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.

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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.

Murder Mystery Audiobook Bonding, Or Books that We All Can Agree On

As my previous post stated, the physical-page-turning reading has been plodding. I’d compare it to the pace I would complete the mile run fitness test in high school. (Best time: 18 minutes, entire class waiting on me to finish, annoyed.) But audiobooks have been a different story.

My husband and I have been tearing through audiobooks lately. And since we’re trying to solve a problem I imagine other couples have, I thought I’d log some 1. agreeable books and 2. lessons in compromise. These aren’t in-depth reviews by any stretch. They’re just quick notes on where lit-snot taste and beach-read taste intersect.

About Us

My husband is brilliant, and it was literature that originally sparked our mutual interest in one another. He’s read a good deal of classics, but he isn’t like me–he doesn’t consider them entertainment. I don’t blame him. His work days are pretty heavy, and I know that my way of unwinding (a little Notes from the Underground with my chardonnay) isn’t all that relaxing for most people. But now that he’s got an Audible subscription, I started having irresistible visions of cozy cabin nights snuggling while huddled up around our new best friend Alexa as she reads to us. So the hunt for mutually acceptable books began.

It was no easy task, since he wants something entertaining and I want something with brilliant language and well-developed characters and a unique plot and lots of themes and intrigue…well, you can clearly see which one of us is the problem here. Anyway, those things can intersect, but it’s hard to find the point where they do.

Since we both like TV crime dramas, I thought we’d go hunting in that arena. It’s not a bad bet: you know the kind of material you’re getting for the (ahem, exorbitant) price of an audiobook, whereas some of the other genres could produce totally unreadable material despite promises of glory (see my post on Gilead).

What We Read

The first book I thought maybe we should try was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which had everyone talking over the last year or so. This book was popular for good reason–it was bit more “psychological portrait of an alcoholic” than “murder mystery,” but we spent the entire car ride from Chicago to Louisiana listening to it with neither of us ever feeling like it was time to stop. It was good ground for both, ground we were comfortable hiking around together, pointing out wildlife.

Mutual Agreeableness Scale: A


What was not good mutual ground was the next book I found. After seeing all the positive reviews on Goodreads (PRO TIP: do not get your recommendations from Goodreads unless you have a community there you trust), we bought The Kind Worth Killingwhich I imagine the author thought was a daring and clever book on moral ambiguity. I should have known just by the title it was going to be bad, and baaaaaaaad it was. Every character was completely absurd. The plot was a constant onslaught of gimmicks. But don’t worry–you will leave the book having a great deal of knowledge of the size, shape, texture, relative jiggle, etc. of the breasts of each female character. So if, while you’re getting to know the minds and histories of a character in a book you often find yourself thinking, “okay, that’s fine…but what is her cup size?” you’ll be quite satisfied with this book. Sorry, my feminism is showing. Anyway, if we hadn’t paid so damn much for the audiobook, I would have stopped after a few chapters. And it wasn’t like my husband was in love with it either, though he is more patient than me, in both literature and life. We spend a good amount of time talking about all its flaws, though, so it wasn’t like there was no bonding over it.

Mutual Agreeableness Scale: D (the only thing that keeps it from F is that is isn’t quite Dan Brown)


Being burned by this last stinker, I was a little jaded by the crime novel. But I reluctantly said that maybe we ought to see what all the Gone Girl hoopla was about. I am changed. This book was absolutely fantastic, and it was the perfect intersection of what we both like. The husband loves plot and suspense. I love language and characters. This book had all of it. It was just amazing, every step of the way. I might do a more through examination later because this makes my “literature worth discussing” list. And my husband laughed aloud several times and paused the audio at multiple points to talk about what was going on, which is remarkable. We both united in delight on this one.

Mutual Agreeableness Scale: A+++++++ (picture teacher from A Christmas Story)


We loved Gillian Flynn so much that we chose another of her books next. It’s called Sharp Objects. It was good, but it wasn’t Gone Girl. It was harder to follow, less entertaining, and had a much slower plot.  Nonetheless, Flynn is just a good author, period. It would be really hard with someone with such lyrical prose to pump out a subpar book, even if the plot isn’t stellar. But we agreed that there were some preposterously unrealistic drug scenes, and at least one of the characters was just not believable in the slightest–far too over the top. But it was not a wasted purchase. We devoured the book and both continue to say we’d read more from Flynn any day.

