!). Really, there’s no down side. Some folks worry about getting hit by a car. Don’t. Believe it or not, you are 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car than you are while riding on your bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Our irrational fear is predicated on cognitive biasIn this brief presentation from Bike Summit 2013, Tom Bowden (chairman of Bike Virginia and vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation) cleverly explains this phenomenon.

To catch a thief: And while we’re on the subject of two-wheelin’, KALW radio (San Francisco NPR affiliate) produced a great story about using social media to track down stolen bikes. There’s also an engaging read in the February issue of Outside magazine profiling one man’s obsessive quest to craft the perfect sting operation to nail bike thieves. Interestingly, the level of law enforcement cooperation hinges on how many cyclists there are in the local precinct: “Departments that can muster a peloton, like those in San Francisco, Portland, and Houston, are generally more proactive.” The bottom line is that you should be proactive, too; you can increase the odds of seeing your lost bike again by keeping a file with your bike’s serial number and lots of photos, and blasting out info relating to your stolen bike all over the cycling forums. Cyclists are a tight community; use crowdsourcing to your advantage! It doesn’t hurt to put your name on a piece of paper, laminate it and stuff it into your seat tube. There will be no argument that this is your bike!

From the Velolinguistics Dept.: In a recent tweet, noted lexicographer Peter Sokolowski revealed that he is not a devoted cyclist:

“How unhip am I? I used to think that ‘fixie’ meant a fixer-upper. A junk bike you won’t care if stolen.”

Personally, I think the beauty of the ‘net is that you can so easily discover how little you know about so many things—and broadcast this revelation to the entire planet with the push of a button.

Alexis Madgrigal knows what a fixie is; in fact, he employs it as a metaphor in his current blog post in The Atlantic: “Online Media is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous.” He offers a pretty technical profile of just what a fixie is, and suggests an analogy with online reportage. Read the comments following Madrigal’s testimonial to his own hipness; they are much more on-point (and entertaining!).

E-book sales are on the rise and the e-publishing titans are duking it out in an attempt to establish proprietary models designed to lock authors and readers into a lucrative (for the publisher) gated community. But standards are elusive, and one developer is determined to wrest the self-publishing arena from the clutches of Apple and Amazon. Called “FuturePress” (squeezed into one word, cute), the open-source project is the brainchild of the UC Berkeley School of Information (where else?). According to the website, “FuturePress aims to free books from the prisons of current proprietary formats.” The idea is to build an API based on HTML5, enabling an e-book to be read on any device. “I should be able to read a book regardless of what type of device or application I want to use,” defiantly asserted Jake Hartnell, product manager for FuturePress. “It’s like that for things like music and video! But not ebooks. 🙁 ” It’s a kick-ass concept, but an unfortunate choice of moniker (and they have no logo—has no one told them about “branding”?). It should come as no surprise that the name “Future Press” has long since been nabbed by any number of commercial outfits. So type “futurepress” into a search engine and see what comes up. Just sayin’…

Pet peeves of the word-nerd crowd: According to The Atlantic, “definitely” is the latest overused buzzword. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda casts his vote for “literally.” Yes, some of the greats of belles-lettres have fallen prey to this tick, but that doesn’t make it correct, or even acceptable (it just makes them human). I doubt that I’ll be giving too much away to admit that both of these linguistic abuses are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I failed high school biology because my teacher, Mr. Shelsky, had a habit of prefacing every statement with, “Strangely enough …” and concluding his diatribes with a (no doubt) trenchant observation beginning, “Irregardless, ….” It got to the point that everything else he said was just white noise punctuated by those annoying exclamations. Entranced, I was reduced to a drooling zombie state in which I mindlessly counted how many times he uttered these expressions and recorded the totals on my Pee-Chee notebook. Little wonder that I couldn’t recall much about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Publishing and paywalls: The revered publication, American Heritage, is the latest in a long line of periodicals struggling with the digital revolution. Having suspended publication last fall, the publishers claim to be restructuring the book as an education-oriented digital history offering (behind a paywall); they’re hoping the “educational” cachet will prove to be a viable sales strategy. In its new incarnation, the publication will be available in print and digital formats designed to complement the company’s nonprofit project, “Education, A Transformative System for Teaching American History and English Language Arts.” With so many innovative open-source alternatives already available or coming online now (the DPLA, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the University of Houston’s impressive Digital History website and the various educational initiatives produced by George Mason University’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to name a few), it’s difficult to see how a for-profit venture is going to keep its head above water.

