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You Want Me on That Wall: The Case for Copyeditors

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“God is in the details.”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I’m not like you. The great majority of you, anyway.

I can never truly read for leisure or pleasure alone.

By which I don’t mean that I’m incapable of enjoying what I read or of selecting something purely frivolous or escapist instead of Serious, Important Literature. Rather, I don’t merely read anything I read.

I proofread. Everything I read.

Everything. From first-edition books to takeout menus.

I wasn’t always like this. Not even as a journalism major at the University of Kansas, though certainly the seed was planted there. Little did I know when I purchased my first Associated Press Stylebook sometime around 1987 that it would become one of the most important books in my life, alongside Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I recall finding it ridiculous that we were assigned to memorize sections of the Stylebook for class — until some years later, when it occurred to me that, through repeated use, I was absorbing whole entries and sections of the Stylebook into my everyday usage.

My true immersion into proofreading came in my first real-world journalism job, with a national gardening magazine published in Kansas City. We were a small staff, but all four editors proofed every article in every issue, regardless of who was a piece’s primary editor. In this way, I learned from my three experienced superiors every possible way to look at a piece of writing, to notice things that others didn’t, whether as a correction or a callout. Soon I was reading everything this way, as though I was trying to catch an error or an opportunity before anyone else could.

It was an occupational hazard, then, and one from which there was no turning back. But there’s also an element of sport to it, as well as a sense that what we do has great value, even if our rapidly changing world is increasingly blind to that value.

Whether you realize it or not, I and my brothers and sisters of the red pen are teaching you to read and write better, if only by osmosis, if only for the time being. Because whatever you failed to understand or learn or pay attention to in school all those years — or, to be fair, whatever your school systems with their standardized curricula may have failed to impart — we, copyeditors and proofreaders, are teaching you on the sly every day. Provided, of course, that you’re reading something edited or proofread.

If the greater volume of printed or published material that you read in a given day — newspapers, magazines, books, even online publications — has had our eyes on it first, you are learning from us by small degrees to get the fine details right in your own writing. Proper use of an em dash or en dash? That was most likely us. You’re welcome. You know the difference between further and farther? You may have brushed up against it in eighth-grade English, but if you’re my age, you’ve spent the last 30 years or so seeing them used correctly in edited material, and if you’ve paused to think about them at all, it’s because we thought about them first.

Unfortunately the egalitarian Internet — virtually unregulated, predominantly unedited — is taking over the way we consume information. And in many ways, just plain taking over.

Because as the Internet has presented itself as a more efficient delivery mechanism, a leaner, faster alternative to print journalism, it has been eating away at the readership and circulation and, consequently, the advertising revenue of newspapers and magazines, which are increasingly called upon to adapt or die in the face of this new electronic world order. And increasingly, to the great detriment of print, the ax has fallen on copy desks as much as any other department.

Even today’s best online outlets are more blog network than journalistic endeavor1, and they give their content providers free rein to post quickly without policing the quality of the writing before it goes online to be devoured or ignored over a much more truncated lifespan. Even one last read-through by the author would benefit a lot of online content, but in the battle for relevance and exclusivity, writers seldom bother to take the time. Magazine stories live a week? Newspapers live a day? The average online post measures its timeliness by the hour, even the minute, each too precious to worry about the odd typo or bewildering placeholder copy that was never cleaned up.

Text-message abbreviations and emojis aren’t actually teaching us anything about the economy of language. Or about language, period. For all the shorthand, shortcuts and slang we create, the English language is a vast and beautiful thing that still deserves our attention in order to thrive and to challenge those who read it, write it and speak it to better do so, at least on those occasions when it matters most.