Mutual Agreeableness Scale: B+


Here’s the part where I beg for your help.

Anyone have any books they think would rank high on our mutual agreeableness scale? I’ve researched and researched, and it’s just so hard to find things with both the good lit and the entertainment angle. I’m trying hard to convince the husband that Franzen’s Purity isn’t Freedomwhich we audiobook-ed together a long time ago and he didn’t like. (Frankly, neither did I.) I’d love to experience Purity again. We’re also thinking of Find Herthough I’m a little sketched out by the Evanovich/Patterson-style serial detective thing. I just assume they’re trash, rightly or wrongly.

I’m not just fishing for comments–I’d really, really love recommendations. This is new territory to me. There’s nothing I love more than our audiobook nights and listening to something together, and I want to keep it going.

 

 

Some 2015 Awards Coming Out

Hey, party people.

This is nothing like the gushing I’m about to do about Cormack McCarthy’s masterfully-written The Road, which I tore through. No, this post will be a bit of fluff about the winners of some word-centred prizes that have been announced in the last few weeks.

Amazon’s Best Books of 2015

Not sure Amazon can be considered an authoritative source, but it’s got populist roots that can be food for thought. I’m not sure how influenced by sales their editors are, but it’s likely that they kept the books on their best sellers list in mind. That makes it unlike other prizes in that it isn’t a core of literary aesthetes dictating to us, through the wisdom that comes with their cultivated taste, what is best to read. (See David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste.” Actually, you know what, don’t bother. It’s garbage.)

Not that I’m against people with great taste telling me what to read. I’m not against anyone telling me what to read, really. Which is why I’m perfectly happy to check out Amazon’s. Here it is. Or, if you’re like me, you can hop straight to the fiction category.

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Notes:

  1. Check out you, Purity. Lovely to see you.
  2. To see what effect Stieg Larson’s books have had on cover design, get an eyeful of all the covers in the lit and other categories (including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me) and then check out this Google image search.
  3. This has just occurred to me after going on my Pulitzer adventure. Before doing this, many of the things I read were in the public domain (read: free). Reading modern books is expensive. I’ve probably spent close to $100 on books this year, as opposed the maybe $10 I usually spend.Totally worth it.

Oxford’s Word of the Year

It’s an emoticon. True story.

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If it weren’t for the smile part, that pretty accurately represents the reaction the public has had to this choice. An emoticon? Cue hell-in-a-handbasket hysteria.

I personally could not care less that an emoticon won. I’d even give them this: emoticons are indeed words, the same way hieroglyphics are words. Structuralists everywhere will agre that the image acts as a signpost for meaning, just the way words do.

What I care about is how late to the game all the people at Oxford are. They’re like Stan’s dad from Southpark: so terrified of seeming uncool that they jump on all the things “kids nowadays are into.” If you were going to go the emoticon route, (1) you’re too late—like, years too late—and (2) I think you’ve got to go with one of the more cutting edge pictorials.  Facial expressions are already so integrated that they’re hardly fresh news. If you’re going for novel, I think you have to go with the octopus. I say that based on the documented evidence that it is my personal favorite.

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Anyway. Ask anyone under the age of 30 what they think of the shortlisted Oxford nominee “on fleek,” and they will raise one (previously-referred-to-as-on-fleek) eyebrow and throw shade. Oh no. Is “throw shade” still cool? Well, either way, I suggest making the people at Oxford your last to consult on the matter.

2015 National Book Awards

Here’s a link to the winners, but be prepared for an onslaught of unwelcome noise. (Why do sites do that?)

Adam Johnson topped the list, with a book called Fortune Smiles, encased in this marvelously designed exterior:

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Goodness. That is so fun that you almost forget he wrote the BRUTAL, NIGHTMARE-INDUCING, UNFINISHABLE The Orphan Master’s Son.

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies shows up on this list, as well as Amazon’s. Since it’s getting so much attention, here’s the New York Times‘ review and the reviews on Goodreads. If you pick it up, let me know what you think.

Ta-Nehisi Coates takes the non-fiction prize again. If non-fiction doesn’t make you feel like you suck at reading, I would check this out. I might check it out, considering that it comes recommended from far and wide.

