Oh, Are We Still Doing the Thing Where We Complain About E-Books?

I have come out of unintentional blog-retirement to give you the gift of this rant.

The Guardian just published an article called “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip.’” It’s about the leveling off of e-book sales and the resurgence in sales of print books, and it comments on why that might be so, using a combination of author speculation and quotes from authorities. I don’t find anything in the article itself offensive (though I did find it interesting–we’ll check back on the contents a bit later on in the post). What I find offensive is this same old tired sentiment, as expressed by the Twitter user here.

Tweet by @Rose_Pereira: "Good news, book sales are up. Real books. The paper kind."

Can we stop with this?

The insinuation that print books are objectively superior to electronic books in any way is more than exasperating at this point. If you think print books are aesthetically superior to electronic books, I understand. But let’s be real. This isn’t about aesthetics.

Moral Horror or Classist Peacocking?

The attitude that print books are superior reminds me of Kant’s “Judgment of the Beautiful.” Kant in essence says that when we determine something to be beautiful, we’re talking about something bigger than, say, our favorite color. If your favorite color isn’t the same as mine, I don’t think you’re any more right or wrong than me, and I don’t think one color is objectively better. I accept that people have their own tastes. But if I say a sunset is beautiful and you say it isn’t, you’re not allowed to have your own tastes. I’m appealing to something bigger than taste, and I believe there’s something wrong with you if you’re not on my level. Almost morally wrong.

Let’s relate Kant’s theory to the idea that print books are better than e-books. If you prefer physical books to e-books, it’s the equivalent of having a different favorite color. But by claiming “real books” are superior, you’re acting as if you instead have a superior moral standing. You’re appealing to some higher law that we should all abide by, some concept of good and evil. People also thought that the Gutenberg press would be ruinous to society for moral reasons. And then TV. In fact, name a medium, and I’ll find you someone who said it’s going to be the ruin of us in some way.

But let’s complicate this a bit more, because the print-book-worshipers I’ve encountered aren’t actually as simple as that. They’re posturing.

Most people who hate e-books don’t really carry the same pitch of hysteria that other hell-in-a-handbasketers do. If you read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you’ll catch a whiff of genuine horror and fear in his tone. It’s the same shake you hear in the voice of all luddites prophesying about how any technology that scares them actually heralds the end of civilization.

I don’t hear panic in the voices of those who feel print books are objectively superior to other formats. I hear superiority. I hear self-satisfaction. Sure, they’ll throw a lot of talk around reminiscent of Carr’s article (“people scan digital text instead of reading deeply,” “technology is taking away our humanity,” blah, blah, blah), but their real message isn’t one of morality.

Nope. To publicly worship the print book and shame every alternative is about posturing. It’s a way to convey classic education and delicate sensibilities. It’s a way to say, “I’m super smart—AMA!” You are playing dress-up as the person you want to be perceived as, just as much as if you’d put on your tweed jacket with the elbow pads and the round bookworm glasses.

And here’s where The Guardian article starts to make real sense. The resurgence of books isn’t about the books themselves. It’s about getting seen with books. What could people who hope to present as bookworms want more than that?

The Book as an Accessory

When it comes to the resurgence of the print book, The Guardian article gives a large amount of credit to an Instagram hashtag.

#Bookstagram [is] a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

There you have it. Print-lovers, if you’re sincerely concerned about the decay of reading in our society, shouldn’t the Instagram-brow-ing of literature be your first target? Shouldn’t the turning of it into a fashion accessory be where you focus your war cry?

But here’s the thing. Print books are something to be seen with. Your book is a signal, just like a lawyer’s Mercedes is signal. And people who proclaim the objective superiority of print are often the type that wear their books in public whenever possible. So #bookstagram is their jam, if ever there was a jam to be had. You won’t catch them criticising it.

The Real Bone to Pick

Here’s the thing, though. Social signaling is so important to how we connect with others, and that’s not my problem with print-celebrators. Sure, I’ve been talking negatively about posturing, but book-signaling is a great way to make friends, possibly on a deeper level than just about any other type of signaling. I instantly want to talk to everyone I see that has a tattoo sleeve or rainbow hair, and this historically has been a pretty bad predictor of who I might actually make a real human connection with. But if I see someone reading Crime and Punishment, we are going to have an awesome talk, no questions about it.

The problem I have is the insinuation that the signaling is more than just signaling or taste is more than just taste.

I don’t care if you love print or e-books. I don’t care about bookstagram. I don’t care if you wear your book like an accessory. I don’t care if your favorite color is green and mine isn’t. We all have things we aesthetically love. We all signal. Sometimes we use things we aesthetically love to signal. No big deal. But you don’t get to say something subjective is objective because you feel like taste gives you some imaginary high ground.