Digital Humanities 101: The aforementioned efforts all fall under the umbrella of the “digital humanities.” If you’re even the slightest bit curious about this fascinating movement, there are many resources available to acquaint you with the basics. Defining the Digital Humanities: A Bibliography is a great place to begin your journey. A Companion to Digital Humanities is an open-access textbook on the subject (and a very accessible read), while “A Guide to Digital Humanities” (by Northwestern University) is another well thought-out introduction to the field. This should be more than enough to whet your appetite; I’ll revisit this subject frequently.

CERNHappy birthday, Web! It’s hard to believe, but the World Wide Web is only 20 years old. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee developed the idea of creating an information network, and the technology that made it possible was made freely available to all on April 30, 1993. The first website (for CERN, a nuclear research organization) wasn’t much to look at, but Gutenberg’s initial efforts were pretty crude, too. In celebration of two decades of open-access information exchange, CERN has resurrected its original website. This technology has profoundly changed information sharing—how we interact, how we tell our story—in fundamental ways. What will the third decade bring?

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 4/27/13

fairtrade_intl_logo_custom-8e5e5ca5e4c336afa79a44820f5043b52c3b4ad0-s3In honor of Arbor Day, I’m celebrating a very special bit of greenery — the coffee tree! Yes, I have a bit of a fetish for the fruit of the bean. I’ve blogged about the application of technology to my favorite beverage here and here. For no particular reason that I can discern, NPR elected to run a special series called “Coffee Week” with a couple of segments airing each day (you can view an index to all of the programs here). It’s a very well-executed profile of coffee and coffee culture — Jerry Seinfeld even dropped in. The programs cover a wide range of topics, from the historical, social, medicinal, and sociopolitical aspects of coffee to the music emanating from the coffee-growing regions. And for more great java jams, check out Putumayo’s Music from the Coffee Lands and MCL, vol II.

Even more espresso love: These amazing panoramic views of one of my favorite java joints, Atlas Coffee in Charlottesville, Virginia, offer a great mashup of coffee culture and techno-coolness. Several views taken from different vantage points; you can scroll all around the shop! Take the virtual tour then stop by if you’re in the area. Atlas is a wonderful family business that specializes in friendly.

"Atlas Coffee" by Michael Bailey Photography

“Atlas Coffee” by Michael Bailey Photography

Neo-what? There’s no denying that language is a dynamic thing, constantly evolving. New words — neologisms — are always entering the lexicon. Some slang is (mercifully) ephemeral and passes with its generation, while jargon is often limited to a discrete community (a particular occupation, etc). Portmanteau words are all the rage (adorkable means “adorable in a dorky way”) and they can certainly help to clarify concepts, provided you understand the cultural connection, the “hip factor.” Then there are the symbols endowed with a fresh linguistic role — such as the @ (“at”) symbol, now commonly associated with twitter handles. Hence, you can follow my tweets @AdenNichols.

According to Ann Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan, the term “slash” is a case in point. In addition to its use as a formal noun by the guitarist Saul Hudson, slash has become the common verbal expression of a punctuation mark. The interesting thing is, it is being spelled out in written discourse. Seems counterproductive to me, but who am I to say? So as Ms Curzan explains, you may see the conjunction rendered thus: “culminating in Friday’s shootout-slash-car-chase-slash-manhunt-slash-media-circus around the apprehension of the bombing suspect.” My apologies to my British friends, to whom this is a “stroke.”

