Author Archives: Steve Dunham

About Steve Dunham

A writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia, and author of The Editor’s Companion

Capitalized MISPELLINGS

I misspelled misspellings in all capital letters on purpose.

Today is Easter, 2018. Last night I went to the Easter vigil at my church—a beautiful service, but hard on an editor. The printed order of worship contained the word SOLENMN in all capital letters. The misspelling wasn’t half as distressing as knowing a likely contributing cause: Microsoft Word’s default spellcheck setting of “Ignore words in UPPERCASE.”

If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can find this setting under the proofing options. I solenmnly urge you to turn it off.

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Geoff Hart’s archive

I just discovered Geoff Hart’s archive of articles and essays. I’m glad his material is available to read even though it is mostly 10 to 20 years old: although some of the material, particularly concerning computers, is out of date, the bulk of it is still valuable. A lot of the pieces are about technical writing and editing. The essays are thoughtful and cover a wide range of topics, such as “Repairing Bad Author–Editor Relationships,” “Politeness in Editing,” “Part of the Problem?” and “Creating ‘Living’ Policies and Procedures,” and he has humorous pieces too, such as “Son of ‘A Programming Primer’: How to Speak Geek.” I pretty much devoured his archive in a few days, and I think you’ll find it worthwhile too.

Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.

Editing with beginner’s mind

Recently I encountered the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities,” according to Richard Baker’s introduction to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

“When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something,” wrote Suzuki in that book.

As I begin my new job, this sounds like a good attitude. Yes, I have experience and expertise, but editing pieces of writing that are new and different to me, for new and different people, means I will need to learn. The answers and solutions I have applied elsewhere may not be exactly what are needed.

As I approach the situation I can be open to discovering the client’s needs, the writers’ needs, the readers’ needs—and what I can do to help.

I can see that beginner’s mind can be helpful not just in a new position of employment but in taking on any new editing task. I’ve learned to listen to people who know more than I do, and there are plenty of those. If I have “no thought of achievement, no thought of self,” I can approach new editing assignments not merely as one who makes corrections but as one who is “open to all the possibilities.” That sounds to me like a good beginning.

Editorial heavy lifting

How physically strong does an editor need to be? Lately I’ve spotted a few ads for editors that say the editor must be able to lift 35 pounds.

Is this a genuine requirement? When I was young and worked at a couple of book publishers, I did indeed move a lot of cartons of books weighing more than 35 pounds. The companies had small staffs, and people pitched in with other tasks as they were able.

However, I wonder whether some of the current advertisements for editors really involve heavy lifting. I suspect that the requirement to lift 35 pounds may really be a way of weeding out older applicants.

What do you think? I welcome your comments.

 

Don’t ditch the system when things get tight

One thing I learned many years ago from a company called EEI (originally Editorial Experts Inc.), where I worked as a temp and later as an instructor, was “Don’t ditch the system when things get tight.” To maintain quality in publications, you have to have a system—that’s why it’s called “quality control.” Quality doesn’t just happen; it happens because we maintain control. We run a spellcheck and we use checklists as part of a system, for example.

However, you’ve probably found that publications production can fall behind schedule, with copy arriving late, changes to layout, or things totally out of your control such as severe weather or a power outage. That’s when it’s tempting to skip the quality control system. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation.” Or as the character General Lee said in the film Gettysburg: “Things will get out of control … That is why we have orders.”

When things get out of control, don’t give in to the temptation to skip quality control.

 

Real quotations from William Greider

New quotes on my website with pictures of the source:

“Americans are a people who greatly value the autonomy of individuals, but have not yet learned how to value one another.”

“Most citizens (and new, untested enterprises) have little or no collateral. They are, therefore, ineligible for capital-acquisition loans (though the U.S. credit system does allow them to borrow recklessly for consumption).”

—William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997).