Next!  The Road. I can’t wait to tell you about it. McCarthy is the antithesis of everything I love in literature, which makes it all the more interesting that I found The Road absolutely riveting. Stay tuned.

Unrelated: Shameless Self-Promotion

Hey, all. A happy announcement! I’m officially self-employed. That puts so many important things in my grasp: location independence, the ability to pursue work that best uses my skills, and, importantly, the ability to Christmas shop while nine-to-five-ers are at work. (Just kidding, of course. As a member of this pleasantly civilized world where crowds are avoidable, I will be doing all my shopping on the internet.)

Wait until the cats find out how many road trips they’re about to go on. They will be thrilled.

You may have noticed that some of the tabs on the top of my blog have been changing. That’s in preparation for this move to full-time contracting.

So here’s a bit about me, if you’re not familiar. I’m primarily an editor by trade, but I’m doing writing and design work, too. My real dream is a kind of intersection of this blog and my editing skills—I love to study what makes writing powerful, and I’d like to apply what I’ve learned to people’s writing. In other words, I’m a decent writing coach, and I’d like to do more to help people develop skills that will put their writing game at the next level.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, if you or anyone you know have need for anyone with the skills I’ve talked about here, please check out my offerings/credentials on the tabs above and reach out to me at muledyaj at gmail dot com.

Also, please send soothing thoughts to the cats, who have no idea how many road trips they’re about to go on.

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On Editing, Part Three: How to Become an Editor

Proofreading red pencil with various errors on paper

This has been a series of posts on disconnects. So far, the series has covered the disconnect between the editing people need and what they think they need and the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what an editor needs to make per hour. This last post is on the disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world, and it’s all the things I wish I would have known a few years ago.

A few months ago, I was having a drink with a fellow language-lover. We were catching up on where each other was at in her life, and she asked, “So, how does one go to school to be an editor, exactly?” The implication, I suppose, was that step one (I went to school) led to step two (I’m an editor). It’s not an unreasonable thing to assume.

I thought for a second and said, “Um…one doesn’t.”

That isn’t to say one can’t, necessarily. The college I went to offered two English major tracks: writing and literature. I chose the literature track (which, by the way, demanded just as much writing as the other track). At no point was there offered any class on advanced grammar, linguistics, or the skill of editing.

Now, larger and differently-focused schools may offer editing classes, especially if they’re well known for their journalism programs. Of course, being an editor in the journalism world often actually means you’re writing. But you can seek out schools with editing courses.

For some, though, that’s not the most practical course of action to take. Editing and advanced grammar classes are not very easy to come by, I’ve found. And even then, they’re courses, not degrees.

You do need a degree, of course. English is best, but you might be able to squeak in with a communications, journalism or marketing degree. But this isn’t the way you will learn how to be an editor. A degree is your way into the door of a company.

If you want to be an editor, your training is in your own hands. Here’s how you really learn how to be an editor.

Learn Your Grammar

The first thing you want to do is become more grammar-savvy than the layman. You probably already are, if you’re thinking about going into this field. But you need to strategize around defense, especially if you’re just starting out. Assume someone is going to call you on every edit you make. If you know the rules, you can make many of these changes with confidence.

Figure our your parts of speech, your dependent and independent clauses, and your active and passive verbs. Learn to speak the language of grammarians. It will help you begin to understand how sentences work, and when those secrets are unlocked, sentences will become putty in your hands. Instead of thinking, “There’s just something awkward about this,” you’ll think, “Oh, of course this sentence sounding sing-song-y. It has five prepositional phrases in a row.”

Here’s where you start: at the 90s-tastic but still very useful website Garden of Phrases. Start on page one and take the quiz. Then select “quizzes” from the dropdown and start taking them all. It’s a brutal wake-up call. But you need to know what you don’t know.

From there, learn to diagram sentences. I got this workbook: I don’t know if I’m crazy about it, but lots of people are. Don’t get too hung up in mastering 100% of the details right away, like I did. Just plow through it.

Also, become zen about Murphry’s Law, if you write as well. There will be at least five errors in every post I make about grammar and editing. I try not to post garbage or anything, but if I actually strived for 100% perfection in everything I wrote, no one would ever hear a peep from me. I would just be sitting in front of the keyboard, shaking in terror. Don’t get so worked up about the rules that you can’t function, but know them.

