Monday, December 2, 2013

Middle Ground

This is the final installment of a three-part series on publishing avenues. You can find the first post (on self-publishing) here and the second post (on traditional publishing) here.
I get questions all the time from prospective authors who wonder whether it’s worth it to publish in the traditional way at all. The quick answer is, for speakers it’s still important, for now. For everyone else, it depends.
Nick Morgan
Last week’s post ended with the issue of discerning between publishing companies and organized self-publishing efforts.  The problem making the distinction stems not from there being too many shared aspects of the process, but by a dissolving of the boundaries as more publishers rely on authors to build their own platforms and more self-publishers offer their services and knowledge to other authors. As those borders break down, intuitively, more of the industry’s gaze is being focused on that middle ground, and identifying what lies there is more important now than ever.

One thing that has distinguished publishers, as addressed in the first post of this trilogy, has been the amount of services they’ve been able to provide to the author, including editing, printing, design, advertising, marketing, and distribution. A key trait of self-publishing has been the independent status of the publication, or the lack of endorsement present on the cover and in the front matter.

Some may point to vanity publishing as a bridge between these two areas. On the kind side of this, an author essentially pays the vanity publisher for use of their logo. More unscrupulously, a vanity publisher may retain rights to the book in addition to that publishing fee. Many vanity publishers also offer author services—such as editing, cover design, or marketing—at additional cost, usually sold as part of a package. It is worth noting, however, that author services are something that self-publishing authors frequently utilize, and this does not make those works or authors any less self-published. Many publishers have already opened vanity publishing branches, including Penguin and Harlequin, and acknowledge this distinction by clearly referring to their new endeavors as self-publishing routes. In other words, Penguin and Harlequin join me in pushing vanity publishing into the self-publishing corner.

But this post isn’t about vanity publishing—that’s just something that needs to be addressed so it can be removed from the discussion. There are still a number of ways to combine the aspects inherent in traditional publishing and self-publishing. Editor and industry expert Jane Friedman put together a savvy infographic in May 2013 to summarize what she considered to be the “5 Key Book Publishing Paths.” Within five months, she had posted a revised version, labeled “4 Key Book Publishing Paths.” I think her revisions were well considered, so I won’t waste time summarizing the differences between the two versions. In the revision, Friedman lists her four paths as:

  1. Traditional publishing
  2. Fully assisted self-publishing
  3. Do-it-yourself (DIY) self-publishing
  4. Community
Jane Friedman's Key Book Publishing Paths

Blog posts and sites like Wattpad and LeanPub qualify for community publishing, according to Friedman, because “[y]ou write, publish, and distribute your work in a public or semi-public forum, direclty for readers,” “[p]ublication is self-directed and continues on an at-will and almost always nonexclusive basis,” and “[e]mphasis is on feedback and growth, usually not sales.” Plenty of franchises have begun as community publishing, such as Sh*t My Dad Says (which went from a collection of Twitter postings to a signed contract with HarperCollins in less than two months from its inception in 2009) or Tucker Max’s politically incorrect postings (which have resulted in a #1 New York Times Bestseller spot and a Darko Entertainment film).

Blogging is relatively straightforward, and most authors who are deliberating publishing avenues already comprehend that approach and its implications. LeanPub and Wattpad, however, offer a few different approaches. LeanPub keeps 10% of every sale plus 50¢ per sale and specializes in condensing large numbers of blog posts into books, as well as encouraging authors to begin the publishing process while their writing is still underway. As they describe it, “Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.” LeanPub joins many other newer, non-traditional publishers in viewing books as akin to start-ups—potential revenue perpetuators that need a significant capital investment in addition to simply being built on good ideas.

Wattpad similarly accesses the groupthink potential latent in the internet community, offering a site where “[r]eaders can collect stories into reading lists, vote for the favourites and comment with friends and writers” and “[w]riters . . . share their work, build a fan base, and receive instant feedback on their stories.” Imagine, essentially, a Facebook in which every status update is a story, and the users can like and share their favorites, propelling lucky posters into a momentary spotlight that may just be big enough to connect them to larger goals.