Especially when you have the opposite of the high ground.

If we’re going to start making high-ground-based arguments, print book lovers are in serious trouble. Look at what Laura Brady noted about the tweet shown earlier in this post.

@LauraB7 response to @Rose_Pereira: "Hot tip: ebooks are 'real' books. More real than real if you have a print disability, even."

During my first few years of college, I had several classes with a friend who was blind. I’ve had very few experiences that were more revelatory than watching her try to navigate the learning process without all the things we students took for granted—handouts, photocopied syllabi with handwritten changes, scantron tests, and, of course, textbooks.

Imagine if her textbooks were available on a Kindle, which can now read your book to you. In fact, making books electronic is the first step in making a whole new world accessible to people with disabilities. It won’t be long before someone with dyslexia can switch the font on an e-reader to Dyslexie or Comic Sans. And for those with reading comprehension issues, public notes and the ability to press-and-hold a word to see the definition can put right at your fingertips the material you’d have to go look up.

 To Sum Up…

I prefer e-readers as a medium now, personally, but I understand the appeal—even the romance—of print books. I remember going to our quarterly library sale and coming home with bags spilling over with paperbacks, and that was one of my favorite feelings in the world. I think about books like House of Leaves, and I’m grateful to print for giving us a gift like that.

This all being said, no matter what my personal preference is, I would never proclaim that the way I like to read is more “real” than someone else’s prefered way of reading. No one should confuse taste with objective fact.

Martin Dressler: Overview

Martin Dressler coveruh…huh.

Tl; Dr

A Dreiser-esque bildungsroman makes sense until about 80% of the way through, at which point it turns abruptly into a completely different novel written by R.L. Stine. At least, it’s what I imagine a Goosebumps to be like. I was always too chicken to read them.

That’s not a great summary.

Martin Dressler is an entrepreneur. We watch him grow from childhood, get his first job, and climb to heights no one could have predicted. He builds an empire of hotels, which ends spectacularly–in more ways than one.

Writing Style

I will say, the writer is consistent throughout. As I said in a previous post, he writes very much in the style of Theodore Dreiser. You’re really immersed in the world and mind of the characters, but it’s heavy on the facts and light on emotive elements. I love the style. It’s vivid in the way a good expose in Rolling Stone is vivid. And towards the end, even though the story goes full-on bat poop, the writing is the same. It’s just that, now, someone’s writing a good expose on a a circus-themed nightmare he had.

Characters

Martin is the main character, and he’s not likeable. You root for him anyway, because he’s a visionary. He also does some admirable things. His ambition causes him to aim high, and it’s hard not to cheer as he refuses to sell his ideas short. He ignores prejudices of his age and has a competent woman as his closest business confidant. But he’s unfaithful and a bully and entitled and, at the end, melodramatic.

Martin’s wife is also insufferable. She reminds me of Linton from Wuthering Heights–frail, waifish, self absorbed. I will say she isn’t whiny, though. Just a total waste of oxygen. Anyone around her has no choice but to make their lives about her or suffer the consequences. Now, you know I don’t mind unlikable characters, as long as they’re interesting. This one is not. And things end ridiculously with this character. Absolutely absurdly.

Anyway, characters are not the selling point of this book. The story is. Well, 80% of the story is. I don’t even know what the last 20% of this book was.

Highlights

I loved reading about the beginning of Martin’s life. As a bellboy, he notices details like the texture of luggage and the shine of brass, and the way he describes the bustle and brightness of the lobby is entrancing.

It was also great to watch Martin’s empire grow. You get to see the nuts and bolts of how he used new marketing techniques and how he found people with complementary skill sets.

There are good things about this book. I enjoyed reading it. UNTIL.

FWIW (My Opinion)

What in god’s name was this author doing. <– That was rhetorical.

The shift from a grounded, great-documentary-style to this starkly contrasting horror fantasy at the end was so utterly bizarre that I felt like my head was spinning, Exorcism-style (which would have been in place with this ending). Let me explain.

You’re just reading a story where Martin is building more and more experimental hotels, imagining whole villages underground with stores and themed activities and–kind of like one of the more over-the-top cruise ships, frankly. And then, all of a sudden, everything is totally out of control. But not in a way that feels like plot continuation. More like a way that feels like the author had a mental breakdown.

I won’t throw a spoiler out there, but Martin’s wife does something in contrast to every non-fantastic thing this book stood for until this point. After this, we’ll further see that all bets are off for realism. The new hotel Martin builds is like a freak show combined with a brothel combined with a nonstop pagan ritual. It’s like you’re in the casinos in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after taking everything potent in the suitcase and having it go very badly for you–in other words, totally incongruous with the rest of the novel. The switch happens without warning, for the most part. I was turning pages in total disbelief that this was the same book.