Learn Your Style Guides

Following a style guide is what makes sure all things in the text are harmonious. These guides deal with issues that aren’t usually a matter of grammar, and they aren’t dictating what’s universally right or wrong. You can write a date as 9/5/15 or you can write it as September 5th, 2015. Neither are wrong. But you shouldn’t use both styles in one text. That’s where style guides come in.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are your two must-know guides. Learn the key differences between these two, and you’ll be in good shape. As a starter kit, buy a copy of each guide that’s one edition old–you’ll save money, and you can quickly find out what’s been updated in the new versions with a Google search. And for light reading, check out AP vs Chicago for the essential differences. It kills me that this blog is inactive because it’s been a marvelous resource to me over the years. Plus, the author is a delight.

You can check out my own in-house style guide I made for a company (and you can tell me about any grammar errors you find). Some of the decisions I made about style itself was because I was swimming upstream against legacy, but there is some advice in there you might find interesting.

Here are some books on general style that are beneficial and/or fun to read. They are not by any means holy grail resources, since so much of style is personal preference. (Except Steven Pinker’s book. Everything in there is gold.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss–A little prescriptivist and “thou shalt” for my taste, but I’m better for reading it

Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh–and I can probably blindly recommend anything else he’s written. I loved this book and am dying to read his others. Bill is an editor for the Washington Post, and he is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t agree with every little thing he says in this book, but I love all of it anyway. He also does live chats called Grammar Geekery the first Thursday of every month, where he’s answered tons of my questions. But even if you don’t need answers, you should lurk just to watch his on-point, delightful snark at work.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—Dated, troubling in many cases, perpetuates zombie rules, but, well, you have to at least have read it. You can’t be the editor that isn’t at least able to argue about Strunk and White.

Besides, “omit needless words” is an editorial mantra that should stand for all time. If nothing else, that phrase redeems much of the stylistic quackery.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda—Ben’s another great editor to keep tabs on, and this book will help you better understand the parts of speech and where they can go wrong.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—A forward-thinking, beautifully written piece from a linguist who really understands how the written word works. I’ll be honest; I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it’s so far been my absolute favorite book on style. Pinker is in the descriptivist camp, and with his ideas come great freedom to believe writing is improving as we communicate more and more. (See here for a description of prescriptivist vs descriptivist schools of thought. Hint: descriptivists are always on the right side of history.) He is a fan of deflating self-important academic/business writing in order to communicate with simplicity and elegance.

Follow Thought Leaders and Have Reliable Sources

Subscribe to the blog Lingua Franca, and keep your eye on people like Ben Yagoda and Geoffrey Pullman. Follow the marvelous Tom Freeman at the Stroppy Editor, though keep in mind that he’s operating under a slightly different set of rules due to geographic location. (And if you’re not American, beg pardon—it’s actually Americans who are operating under the different rules, of course.) I also subscribe to Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, although you may want to avoid his blog if you have a low tolerance for politics. Keep tabs on the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) even if you don’t join. You can tweet to the editors at the Wichita Eagle @grammarmonkeys if you have any questions about grammar and editing. It’s an awesome service.

But most of all, if you have questions, learn where to go for answers you trust. If I can’t find answers in my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or if I know my question is purely grammar-related, I go to straight to the English Language Stack Exchange, where a meritocracy and a community of field experts guarantees a good answer. Search for your question before you ask. The community is a little hostile if they think you’re being lazy. But it’s my favorite resource, and it’s never steered me wrong. It also deals with really complex questions.

There are other good resources. Purdue’s OWL is not comprehensive, but it’s very useful and reliable. If you go to Google with a question, and anything shows up with the address “grammar.ccc.commnet.edu” attached to it, it’s going to be trustworthy—that’s the site with the Garden of Phrases. Things from Jane Strauss’ Grammar Book tend to be correct, as well, although I’d be wary of that site being out of the loop for too long. It’s also worth saying Grammar Girl is totally worth the hype. If she’s addressed your question, she’s got it right. Sometimes, but not always, academic resources can be helpful. Look for .edu as a tag at the end of the URL. But the correctness of .edu sites is not a given.