Still, Friedman’s charts both leave plenty of room at the bottom to discuss “special cases and hybrids,” or “special + hard-to-classify cases.” Among these, she primarily lists agent-assisted publishing and distribution, digital-only publishers, and “hybrid” authors (though I would argue that hybrid authors refers specifically to authors and does not describe a publishing process but rather a person who chooses multiple publishing paths for multiple publications). That agent-assisted publishing and distribution warrant their own, indefinable categories is intriguing, as this would fall under my author services umbrella. The term I most frequently hear for these agents is “book coach,” as they dispense most of their time ushering new authors through the publishing doorways and advising them on how to make their many important decisions. This brings me to what I find the most interesting emerging field of publishers, lying most visibly in the middle ground.

These new publishers offer new services that, theoretically, could always have been offered independently but only now are easiest to present in an organized fasion. By combining the power of traditional publishing with the center-stage spotlighting of community publishing and the guaranteed fan base of crowdfunding, these new publishers are tapping into some very advantageous aspects of the shifting publishing landscape.

While presenting itself as a networking hub, Net Minds appears to actually be a publisher which allows authors to corral their own publishing teams and organize their own production and platform building on their own terms. Their blog wastes no time decrying the polarization of self-publishing versus traditional publishing
We are a joint venture publisher. We don’t believe in self-publishing because teams make great books. We don’t believe in traditional publishing because they take too much and do too little for it.” Taking their hands out of the cookie jar, Net Minds lets others do both the baking and the serving and merely offers up their kitchen and their directory of chefs in exchange for a slice of whatever pie gets baked: “Net Minds’ crowd-powered service gives authors rights, project autonomy and team building tools that make the publishing process transparent and effective. Instead of acquiring authors’ rights and giving them only 20 percent of the pie and little flexibility in choosing their team, title or release date, Net Minds flips the publishing industry model. Future releases will add collaboration tools for all parts of the publishing process, from project work to crowd sourced book proposals. . . .
Net Minds empowers authors to publish smarter through a platform and community of publishing professionals. The Net Minds marketplace is designed to help people with complementary talents and affinities form engaged teams, which will utilize the Net Minds collaboration tools to produce great books. This data and review driven platform will create a meritocracy, where great work is rewarded, credited and discovered. At Net Minds, we aim to reinvent the publishing process, making it efficient and fair.
This is most certainly a stand in the middle ground, and the brains behind Net Minds appear to have a keen understanding of startups, investments, and how to put themselves in a position to profit from this relatively new understanding of the book: 
We believe the future of publishing is in groups, think joint ventures. Currently, if you have an idea for a book, you either go the traditional route (sell the book to a corporate publisher) or self-publishing.  The former is harder than ever to achieve and the latter is ... the wild wild west.  We are in the middle: offering quality partners for quality ideas.
But while Net Minds acknowledges repeatedly that the publishing task placed before independent authors is overwhelming, they do a disservice by simply throwing those same, confused authors into a giant marketplace of competing publishing agents. For the same reason that unwitting bidders on Elance and Odesk inevitably hire the worst partners for the lowest costs, authors need education and guidance through the jungle of freelancers. Otherwise, they’re really just succumbing to another form of vanity publishing.

This issue has not gone unnoticed or unaddressed. Something or Other Publishing (SOOP) comprehensively one-ups Net Minds’ approach by adding to it that very element of author assistance. [Full disclosure: I have done and intend to continue doing editorial and consulting work through SOOP]. Though a relative newcomer to the game, having only a handful of publications to its name, SOOP has achieved remarkable marketing and distribution success, placing their books at lofty spots, including Eric Mondschein’s Life at 12 College Road, which topped out at #3 in Amazon’s siblingrelationships category and #2,775 overall out of more than ten million Amazon titles, reaching a coveted #1 rated hot new release spot within days.