And in other linguistic news: I find NPR’s new “Code Switch” program to be very thought-provoking and entertaining (see “I’m the Café and He’s the Leche,” for example), but I must say I wasn’t blown away by the piece exploring the use of the slang term “yo” (“‘Yo’ said what?”). Researchers express their fascination with the fact that the term is used as a gender-neutral noun (in contrast, apparently, to “ho'”). That’s deep. Even more profound is the observation by Christine Mallinson, a sociolinguist at the University of Maryland, that “… even if ‘yo’ is just a fad, it says something about the kids who use it.” Yes, it says that literacy is on the wane. Rather than legitimizing this form of verbal degradation (I’m having Ebonics flashbacks), I was hoping we could just ignore it and let it die a natural death.

Turn it up to 11! As neuroscientist Oliver Sacks has ably demonstrated, music affects our brains in dramatic ways. It helps us establish our sense of self and our worldview, and contributes to our overall health and well-being. A survey article in Smithsonian offers links to eight studies providing insight into the fantastic world of musical neuroscience. My favorite is a study that defies your parents’ warnings about how “that loud music is going to permanently damage your hearing!” According to a group of Australian researchers, the hearing loss only lasts about twelve hours (YMMV). So in the immortal words of Humble Pie, Rock On!

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.

Humble_Pie_Rock_On

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.

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

You Can’t Please Everyone

In my inaugural post, I highlighted 10 Great Grammar Blogs. One of my favorites from that list, DailyWritingTips, recently posted a list of its own entitled, “50 Tips on How to Write Good,” by Mark Nichol (no relation that I’m aware of). Yes, this initially gave me goose bumps, but being familiar with the lighthearted approach that frequently characterizes DWT pieces, I dove right in.

Sure enough, the list was presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It evoked memories of my dad’s wit and impatience with pedantry, and it made me laugh out loud. Thanks, Mark!

I suspect that DWT’s devotees are largely well-educated, well-read—dare I say it? Erudite—folks. Apparently a few of these bright lights lived up to the grammarian’s stereotypical tight lip, furrowed brow, and absence of a sense of humor by launching a barrage of critical nasty-grams at Mark (uttered, no doubt, in a Gallic accent: “I fart in your general direction!”).

In a follow-up post this morning, Nichol offered humbly, “The lesson for me is to write what comes naturally—but to realize that, although I have a role in, and some responsibility for, how my writing is received, it is ultimately the individual reader who determines the success or failure of that writing.” There is fundamental truth in this assertion, but I would add that the overarching lesson of this episode is (to paraphrase Lydgate, Lincoln, et al): You can’t please all of your readers all of the time.

The most important decision you will make before putting pen to paper (or cursor to screen) is who is my audience, who am I writing this for? The resulting profile will dictate your word choice, tone, and level of complexity; it will color every word you write, so it had better be good. You should routinely test your prose against this vignette. If you strive to reach every potential reader, you’ll ultimately succeed in connecting with few or none.

While working as an editor for a major specialist periodical, I was frequently set upon by disgruntled freelance writers who complained vehemently, attempting to justify why a given phrase or passage I had deleted “had to be in there.” My response was, “And were you going to personally visit each and every reader to make your case?” Your prose must speak for itself.

As writers and editors, we labor in the service of the reader. How can we accomplish that mission if we can’t clearly articulate who the reader is? There will always be several categories of reader types for any given story, and they will always have something in common; that is, each group can be visualized as the concentric rings of a target (or the overlapping spheres of a Venn diagram). Aim for the bull’s-eye.

If you have accurately identified your target and employed every ounce of authorial skill you can muster to hit it dead center, you’ve done your part.

In this case, Nichol airily posited that he might have prevented the misunderstanding by titling his piece, “50 Funny, Fallacious Tips on How to Write Good (You Know I Meant ‘Well’).” He was just a-joshin’. In reality, he was on firm footing in assuming his core readership would get the joke. Sadly, the humor was lost on a few readers.

Rather than employing a more explicit title, perhaps he should have concluded the list by citing the inimitable Foghorn Leghorn: “That’s a joke, son—I say, a joke!!!

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.