Also, if you have two editorial choices you’re wavering between, check out Google NGrams. It searches Google Books for your terms. That means you’re not necessarily looking up the right answer, but you are seeing at usage over time and trends. It’s useful for a lot of things. For instance, I can see that I’m not making the best decision by choosing to leave the space out of “copyeditor.”

Capture

Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that you never, never go to forums like Yahoo Answers. That’s where all truth goes to die.

Start Editing, Even if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Offer to edit people’s blogs for free. Contact a small non-profit you love and offer to proofread their newsletter. Become an editor on your school newspaper or offer to do a little proofreading for your town’s community center. When you start, research the answer to absolutely EVERY question you have—never guess—and keep a list of your answers.

What really prepared me to be an editor had nothing to do with my coursework. It was tutoring at my writing center. Our writing center was no joke. I had four months of intensive training. I learned so much about research, argument structure, thesis-building, checking for coherency, writing for readers, how to self-edit, you name it. That was the true foundation to me becoming more than someone who just had a “feel” for what is right/wrong or clear/awkward. It was what bridged the gap between me just being a good second pair of eyes on text to being what is a real-deal editor. If you have an opportunity like this, take it. If you don’t have the opportunity for training like this, well, let me know. I was thinking of maybe starting a program that can do for others what this writing center did for me.

Have a Real Editor Look at Your Resume

Don’t have your mom read your resume. Don’t give it to college advisor. I mean, you can also do that. But if you’re applying to be an editor for the first time, you’ve got to get that resume in front of an actual editor. There are things you don’t know you’re doing wrong that can bump you off the radar if someone who knows what he/she’s doing is narrowing the field of applicants. I just looked at the resume I sent out as a fresh grad and I was horrified to see I had separated dates (as in “worked here September of 2010 through June of 2012”) with a hyphen instead of an n-dash. That might not seem like a big deal. But if I were hiring an assistant editor now and was looking through a pile of resumes, and all I’m looking for is a reason to throw some of them out, that hyphen tells me, “Oh. This person is too much of a newbie or doesn’t pay enough attention to detail to know that this isn’t how you treat dates.” Then I toss it to the side.

Get a real editor’s eyes on your resume. At least make sure the door doesn’t close prematurely.

I’m pleased to announce this part is pretty easy. I’m a real editor, and I’m happy to take a look at your resume if you’re starting out. No charge. I’m currently trying to build up good karma so I can go do something awful later and not be reincarnated as a cicada.

On Editing, Part Two: The Practicality of Editing

Two to too error found while proofreading paper

In my last post in this series, I wrote about the different levels of editing. In this post, I want to talk about the value proposition of having these layers of edit built in, or, more bluntly, the unquantifiable nature of that value, dollar-wise, for the individual. This is one of the disconnects that’s been bothering me: the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what it costs in time for an editor to work.

The Market Problem

There are a lot of freelance editors out there that seem to be making it just fine, but I also hear a lot of complaints about being underbid by unqualified, inexperienced editors. These disgruntled folks argue that this brings down the expected rate for real editors, and it becomes impossible for professionals to make a living without lowering their standards for their work. I understand their complaint, but I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the argument. Markets have a way of sorting themselves out, and if it’s really important for people to have professional editing, they will only make the mistake of hiring someone cheap once. If it’s not important, well, either you’ve overinflated the importance of your work or you’re not making a good business case for your skills.

But this is where I worry. I believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of an editor if you want to your written content to be taken seriously.  I’m also a pragmatist. I understand that you have to make a dollars-based case for things. How does an editor create a value proposition, contrasting the “without an editor” copy with the “with an editor” copy? And even if one could do that, would the dollar amount really be high enough to support hiring an editor, if you’re an author? It’s difficult for me to put make a case that isn’t more abstract than I’d like it to be. (As an aside, I’m planning on putting the Freakonomics guys on the case.)

These concerns are somewhat dulled by salaried employment. Your whole reason coming to an establishment and sitting in your office is to edit, so your value is somewhat decoupled from the work per hour itself. Certainly, there are deadlines, but you can just pump out a little overtime to get them perfect and then relax a bit next week. You get paid the same either way.