SOOP offers not only multiple publishing models to their authors, but also book consultants, who walk the authors through their decisions, offering advice from personal experience and professional research. Of course, offering detailed, one-on-one advice to authors constitutes a significant investment; so how does SOOP justify this investment? With a brilliant adoption of the startup mentality, book ideas submitted to SOOP begin collecting interest (and votes) immediately, allowing concepts to be measured  in a fasion similar to Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or other crowdfunding sites. Authors post their ideas to the website and instantly begin building their platforms. As interest in their books grow, SOOP reaches out to individual authors with tips for how they can independently continue their own publicity campaigns. Authors whose publications show exceptional promise get exceptional attention from SOOP. These handpicked authors get the VIP treatment and are provided a personal book consultant, who serves to inform and assist.

As their site points out, “The SOOP model offers guidance to those who wish to self-publish, and extends full commercial publishing contracts to those diligent and dedicated authors who seek to become part of a team devoted to the success of their book. Success is defined not only by a successful book launch, but by success with book sales and the resulting media attention.” Instead of leaving the authors who don’t generate enough interest in their books high and dry, this model offers its network of publishing professionals to those who prefer to self-publish, without pressuring authors into publishing under the SOOP brand. The mentality here is that it is in everyone’s best interest to be connected to reliable professionals rather than predators. By focusing on forming a community, SOOP offers a friendly place for readers, authors, editors, agents, marketers, designers, and other publishing professionals to congregate and socialize without imposing itself as a controlling entity.

Obviously, Net Minds’ and SOOP’s steps into the publishing middle ground incorporate the community aspect, but they represent a definite hybrid. With strong elements of traditional publishing, community platforming, and self-publishing author services all incorporated,  these new companies are highly self-aware and are filling in authors’ needs as quickly as they develop.


Certainly, there are other unique publishers out there (more every day, I’m sure), who blend the fundamental characteristics of different publishing avenues in complex and innovative ways, perhaps even inventing their own, new methods, and I hope you’ll share your stories about them in the comments below. Thanks for reading about publishing avenues; I hope to hear your feedback and keep the conversation going!



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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Printing


And now for something completely different!

As an editor, I work on the book production side of things. There are lots of people who work on books, and I like to divide them into two sides: production and marketing. Essentially, I consider these categories to represent the people who work (1) on the book itself and (2) on selling the book. Both sides are crucial, of course, and are certainly not opposed.

But a thing I recognized today was that, perhaps because of my primary division, I spend a lot of time thinking about the other side of the book process, but not really a lot of time thinking about the other (non-editing) things happening on my side.

Primarily, things on the production side involve several rounds of editing, design (exterior and interior), and printing. All of these steps require multiple people. On an editing team, there will often be developmental editing, fact-checking, substantive editing, copyediting, indexing, and proofreading, and those may all be handled by different people—there may even be multiple people assigned to one of those tasks! On the design team, there will usually be both a cover designer and a layout designer. When it comes to printing, the process can be immense and complex.

St. Louis Writers Meetup organizer and fiction writer Kurt Pankau (@kurtpankau on Twitter) shared this gem of a post from Tor art director Irene Gallo. It's titled "This is How Huge Door-stopper Fantasy Novels Get Made," and it features a bunch of photos from the book printing process. Judging by appearances, it looks like the steps involved require a lot more people than editing and design combined.

Many thanks to Gallo for the post and to Pankau for bringing it to my attention.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Traditional Publishing

This is the second installment of a three-part series on publishing avenues. You can find the first post here.
. . . people who continually predict that traditional publishing will disappear simply do not understand how multinational companies with holdings around the world operate.
Now that self-publishing is all the rage and easier than ever (you can publish a book directly to Kindle within minutes), the Big Five publishing houses are slowly evaporating, their foundations usurped by new technology, right? Well, not exactly. While it may be intuitive to think that self-publishing and e-books have undermined traditional publishers, they are still doing great jobs selling books and finding authors to publish. While self-publishing opened a host of new doors for masses of previously unpublished writers, traditional publishing still offers quite a few reasons to be sought after.