I cannot understand for the life of me what the idea was here. I mean, I read a bit about Millhauser, and it sounds like he was indeed trying to transition into the fantastic, but gradually and elegantly. That transition was about as gradual and elegant as slamming into a brick wall at 70 miles an hour. I’d say the ending is unsatisfying, but it didn’t even feel like I was the conclusion of the same story.

Guys, hard pass. Too bad. It was good reading until things went nuts.

Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

The Signs You Should Put That Book Down

Sometimes we (meaning I) don’t know when to walk away. Maybe we think we like the book we’re reading. Maybe we think that it’s edifying and we’ll wind up being better for reading it. Maybe it was recommended to us by someone who believed we would love it, and we’re waiting to get to the part where we discover they were right.

Put that book down. Life’s too short.

Here’s how you know it’s time to give up that book you’ve been reading.

  1. It’s been several months and you’re still on the same book.
    Sure, you’re busy. Sure, it’s long. You’ve been telling yourself this. But if you were really loving the book, would it still be on your shelf three months since you first cracked it open? And wouldn’t you be past page 80?
  2. You’re very conscious of how much book is left (or, if it’s an e-reader, you keep checking to see what percentage through with the book you are)
    This isn’t curiosity. This is the same as when you’re on the treadmill and you switch from “calories burned” view to “time to cool down” view.
  3.  Someone asks you what you’re reading, and you can’t remember the name of the book
    Maybe this is just me, but when I’m exited about something I’m reading and someone asks me about it, I know the title, the author, around what year it was published–everything. Even if I’m mildly interested, I at least know the title of the book.
  4. When you have the choice to read or do something else, you very consistently do the “something else”
    Plane time has always been my reading time. But during the last few plane trips, I’ve either worked, played the fabulous Machinarium (oh my lord, so beautiful, so worth the money), or wasted time on my brainless-phone-game-of-the-moment. This is not like me.

So, if you can’t tell, I’m having a hard time with–checks Kindle for the name of the book–Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. I am 58% through with the book (see item 2, and I didn’t have to check the Kindle for that info). If someone has asked me what I thought of the book, I would have said, “Eh, it’s pretty good.” But my behavior indicates otherwise. I’ve been reading this since…well, since I last made a blog post about a book.

I’ve been thinking that I’m just busier than normal, or maybe I’m going through a phase where I really love the poker mode in Bejeweled, or [insert other excuse here]. But there are just too many signs that it’s the book’s fault.

There have been times where I got through a book I didn’t like and I was glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. But on the whole, I want to go on the record as screaming this big, fat double negative, both to me and to anyone reading:

DON’T READ BOOKS YOU DON’T LIKE!

A protestant work ethic keeps so many of us from enjoying our lives. Don’t suffer for the sake of edification, unless that’s your quest for the moment. Sure, try some books that aren’t usually you jam. Try to see why others like them. Try out something that makes you think in a new way. But if you find that reading it feels more like suffering than enjoyment, just put the thing down. You’re not losing an investment. You’re gaining back leisure time that would have been spent on something that doesn’t make you happy.

Read books you love. It’s a message as much for me as it is for anyone else.

Women in Literature: Marry or Die

woman-clip-artIt feels like the more I look the world, its literature included, the more I see gender-related expectations pigeonholing humanity as a whole. Historically, I think there have been more obvious and tangible limiting factors imposed on women, but the expectations placed on men are harmful in more insidious, psychological ways. And I think the general hetero-centric nature of society is immensely damaging to everyone in that it forces people to identify as in or out of a social norm and further develop a personal identity that revolves around “please, please, accept me—I’m normal, and I’ll help excommunicate those that don’t conform!” or “I am other, and I must understand how to live life in accordance with that truth and face all the possible confrontations and unpleasantness that may come with.” But that’s for another time.

I don’t really mean to make all my gender-related posts about women, but 1. I am in that camp, hence special empathy, and 2. it’s often an easier, more in-your-face target to talk about gender problems with women characters, and I’m nothing if not lazy.

I wrote about this when I read Anna Karenina and just felt generally disgusted. I’m sick of seeing books that define women characters by heterosexual pairing/romance. Can’t they be people? People who have something other than relationships with men at the core of their being? Can’t they have things that interest them, puzzle them at night, make them interested in the universe…just something other than whatever hetero pairing may be coming their way?

That being said, it’s a lot better in literature now than it used to be, probably because women have the opportunity to do something other than wait around for someone to marry and impregnate them. I read a great article talking about characters needing to “marry or die” (I can’t remember where, or I’d link)—and it’s so accurate. This idea was first posed to me by an English teacher at my community college. I was in an 18th–19th century lit course, and she challenged me to find one book from the time period, just one, where even the boldest and most unconventional of women didn’t wind up married or dead by the end of the book. It’s as if authors, having their women reach full independence or at least operate outside of societal norms, had nowhere to take them after that. (Indeed, where would an independent woman go in these days, having dodged death and mandatory hetero pairing? Almost certainly on the fringes of society, if she could have made it—some rumored witch or freak that was social poison to associate with.)