But what if you’re freelance and just looking to work with individual authors or copywriters? What if a particularly challenging piece would take weeks of work, and you charge by the hour? Or, worse, what if you charge by the word and you’ve underestimated the time you’d spend getting it to your standards? Now you’re talking about doing hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars of work and dealing with one of two scenarios: working for a wage that doesn’t sustain you or getting a response from a client that says “$700 to hunt for typos?” (Which is what many individuals think you’re doing–see my previous “On Editing” post.)

Now, certainly there are savvy clients and experienced writers who know this price is coming. All you need to do is go to Google and check for average editor’s hourly rates. Businesses will know what they’re getting into and know the value of a good editor, which is why scoring a business-based clientele as a freelancer is really your ticket. But the thing I find, and the thing that causes me consternation, is that the layman author just doesn’t care enough about it being perfect to pay for it, and I can’t say I blame him.

The Problem, in Anecdote Form

Let me give you an example. My husband’s a great writer. He’s a popular blogger, and I edit his posts every once in a while, when I have spare time. He’s a dream to edit, compared to most writers I’ve worked with. But when I edit him, I always find a few typos and a decent number of sentences that need rearranging or breaking up. I also read his posts very carefully to make sure I understand what he’s getting at and that I’m not changing anything that would alter his meaning. To get his posts to the level of perfect that’s up to my standards, it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to go through a 1,200 word post. One time, I asked him how much he would pay someone to do what I’m doing, and he said, “Honestly? Five or ten bucks a post. Maybe less. I write three posts a week, and people like my unedited writing enough that it really isn’t worth much, money-wise, to have them perfect.” And that is a totally reasonable thing to conclude.

I’m remembering, too, the time a friend came to me all excited about a book he was writing. He described the plot and told me what he estimated the page count to be. (It was roughly a quadrillion; he’s a man of many words.) He said he was really excited to have me edit it and asked if I could give him an estimate as to how much it would cost. After straightening out what he meant by “page”–very important to be speaking the same language of what a page is before an estimate, if you’re a freelancer–I gave him a quote with a buddy-discount of 40% off built in. He was still stunned into silence at the number.

Unfortunately, that means bad things for me. My skills and my meticulousness just aren’t really worth very much to individuals. To companies, maybe I’m a great investment, but I find I really prefer to work with people. And here I see a disconnect between what I have to offer, what I need to charge, and what my skill is actually worth. That’s a pretty rough thing to have to come to terms with.

Solutions(?)

So I’ve been thinking. When I edit, I edit for readers like me. I edit as if another editor is going read what I’m working on. I edit as if I’m claiming sole responsibility for every line that isn’t the best it could be. I want everything I touch to be something both I and the author can share pride in. But maybe this isn’t always what the market wants.

I’m not really talking about lowering my standards as much as I’m talking about filling a market need. When people want a rush on things at work and ask how long it will take, I’ll give them the option of “an Amanda edit or a normal-people edit.” They know that to mean, “Do you want me to fix the things only people like me would know are wrong, i.e., make it perfect? Or do you want me to look for any embarrassing or obvious mistakes?” Which of those two they choose makes a big difference in my estimation of time . So I wonder if there wouldn’t be a market for my “normal-people edit” service, in which an editor doesn’t concern herself so much with every sentence living up to its potential or common capitalization errors or the interchangeably used and and ampersand. Or maybe there’s room in the market for an a la carte type of edit. People can say, “I know I have trouble with homonyms. Can you make sure I used the right words in this piece?”

Even better, I wonder if there’d be a market for a partnership. What if an editor analyzes a few pieces from an author, tells him the patterns of error he should be looking out for (e.g., “you tend to use really long lists that will make people space out,” “you use nothing but versions of ‘to be’ verbs that make your writing kind of snoozy,” “your bullet points are never parallel,” “you have subject/verb agreement trouble”) and do custom edits just for those things.

The real problem with that is, for me, it’s really hard for me to limit myself. If I see a fragment, by god, I have to fix it. Double space after a period? NO. The wrong “its”? One eye will start twitching furiously like I’m some kind of maniac.

There’s also the problem with the fact that I won’t be proud of the work I’m helping people produce. It won’t be the best it could be. I won’t want my name on it, and it’s not satisfying work. Frankly, it’s a little soul-sucking, too, unless I feel like my goal isn’t really editing as much as it is making people better writers.

Maybe I’m destined to lose money freelance editing.