Let’s first address the obvious: the Big Five have tons of money. That means they can bankroll the capital investments necessary to launch nationwide publicity campaigns, buying the public’s favorable opinion the same way other product manufacturing and distributing corporations do. And they’ve been in the business long enough to acquire top-level talent in every field. Big publishing houses have experienced editors working in tandem with marketing and design teams, whose coordinated efforts do much to ensure that a high-quality book will be produced and will sell—a lot.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Self-Publishing

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a small three-part series on publishing avenues. These posts will explore some advantages, drawbacks, difficulties, and benefits of various methods authors can use to produce, market, and ultimately sell their books.

The publishing arena is often divided into two courts: self-publishing and traditional publishing. These two are the most talked about and the easiest to categorize, so I will dedicate the first two posts to them. However, it’s important to recognize that there are limitless possibilities when it comes to how a book can be published, so I’d like to spend the third post in this series discussing some of the countless ways to step outside and transverse those two courts.

First, because it’s certainly been the hottest topic in publishing for the last decade, let’s talk about self-publishing. To begin, we’ll need to cross out what self-publishing isn’t. Self-publishing is not a place or a business. It is not a format or a medium. It is not ebooks, and it is not indie presses. It is not new, nor is it only recently possible. Self-publishing simply means the author calls the shots. It means there’s no publisher’s name or logo hogging space on the cover or in the front matter.

Every time I post a blog on this site through Blogspot, I am self-publishing. This may seem counterintuitive, since you might think Blogspot would be my publisher. But I am using Blogspot to publish my posts like a press, not submitting my writing to them to publish under their name. In the same way, you could go the traditional route and submit your manuscript to Acme Publishing Company, who may process it and send it out to ABC Press for printing, or you can skip the middleman and send your manuscript directly to ABC Press for printing, in which case you will have self-published.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Query of Editors

Wondering what editors do for other authors? How about what recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro's three editors do for her? Sometimes, the minimal:

“We don’t have to do much,” laughs Close, the hint of a southern drawl in her voice. “With many of Alice’s stories, they come in and none of us touches a word. But every now and then there are stories she’s a little stuck on and one of us will give a suggestion that proves helpful.”
But that's not to say that not taking action should be equivocated with not doing anything. In Munro's case, it's a given that the stories being submitted to these three editors (Anne Close, Douglas Gibson, and Deborah Treisman) are good. At that point, the assessment that needs to be made is whether there's any improving to be done. If they're already in top form, the editor's responsibility is to convince the author to leave it alone, which, given the infinite possible combinations of words an author can consider at any time, can be quite the chore.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Horn Tooting: Critical Margins Post

I'm proud to be able to send you over to Critical Margins today, where owner Kevin Eagan has been kind enough to follow through with the publication of the second part of my three-part essay on the "Current and Future States of the Publishing Industry," specifically regarding "Advertising, Promoting, & Marketing a Book."

(See part one here.)

I look forward to hearing your feedback and questions!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Horn Tooting: The Candidate by JL Wolfe

Buy the book at SmashwordsAmazon, or Barnes & Noble!

I'm proud to announce the release of the first book in the Project Lion Series: The Candidate, by JL Wolfe. This book was a blast to edit, with witty dialogue and exciting action scenes. Please check it out, and leave some feedback! I'm looking forward to seeing (and hopefully editing!) the second book as soon as it's finished. Loved it, hope you do, too.

Here's the author's own description: Driven on by a need to locate and secure his wife and children, Alex Martell finds himself thoroughly unprepared as he becomes swept up in global conspiracies and the agendas of competing world powers. Selected and known as the Candidate, he is thrust back in time to the dawn of Western civilization in order to bear witness to a list of historical events. With time working against him as the Intersection Point closes in and determined to salvage his cherished, simple, safe, and sheltered family life, he must weave through history unnoticed and avoid losing himself in the process. Pick it up at Smashwords, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.


Runny Writing

I really enjoyed this post from Alison Flood at The Guardian about Dickens' original, handwritten draft of Great Expectations. I think it provides a prime example of how authors can focus on getting the story out first and worry about the finer details later. Great Expectations, of course, is an oft-taught classic by one of the most highly esteemed English authors who's ever lived. Seeing the sloppy writing crash into the margins, spelling out many sentences that didn't make it into the final draft is key evidence that great writing is the product of great editing.