But what is this theory without some examples?

  • Jane Eyre: married.
  • Madame Bovary: dead.
  • The Awakening’s Edna with her fabulous teeth: dead.
  • Poor, poor Tess D’uberville: dead.
  • Elizabeth Bennet: married.

Really. Find me a woman character from around this time period (1700s and 1800s) that succeeded in being outside society in some way and stayed unmarried and, if not happy, living. (Please. I want at least one to exist.)

Bonus

I’m into bonuses lately. This internet thing has some great stuff in it–have you guys heard?

Just found in McSweeny’s: If Women Wrote Men the Way Men Write Women, by Meg Elison

Here’s my favorite:

Brett pulled his tank top up over his head and stared at himself in the full-length mirror. He pushed down his jeans, then his boxers, and imagined the moment when Jennifer saw him nude for the first time. His feet were average-sized, and there was hair on his toes that he should probably take care of before tonight. He liked his legs just fine, but his thighs were wide and embarrassingly muscular. He tried standing at an angle, a twist at his waist. Some improvement. In that position, it was easier to see his ass and notice that it was not as pert as it had been at 22. He clenched both cheeks, hoping that tightened its look. He sucked in his tummy and pulled his pecs up high, trying to present them like pastries in a bakery window. Would she like him? Were the goods good enough? He pouted his lips and ran his hands over his thighs, masking their expanse. Maybe.

Fabulous.

A Quick Thought

Why Everyone Needs an Editor

The person who already knows and understands what they’re trying to explain is in no position to evaluate whether or not they’re doing an effective job of communicating it. It’s a classic instance of the curse of knowledge.

And now, here’s a hedgehog in a bathtub.

 

hedgehog-in-bath

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 3: Fact Checking

red-pen-3jpgIn a previous post, I said that being smart requires two things: 1. thinking, “Is there an easier way to do this?” and 2. having access to Google.

For this edition of “What no one ever told you about editing,” the number one of that strategy doesn’t even apply. There’s no need to think of an easier way. Just have Google at the ready because authors absolutely make stuff up.

Um, Okay, But Why Do I Care if They Make Stuff Up?

Hard truth time.

Many times, real-world folks mostly want an editor not because they’re aiming for the most beautiful prose of all time. They want a safeguard against being embarrassed.

They may not ask you to fact check. They may not actually know they want you to fact check. But they want you to be a filter for potential humiliation. If something ridiculously untrue and easy to verify slips through, they will think (whether fairly or not), “Where was [your name here] on that one?”

So. Should you fact check things that aren’t easily verifiable, such as company-specific knowledge? Nope, don’t charge the client for tons of extra time. But is fact checking a universally understood part of your job as editor, like an unspoken contract with the client? Yeah, kind of.

“That Doesn’t Seem Right

I was once handed a letter from a high-ranking executive at a company for inclusion in an annual report. This letter claimed that Bermuda was a halfway point between the U.K. and the U.S. I read that sentence and thought, “Huh. That doesn’t seem right.” And just the other day, I edited something that claimed “Leone, France,” was the location of a conference. I had to google the conference to make sure that I was correct in thinking that “Lyon” was meant and not some city I hadn’t heard of spelled “Leone.” Microsoft Word hadn’t flagged it, so I’m glad I knew to check.

These are the types of things that are not the end of the world, mistake-wise, but they can embarrass authors or organizers on a fairly public scale, and I think much of an editor’s job is to prevent these types of embarrassments. And mistakes can have more damaging consequences. What if there were a Leone, France, and folks were booking travel to the wrong place? That’s a serious hit to the public’s trust in the organization publishing the brochure.

In the same brochure, I also had this in a sentence: “This city…is located in the southern part of the Rhine-Main-Area,” and I was pretty sure that “Rhine-Main-Area” wasn’t going to be the correct way of noting the area. (If you’re wondering about specifics, I doubted that “area” was going to be capitalized and that the whole thing would be a hyphenated cluster.) So I googled it. That brings us to the next point…

Plagiarism, Ug

This trip to the search engine in the case of this brochure revealed not only the error in this sentence but also the error in Wikipedia’s sentence…because this entire section of the document was a copy/paste job from Wikipedia. Sigh.