Photo of Great Expectations manuscript courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
So fret not about getting it right the first time: no one's holding you to a hole-in-one standard. Just pace yourself and be aware of the amount of work that will be required in the long run. Oh, good, a metaphor! Let's explore:

Publishing is a marathon. It's a long way from start to finish. Great writers, like great runners, know the race is won through pacing, stamina, and support, not just a big, long burst of speed. Many books are begun with an epiphanic explosion of inspiration in which the writer leaps from a standstill into a dozen-page-at-a-time writing trance. Some people finish books still in this trance, but most never make it into the third chapter. The thing about publishing, though, is that it encompasses so much more than just writing. It requires revisions and editing, soliciting, a platform, marketing, distribution, formatting, and a plethora of other tasks depending on the publication in question. Losing steam in those later, tedious stages can result in just as much of a failure as giving up fresh out of the gate: crossing the finish line is the only goal that counts.

Monday, September 16, 2013

STL Writer's Room

Hey all! In response to last week's conversation about writing spaces, Austin Skinner, owner of the STL Writer's room, has a few paragraphs to contribute:

True. Writers can write anywhere. And they can put up with just about anything if a deadline calls for it. But really, the mark of a good space is productivity. And people require different things to find it; some need a window, some need a wall.  
But if you haven’t found your answer to Andrew’s question—if your space leaves you wanting—I’d like to suggest the STL Writers’ Room. It’s all the good things about leaving your house without any of the interruptions—music or otherwise. In fact, it’s even more than that. It’s a workspace wholly designed for writers. Imagine a quiet, inspiring building with plenty of outlets and 12-foot windows facing the St. Louis skyline. Now imagine working there alongside other writers busy in their own drafts. And let’s throw in a microbrew across the street for good measure. Do you think you could get more done in two hours there than in six hours at home? Can your space do that?
The STL Writers’ Room is a membership organization open 24/7 to writers of all stripes. With individual workstations and a collaborative space for group projects / peer review / workshops, the Writers’ Room offers a perfect balance of community and solitude.
Memberships options vary, but a full-time membership works out to $3.74 per day, which is probably less than that premium latte you’re buying at the café just to keep the eyes off you. Oh, and coffee’s free at the Writers’ Room.
Overstuffed couches and bookcases add to the atmosphere. It’s a great place to spend a few hours—or the entire day—getting the most out of your time spent writing. Interested in writing with us? Check it out at www.stlwritersroom.com.
—Austin Skinner
The beautiful STL Writers' Room



Monday, September 9, 2013

Writing Uprooted?

Where do writers write? Writers can write anywhere, of course. Some even write in the shower. Enough people, in fact, to justify the existence of waterproof notepads. Although I'm not sure there's a developing job market for underwater stenographers (yet), at least one person has (presumably) taken meeting minutes underwater. Maybe "underwater" will someday start popping up on survey results in response to "Where is your favorite place to write?"

For now, however (darnit), the popular answers are typically at the café, in the park, or at home. Joe Pawlikowski recommends that the best places to write are hotels and libraries and advises writers to avoid coffee shops, the park, and friends' houses (I had honestly never considered the last option, perhaps because I subconsciously pre-anticipated the looks on their faces upon being presented with the idea).

Writing has always been a remote work job, and now writers who write among us have to compete for their favorite writing spaces with all of the other people freshly liberated from the proximal boundaries of their traditional workspaces by the increasing mobility of technology. For some, this is irrelevant. The additional people, chatter, and busyness all fade into background noise while the words flow. For others (like me), there's an extra difficulty of concentrating that can utterly crush productivity.

"Alright, everyone, now that we've assembled our temporary meeting room, let's begin," he wrote on his whiteboard, immediately followed by "I need to go up for air." And then he was swallowed by a shark.


So when you can't focus at home anymore, where do you go in 2013, when there are people everywhere all the time? When there's nowhere to sit in the library that isn't aurally infringed upon by either painfully loud headphones or a pity-inducing snorer? When every barista in town has decided it's Full-Volume Metallica Monday?

Head out to a practically-secret park in a small, country town? Convert the passenger seat into a desk and take it to an abandoned drive-in theater? Prop your notepad on a dumpster in the alley?

Writers? Where do you write?



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Work Around Yourself

Nothing new here, just another positive affirmation from author Stefan Vucak over at Authors Helping Authors today in a post titled "You Always Need an Editor." He's reminding writers that "your mind is automatically correcting things you read" and "[t]hese days, submissions must be perfect," so "have that manuscript edited before publishing it!"

He's right, of course, when he explains that the more time one spends with a piece of writing, the more the brain recognizes the subtext and does its own work reading between the lines, like the way you can wake up in the middle of the night and walk to the kitchen for a glass of water in the complete darkness—your brain is so familiar with its surroundings that it recognizes where the door, its handle, the stairs, the cabinet, the kitchen table all are, without any input form the eyes.

Like Vucak, the first time you re-read your manuscript, you'll catch lots of mistakes—typos, missing words, etc.—but every time you read it you'll not only find more, you'll also be training your brain to ignore the mistakes you're not fixing. Before you publish your book, you'll have to get it edited by someone unfamiliar with it if you want to get those mistakes out of the way. Save yourself the time and get it edited early on instead of wasting all your effort getting frustrated.

Remember, editing is a profession, and editors are professionals. Yes, there are plenty of people out there who are ready and willing to take your money to return an inferior product anticipating that you won't catch them before they get your money. But for every scammer out there are ten editors who want you to be a successful author. Use a surefire vetting method: talk to authors. Ask them who's edited their books and whether they'd recommend using that editor. Interview your editor extensively before you hire them. Make sure you have a detailed contract that spells out the job to be performed. Hire an editor not because you feel obligated to, but because you want to produce a better text.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Confounding Connotations in Cloudy Content

KD Sullivan shared an effectively summarizing post yesterday over at the Authors Helping Authors blog, in which she outlines the "Four Cs—ensuring your work is Correct, Consistent, Clear, and Compelling." My favorite part of this post is when she points out—in her second sentence—that while authors should address these four pillars of writing in their very conception, it is ultimately the editor's role to make sure that's being handled properly.

She also recommends authors create personal style sheets to maintain consistency, provides a neat list of questions authors should ask themselves to ensure the text is conveying its message to its fullest extent, and muses a metaphor for "Writing standards," which "exist for the same reason we have rules of the road: so everyone reads the signs and symbols the same way, and no one collides with a comma on the way to clear understanding."

Great advice for writers. She favors Chicago Manual of Style & Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "the standard publishing references," when I believe what she means to say is that those are the standards in her sector of publishing, but I will concede to her that they're both great references to keep on hand for any writer. I find both sources to be comprehensive and agreeable across diverse markets.

Editors, by nature, address these Four Cs when reviewing texts. What I often find in writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is that authors can tend to get stuck on phrases that might make the rounds in the brain before arriving in the text, picking up lots of personal connotations that don't transfer through the publication to the reader. These voids become invisible to the author (contrary to the searing void Bolaño describes in 2666 as "only the certainty of a void, a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it") and still contain, through every rereading and attempted revision, a meaning inherent to the author that the author cannot discern. An editor offers not only a fresh set of eyes capable of discerning these structural holes but a trained set of eyes capable of fixing the problem or at the very least prescribing a solution rather than just pointing out the inevitable non sequitur. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Style Guides

Amy Lorenti makes a concise point about making concise points today on her blog. She also provides a concise list of style guides that are important for different kinds of content and argues that the style you write in can bear as much weight as the content itself when you need to be writing for a specific audience. I couldn't agree more. I work most often with AP, CMS, and MLA, but I get (and format) manuscripts for lots of different styles. The rules are easy to pick up, even though the guides for each of these styles can be dense and complex. Each style has a reason its rules direct grammar and citations in a certain direction, and once you understand why, the rules become more intuitive.