Plagiarism, whether in school or in the business world, is often not meant to be malicious, nor does it necessarily show any lack of integrity on the author’s part. In this case, the writer just wanted to add some facts about the city to a pamphlet for a conference so the reader wouldn’t need to go to Wikipedia on their own and get the exact same information. It’s hardly the end of the world to copy in cases like these. However, as a recent grad and essay coach who’d encountered policies that could punish plagiarism with expulsion, I’m used to the stakes being high as far as plagiarism goes. And I still take a pretty hard line on it. If I hear a voice change in a piece and my spidey sense tingles, I don’t let it slide. The source needs to be identified, the text needs to rephrased, and, preferably, the material should be cited. And once I’ve found one copy/paste job, I know something about the author. I’m on red alert.

Now, here’s where I’ve relaxed since school. Technically, if you get information from a source and you rephrase it in your own words, you still have to cite or it’s plagiarism. In the real world, a copy/paste job on something like a brochure, you’re not going to use the back page as a bibliography. That’s just not realistic. If the brochure is, for instance, about a place with easily-google-able information, such as the year a city was founded, I’ll just rephrase so the exact wording isn’t a copy/paste job. Half the time, the copy/paste source needs editing anyway.

Plagiarism is all over the real world, especially from people who lack (or are years separated from) higher education. They never learned how to properly engage with other people’s written work. I once worked on a book on entrepreneurship. It was over 100 pages long, and I noticed even in the first few pages that the voice seemed choppy. When a oddly specific statistic appeared without citation on page three (something like “83.6%”), alarm bells were ringing furiously. As I started googling verbatim sentences, time after time, I realized his entire book was a Frankenstein monster of other books, academic journals, published research, business bloggers, you name it.

The book I was editing was thoroughly researched, and the author had probably done years of information-gathering, stringing all the bits together to make his own point. That’s exactly how good academic papers work and is seldom seen in non-scholarly writing! But he was going to spend another few years going back and citing the hundreds and hundreds of sources he had copied and pasted without crediting in the slightest, because that cannot, cannot fly–not even in the real world, where pragmatism often supersedes stubborn adherence to rules.

One Last Thing: What They DO Tell You About Editing!

References. Bibliographies. Works Cited. Whatever form they take, you’ll meet them again, even when you’re out of school. Knowing how to build a proper reference section has served me better than just about anything I learned in school. Well, beyond the more abstract, critical-thinking-type lessons, anyway.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to find a title at an online bookstore, go to the publisher’s website to hunt down their city, revisit the Chicago Manual of Style’s rules for citing online journals, track down a blog post and figure out how to cite it, etc. Getting good at this in school had been extremely valuable to me afterwards.

Bonus

A recent post from copyediting.com on fact checking

 

That’s it for this series on editing. I hope to get back to books soon. I’m wading through American Pastoral. It’s good, but it’s taking absolutely forever to get through because I pretty much don’t “do” leisure right now. These days, it’s all work, travel, or preparing for travel, or unpacking. I always used to read on planes because I couldn’t concentrate, but even that now is work time instead of forced chill time. I’d ask you to feel sorry for me, but I’m going to fabulous places like London and Scotland and Panama, so I feel like no one’s going to be playing me any songs on the violin.

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 2: Politics

red-pen2Editing. It’s so romantic. You will work with fiction authors to make their story a masterpiece. That IS what being an editor entails, right?

Aspiring editors are probably at least a little more down-to-earth than that. There’s a ton of content in today’s world, and most of it isn’t awesome fiction. In fact, most of it isn’t fiction at all. And fiction editors aren’t nearly in as much demand as ones with other areas of specialty—editors of web copy, B2B or B2C content, blogs, tech pubs, communications material, etc.

And here’s the other reality. Even if you’re the next Max Perkins, taking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work and molding it into a thing of stunning beauty to be remembered for decades to come, it’s not your show.

Here’s what I never learned about editing, part two: it’s all about your author, and diplomacy is more than essential—it determines the success of the project.

(Note: most of this probably doesn’t apply to journalism where there’s a style in place and you’re accountable to a boss to enforce rules.)

Being Edited Can Hurt

In some circumstance or another, surely you’ve been asked to change something you’ve written. Unless you’re of a heartier stock than I am, it hurts, even if you’re not particularly attached to the material. You took the time to sit down and choose those words, one by one, to explain something or to tell some kind of story. It’s a part of you. It’s difficult when someone essentially asks you to call the time you spent, even on just one sentence, a wash. I know this from being a writer myself. Criticism of creation, even valid criticism, can be hard to take.

Side note! Writers, don’t treat an edit like a marriage: going to bed angry is a great idea. Wait out that initial resistance to be critiqued. See if you feel it’s valid after you’ve gotten some space. You’ll wake up with perspective, and you’ll either be ready to accept some truths you couldn’t accept before (that’s me) or else you’ll know the editor and you are not a good fit.

Other side note! After getting used to it, being edited is like going to a writing spa. I throw a snarl of word bedlam at someone and it comes out all beautiful and sparkly, and I didn’t even have to do any work! I love being edited.