Take the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance. Anthropologists, historians, and philosophers primarily use CMS, and what they primarily want to indicate in a citation is a reference to a book or journal — sometimes with commentary — that informs the reader very specifically about where that book or journal can be located (what the text is called, who wrote it, where it was published, by what publisher, in what year, and what page quoted material comes from) in order to allow readers to verify that the information in the text is accurate and the arguments are rooted in a larger discussion. Grammar and punctuation are also important to CMS, but are guided for neatness and effective writing with consideration to common topics and technical issues that arise in the writing of fields like anthropology, history, and philosophy. The goal of CMS's rules about grammar regards presenting the text in an easily comprehendible manner.

Associated Press style, on the other hand, is used by news sources and is less interested in citing sources than in fitting extremely efficient sentences is extremely tight spaces. For this reason, AP style often cuts down language, forgoes commas, and uses numerals instead of letters to maximize use of space.

There are dozens of style guides in the world, and while mastering them all isn't a worthwhile use of time, versatile editors are familiar with several, utilizing them according to the task at hand like a sort of bilingualism. I'm always happy for an excuse to learn a new style, as it gives me an opportunity to study the English language and the myriad ways we use it according to our purposes.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can You Get a Minor in Blemishes?

Thanks be to Kevin Eagan (check out his site Critical Margins for one of the most insightful stops you'll make on the Internet today) for finding this article from former American Copy Editors Society president John E. McIntyre's Baltimore Sun column post: "Editing as a portable skill." In this charming recap of his experiences teaching editing to Loyola University Maryland students, McIntyre poetically muses:
They begin to see that precision in grammar and usage has an aesthetic benefit, by not distracting the reader with minor blemishes. They notice that eliminating wordiness increases the impact of expression. They begin to see how proper editing can lead to elegance: not the frou-frou and carpenter's gothic produced when writers mistake fanciness for elegance, but the genuine elegance that rises when diction and syntax and cadence and metaphor are apt to the writer's purpose.
Speaking of "minor blemishes," there's an extra space on the Sun's website just before "minor," although it didn't copy over, strangely enough. Does that show up on other people's browsers, too, or just mine?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tipsy Typos

Maria Elena Leta  has just shared a charming post with us, sparked after noticing an embarrassing (or amusing?) typo on a bottle of wine. Her article digs deeper than simply pointing out the errors that busy people who don't spend much time worrying about copy make, as she goes on to list some of favorite prescriptions for catching errors, including reading out loud and giving yourself some temporal distance from what you've written before submitting or publishing it. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Wicked Which of the Stab in the Dark, or Don't Freak Out

Technicalities like these are what distinguishes editors among editors. In this article, Stan Carey discusses seldom-noticed differences between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses that often cause nervous writers of English to panic and add distracting punctuation right in the middle of a perfectly good sentence. Note the delicate torture involved in the victimization inflicted by a Guy de Maupassant translation: "I had to reread the sentence to parse it properly, this time ignoring the misleading comma."

Okay, that was a little smarmy, but I need you to know that I take my jesting very seriously. Also, I just finished watching Rick Alverson's The Comedy, and I'm a bit desperate to remind myself I have volumes more wit than that Tim and Eric crew in the way stock characters must feel obligated to pinch themselves when unrealistic events occur.

Let's take a moment to remind ourselves that even the ultra-liberal of grammarians are capable of writing and publishing large texts that are perfectly understandable to their readers. Gertrude Stein relentlessly crushed repetitive circles of words into thousand page books while amassing a plentitude of admirers and the legacy of a thought leader, and in an interview from the later years of her life, she answered a question about her tendencies toward commas thus:

"What does a comma do. 
"I have refused them so often and left the [sic] out so much and did without them so continually that I have come finally to be indifferent to them. I do not now care whether you put them in or not but for a long time I felt very definitely about them and would have nothing to do with them. 
"As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s own interest and I do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it and to me for many years and I still do feel that way about it only now I do not pay as much attention to them, the use of them was positively degrading . . . 
"And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. . . . The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma."
 —Gertrude Stein, Lectures In America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) 214-222. <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/works/stein.pdf >
So, now that we've all shaken our realities enough to see that the world doesn't end if you don't put a comma you're not sure is necessary in a sentence you're not writing for a teacher who grades primarily on a written grammar you won't really need much anyway unless you're a professional editor, in which case you should know the rules of grammar well enough to not be so nervous about how to use them.

In less ranty words: Don't worry so much. Write what's there to be written, and pass the corrections off to someone who's read a lot about it. If you suspect you may be misusing grammar, hire an editor before you publish your book. That way you won't have to worry about making people like Mr. Carey and me misconstrue your meanings so often.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Calling Out

Here's a succinct contribution from Geoffrey K. Pullum of Language Log. In it, he argues for the understanding of the varieties of use for language and grammar and how these things evolve to suit our needs. His opposition is to be the benighted, pedantic Oliver Moody, writing for London's The Times

I don't like to call people wrong in their opinions, and I hate to feed the trolls, but I do feel that it's important to have a liberal view toward grammar. Language won't stop evolving. We need to understand the language we use and how we use it. There's no language crisis facing us because people write u instead of you and LOL instead of—well, there wasn't really much of a reason to write laughing out loud before the internet catalyzed linguistic shift, was there?

The fact of the matter is that conservative grammarians don't have anyone to preach their inconsiderate worries to except for themselves and other uninformed (and hopefully uninfluential) people. The rest of us will go on learning, being accepting, and not playing Chicken Little. Here's a comforting presentation from John McWhorter, in which he points out that people have been fretting about grammar being misused for literally millennia.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Afraid to Start


The internet and blogosphere are passing around a recent animation by Blank on Blank, a “multimedia nonprofit with a simple mission: curate and transform unexpected interviews with icons and everyday Americans.” The animation features a 1996 interview of David Foster Wallace, the late American writer whose reputation has, in the last decade, quickly climbed to a position of great esteem. The interview handles matters including perfectionism and smugness; Wallace points to perfectionism as something that “is very dangerous because, of course, if your fidelity to perfection is too high, you never do anything, because doing anything results in—it’s actually pretty tragic, because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” Tangentially, the interview later turns to an issue that Wallace perceives in students, himself not excluded, which is, in effect, a self-inhibiting cycle in which aspiring writers simply produce text “where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever,” which Wallace describes as an “empty and frustrating” thing for an audience to read.


These two matters relate intimately to a writer’s simultaneous fears of not saying enough and having too much to say. Concision is paramount in effective writing. Tautological arguments are a great way for a writer to be ignored. Consider the constructions of some key poems like William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow or Ezra Pounds’ In a Station of the Metro. Their success depends specifically on being concise and understated. The contrast, of course, is a work that takes too long to make its statement, thereby insulting its audience’s intelligence via the inference that the ideas contained must be delicately spelled out to be comprehended.

What drew me to poetry initially, years ago, was that it was a great way for me to say exactly what I wanted to say without feeling a pressure to produce a minimum quantity of words. In academic essays and fiction, a great deal of emphasis was often placed on total word count or page length as a qualifier for success, despite this is not necessarily the truth in a post-academe life. As a student who often wanted to summarize my ideas in a few, strong symbols, I gravitated toward writing poetry. In poetry, I found no one to dictate the length of my writing, and I flourished for it.

None of that is to say that quantity as quality is not an effective method of training writers to write, but what I would like to point out as the important lesson to take away from this is that writers living in a world with editors in it should never be afraid to write exactly what they want to write. We editors work with writers in all manner of contexts. In order for writers to get their ideas out into the world, they must write. The perfectionism can be built up to. The smugness can be toned down later. The content can be revised, trimmed, fattened, rearranged, and manipulated a thousand times over to say a thousand different things. In an age with auto mechanics, drivers aren’t afraid to drive their cars—they know someone can do the repairs. In an age with grocery stores, cooks aren’t afraid to use up their pantries—they know there’s a place to restock. In an age with so many editors, it’s absurd that writers might be afraid to write—knowing full well that someone can polish and shine those words into the best possible form.