Your First Assignment with an Author

Of course, it’s helpful to feel out what the client is looking for with a discussion first. The problem is that most people looking for an editor think they’re done and just want a quick check, but they almost always need at least a few rewrites. As I said in an earlier post, if they think they need proofing, they probably need copyediting; if they think they need copyediting, they probably need global work. An editor almost always knows better what a piece needs than the author does. The author may have vision, but they’re too close up to fulfill it by themselves.

But the reality is, at least for freelancing, that the author is the boss, and they’re hiring you to do a job they dictate, not you. In a 9–5 situation, you might have more leverage if there isn’t a time crunch. But you have to manage relationships. Even if the piece you’re handed could be amazing if you could just reshape it with total freedom, don’t give into that temptation with a new author. Every word was chosen. Maybe it was chosen carefully, maybe not. But it always will serve you well to treat those words as if they’re precious.

The first time I edit anyone, even someone who knows their piece is going to need to be ripped apart and reassembled or maybe even completely rethought, I always note even just a little thing that the person has done right. That’s done with the idea that they can take that and build upon it the next time they write. I really think that’s one of the most important services an editor can possibly provide—rather than focusing on failings to be addressed, how can we amplify their best qualities as a writer?

Next to note is this: I always use a light hand the first time I edit anyone, especially if they specifically just ask you to look for typos or if they’ve just spent a lot of time polishing it and are exhausted. Sometimes, a recommendation to revisit the entire thing is inevitable. But if you can avoid it, reserve the “this would sound better if”-type advice to the comments section or in an email. Seeing work crossed out is rough, and it shouldn’t be done more than absolutely necessary the first time you work with someone. Even if you’re tracking changes and the author has the power to just click a button and reject what you’ve done, don’t overestimate the unspoken judgement and finality of going into a document, looking at a sentence that’s troublesome but has no grammar errors, and making it clear you reject what they did and can do it better. An author will learn to trust you if they like your advice, and you can eventually get to the point where you can just rephrase.

Bottom line: always assume an author will be extremely sensitive to edits until you know otherwise. It’s a hard thing for editors, especially those editors who are meticulous or—worse—are seeing potential go unrealized. But it’s (generally) more important that the author is happy with their piece than if you’re happy with their piece.

Not Causing a Scene

Have you ever finished a long project, sent out your work, and gotten an email in response that said, “Great start!” and then listed the 40 things that you needed to fix? You don’t want to that person unless you have to be—the one who will send back a piece with way more work to be done than even before the canvas was blank.

If an author trusts me, I’ll often go into the medium itself (WordPress, Constant Contact, InDesign, StackEdit) and make my changes without tracking. That way, they can have something that’s ready to go without needing to do any more work than they have to. People are busy. But the first time you edit someone, you want to track pretty much everything.* You want them to know your style of editing—what you recommend, what problems you’re catching. You also want them to feel empowered to accept or reject things.

If a piece needs a ton of work, I’ll often send them a marked up and a clean copy, attaching the clean copy first and calling it a suggested version or something. Most people will only review the clean copy and not even really look at the tracked one. If they like it, they’ll just send you a thumbs up. No one needs to do much work after that, and if they didn’t open up the tracked changes copy, they probably never even saw how much you did.

If you do this, make certain that you maintain the author’s voice. If they read something that seems like a completely different piece, they will dive into your changes, and you’ll be in for an ongoing email chain that’s bound to be varying degrees of awkward.

* The exception is when you don’t want to send someone back an intimidating, potentially psychologically damaging document covered in red. If there’s a common comma error, I’ll track the first change, note the error in a comment, and say that the rest of the instances have been changed without the distraction of markup. Then I’ll just toggle track changes on and off as needed.

Preparing to Defend…

Your edits are your castle and your knowledge is your moat. Make sure you have a good one, with alligators and possibly harmful bacteria.

We were all misinformed to varying degrees about the rules of English language in grade school. For some people, that’s the last and only encounter they had with grammar. They will use their zombie rules as an excuse to go swimming in your moat.

Be friendly, and make it clear that you’ll do whatever incorrect thing they like. It’s their piece, not yours. But make your castle unapproachable for any author who values “the right way.”

…But Don’t Be a Pedant!

That being said, this isn’t math class. In school, there’s often one right answer. In the real world, there isn’t–even when there is. Let me explain.

Don’t insist on the right way if it hinders communication or if your author says, “I understand it’s wrong, but I like it better the way it is.” Save your battles for things you feel will strongly harm a piece if it isn’t addressed. Nine-tenths of people aren’t going to notice if job titles are capitalized when they shouldn’t be. But if your client is using “supercede” instead of “supersede” and insisting on keeping an incorrect spelling, that’s pretty embarrassing for them and may hurt their attempt to be a voice of authority. You should probably point them at a source that explains that they’re wrong rather than just say, “Whatever you want!”

Conclusion

Authors are the bosses. Choosing to be an editor means that you’re caring for someone else’s baby. Don’t hand the baby back with a new arm and different colored hair unless that arm had gangrene and that hair was, um, plagiarized (a toupee? A baby toupee?). Once you have a relationship with the author and you know they want your full treatment, writing can more of a partnership. But you have to earn trust.

Be an awesome editor—be a flexible editor—be an editor people know will make them sound fantastic. But most importantly, be an editor that treats people’s work as if it has value, not like it’s just trash to be crossed out at will.

After all, if you can really do that much better, perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong profession…

Bonus

Kill Your Darlings,” a blog post about being edited by the very amusing Geraldine from The Everywherest

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 1: Formatting and Word

red-pen1Hi guys! I have not posted in months because I have not read anything in months. So sad, I know. I’ve been doing a lot of work, so what’s mainly on my mind these days is editing.

I started making a mental list a few months ago of all the things I wasn’t prepared for and learned on the job. I thought it might be a fun series for writers and the generally curious, and maybe it will even be valuable to some aspiring editors.

Your New Roommate: Microsoft Word

As I said in my last series on the subject, someone once asked me what it was like to go to school to be an editor. I would again like to reiterate that going to a liberal arts school and getting a degree in English is wonderfully edifying and 10 of 10 Amandas would recommend. But it in no way teaches you how to be an editor in the real world.

Here is one of things they never tell you about being an editor: you and Microsoft Word are going to be reeeeeeal close. You will have to become the god of MS Word. And I’m not talking about “yeah, I can put in footnotes!” I’m not talking about “yeah, I see that styles pane on top of the screen, and sometimes I press it if I want to change the way my title looks!” I’m talking about setting up macros to run a series of find-and-replace tasks for an author that makes continued mistakes. I’m talking about designing a custom style set to auto-number second and third level headings in multi-leveled lists, and then telling it to decouple the numbers for the annex section but rank the sections the same in the headings navigation. I’m talking about people sending you a Word document with all sorts of weird spacing between the letters, and not just understanding why it’s looking wrong but also knowing where the kerning section is in Word. (Hint: it is deep in the Word-bowels, and I would have never found it on my own the first time I needed to access it.)

There are people better than me at Word, who know how to do things that I never knew were even options. But I am at least a demigod at Word, a minor deity. Maybe a Word fury. And I learned NONE of it in school.

So potential editors, here’s the stuff they don’t teach you.

Track Changes

First things first. You cannot, in this day and age, be an editor and not be good with Microsoft Word’s track changes. Track changes is not intuitive, and your document will be a rainbow mess of garble if you have multiple people participating—no avoiding it. But you have to be able to read it, understand it, switch views, accept and reject the changes, and deal with people’s comments. You also should know how to accept only format changes, limiting the displayed changes to substantive edits.

Also, I promise you will be mighty pleased with yourself if you figure out how to password-lock the document so that other users can’t turn tracked changes off. The worst thing in the world is when you get a document where some maniac has actually used the manual underline/strikethrough/font color features so that it looks like tracked changes you can accept or reject. Then, oh god, it’s really just formatting you have to manually delete. ~Bangs head on desk until blood pools.~

Like democracy, the only thing worse that Word’s tracked changes is everything else. It can be a real headache, but it really is the top of the line when it comes to collaborating and editing. You have to know how to use it and be comfortable with it if you’re the editor of the document.

Find and Replace

Next! Find and replace is launched by Ctrl + H. Memorize it. It’s the feature, other than track changes, you’ll use most as an editor. Let’s say I convert a technical document that started out as a PDF to Word, and I see all the mathematical symbols and Greek letters have converted incorrectly. But what I also see is that they seem to have all come in as Times New Roman, whereas the rest of the document is in Calibri. I open the find and replace dialogue box, click in the “Find” section, search for the Times New Roman typeface, and replace with a highlight. Poof. All the places I need to double check are highlighted, and I know I won’t miss one. (If I were more trusting, I might try changing the typeface to Symbol and replacing all. But after many Word-traumas, I have learned that the wise find the balance between expediency and caution.)

Or how about this? A document is full of inconsistencies. Sometimes they spell out the numbers 1–10; sometimes they use the Arabic numbers. You can use find and replace and enable something called wildcards to find all numerals instead of typing in “1,” “2,” etc. (Wildcards are amazingly powerful, and I’ve only begun to understand what they’re capable of.)

And there’s more. Find and replace will change all those stupid double-hyphens into em dashes. Or, in one shot, it will save you the agony of turning all the double-space-after-periods to single-space-after-periods. It’s irreplaceable. Irrefindandreplaceable.

Alt Codes and Macros

I work primarily on a Surface now, so I don’t have a numbered keypad. But back in the day, alt codes were how I’d create en and em dashes. An alt code is this: if you hold the alt key and press a series of numbers on your number pad, you get a symbol character not available on your keyboard. There are so many of them that you’ll certainly find one for whatever you wind up using most: Greek letters, mathematical symbols, diacritics, that awesome o/e combo for writing “foeces” (more classy than poop!). It will save you so much time to not have to dip into “Insert” and “Symbols” and paw through endless boxes of undecipherable squiggles.

Now that I don’t have the numberpad, I’ve made serious use of Word’s macro option. When you record a macro, you record keystrokes, and your keystrokes will be repeated when you run that macro. So to set these up, you have to be comfortable enough with a keyboard and ribbon that you can get to pretty much anywhere you want without a mouse. (Hint: to access anything on the ribbon with a keyboard, try hitting alt and going from there.)

Because of macros, I can now hold “Ctrl + Alt + M,” a shortcut customized by me, and get my em dash. I can also highlight a Series of Words that are Capitalized for No Reason Whatsoever (this happens all the time) and turn them all lowercase with a macro I recorded. And, for the aforementioned psychopath who tried to mock track changes with all the underlining and striking through, I can highlight what I want to accept, hit a few keystrokes, and clear all his local formatting. Team macros!

Serial Killers and Word: Using Tab Stops and Styles

I’ll often get documents from people with lines all over the place, what looks like columns placed unevenly, text that looks like it’s right aligned but something isn’t quite right. So I choose to reveal paragraph marks and formatting symbols to see how they created this fun look, and, oh, the horror. Serial killer formatting.

If you’ve ever seen The Shining, you probably remember the scene that shows Jack Nicholson’s conviction all work and no play makes him a dull boy. That’s what serial killer formatting reminds me of. It looks like an insane person got ahold of the document and just held down the spacebar for 30 seconds, and then started hitting tab like it’s some kind of word processing tic. Then they hit return six times, threw in a soft return, put in a non-page-breaking section break, and when that didn’t work, put in a page break. All these horrors are revealed when you show hidden characters.

Anyone who doesn’t know how to make Word behave the way they want (read: everyone at some time or another) has been guilty of creating such a document. But revealing those marks and seeing what’s behind the veil is like peering into the mind of a deeply troubled human being—your eyes will widen and your heart will start pounding and you’ll wonder if the author, who you thought was a just a nice, regular guy with excellent taste in ties, is behind you with a knife.

Anyway, unless the client has a specific proofreader that will get the document after you or unless Word is not the final destination (in which case, shed a tear for the person porting it into its end document design program) you can’t let things like uneven alignment go. You have to learn to use tab stops, and you have to know more about them than how to click on a ruler. Leaders and right-aligned tab stops are important for forms needing names and addresses and other information (certainly, your client has held down underscore for this purpose), and creating a paragraph style once you’ve set up tab stops can make your life so much easier.

I edit a series of publications for a client, and they often have equations with coordinating labels (e.g., “Equation 2.5 I-P”). I know that most equations won’t go past the three-inch mark in Word, so that’s about where the label should go. I’ve created a tab stop at that mark and now can hit tab after the equation to make the label sit at the three-inch mark. I then saved this as a paragraph style, labeling it “Equation”–with my other saved styles so they make a set–and saved that set on my computer. If I apply this style set for all this client’s documents, I’ll be able to have them all have the equation label at the same place by quickly applying that style.

Conclusion

They don’t teach you this stuff in school, folks. At least they didn’t in mine. This is just one of the ways that school can help teach you how to think, but it won’t give you the practical skills you need. And Word is THE essential one I never knew I’d need to the extent I do every day.

For one thing, I was asked about it in my job interviews out of school. Of course everyone will say they know Word—after all, much of school is typing things out on a screen, printing it out, and handing it in. But when they start asking you the real questions, you may be in a pickle. I was.

And here’s the other thing. Now that I’m freelance, I often charge by the hour. There comes a point where you’re taking a silly amount of hours to get this formatting right or to fix repeating errors (and double checking for your own human error in correcting them, because I promise you missed one!). You have to have shortcuts for no-brainer work so you can focus on content. And for 9–5ers, you got stuff to do, right? You don’t want to be spending your time manually hunting down every semicolon in a document because your author thought it was a fancier-looking version of a comma.

Know your Word. Or at least know enough of the terminology to Google what you need. Half of being smart is thinking “Is there an easier way to do this?” And the other half of being smart is having access to Google.

Bonus

Here’s a document listing all my favorite shortcuts and explaining macros as plainly as I can.