A former boss messages me occasionally — though with greater frequency of late — asking why it apparently doesn’t drive me insane when I see social media littered with grammatical errors committed by otherwise educated people who should know better. I explain that I gave up the fight on a personal level a long time ago. Those people are my audience, the ones I hope will benefit from my expertise at some point, whether they read something I wrote (and rewrote) myself or edited on behalf of another, or seek out my assistance with something they’ve written. (It happens occasionally, to my great delight.) My real beef is against those with the reach, the authority and the wherewithal, who abuse their position by cutting corners and neglecting their responsibility to their own audience. In short: anyone who should be paying me (or another capable editor) to make them look good but doesn’t.

To wit, the founder of a small publishing empire once looked me right in the eye after I showed him a copy of one of his glossy newsstand magazines that I had red-lined from cover to cover and told me that proofreading such as I had just demonstrated exhaustively upon his own publication was largely subjective and (the kicker) “not in our business model.” I find it unforgivable that a publisher would be so dismissive about the content he was publishing, that he would care more about collecting your newsstand and subscription dollars than about giving you something of actual, meaningful value in return.

And while his categorizing proofreading as subjective is arguably true on a microscopic level, in the grander, big-picture scheme, his statement is utter bollocks. Good copyediting and proofreading is about thoughtful attention to every detail, applied consistently throughout the larger body of work.2 Because language and grammar are casually butchered every day — in print and online — by well-meaning people who don’t know any better, who don’t have the time, who don’t have an eye for minute or even obvious detail, and their butchery is broadcast to the public at large because there is no goalie in place to stop the puck.

Spell-check, like a condom, is only 98 percent effective. (I’ve disabled it on my own devices; my margin of error is lower.)

Prepositions aren’t interchangeable.

Neither are:

  • and and &;
  • affect and effect;
  • that and which;
  • that and who;
  • who and whom;
  • the aforementioned further (conceptual distance) and farther (physical distance);
  • lay and lie (which no one gets right, ever);
  • fewer than and less than;
  • more than (quantities or populations) and over (time or amounts);
  • like and as;
  • where (location), when (time) and in which (context);
  • to, too and two (yes, really);
  • its and it’s;
  • your and you’re; and
  • there, their and they’re.

Subject-verb agreement misses the mark.

Participles dangle with abandon.

Content may lack the appropriate context.

There’s typesetting minutiae — like correcting the habit of people trained on typewriters to put two spaces after a period, or adding a space where one is missing, or ensuring that an apostrophe that replaces characters (e.g., ’87 for 1987 or rock ’n’ roll for rock and roll) is a “9” and not a “6.” (Yes, that’s absolutely a thing. Look closer.)

And correct punctuation — for which I profess an almost unseemly passion — has everything to do with the meaning of what you’re reading. (First and foremost: apostrophes, motherf***ers.)

All of which only scratches the surface.

These are things I care about. Deeply. All because once upon a time, someone paid me — and not exorbitantly — to care about them, and today almost no one does. This is not elitism; language and grammar belong to the masses, not the classes. I and my compatriots of the red pen toil at a craft, as mathematically precise as diamond cutting and as basic as masonry, and we toil for all. At the end of the day, don’t you want us to be the ones teaching your children — by tiny increments, in nanoseconds that leave valuable data imprinted on their gray matter — to master, or at least better appreciate, the language that is their birthright? Or would you rather entrust that duty to whomever or whatever’s on the transmitting end of their smartphones?

Whether you know it or not, you want me on that wall.
1 Worse still are the aggregators. Consider a site like The Huffington Post, which began as a source of rigorous journalism and insightful political commentary but has since mutated into an uncontainable Hydra of global content aggregation, posting everything from world-news stories to celebrity nip-slip photos from across the World Wide Web. HuffPo still generates original content, but these days its bread is buttered by redirecting users to articles and features by other content providers that seldom exercise the same editorial standards, hence cheapening the brand of the aggregator.

2 And here, especially for those outside the journalism and publishing worlds, I cannot stress enough the importance of an internal style sheet, particularly if your company or organization is in a business or industry that speaks its own specific language or jargon that requires proper usage or throws around a lot of acronyms that require definition. Perhaps most importantly, though, an internal style sheet should be explicit about the small stuff — such minute details as whether your company prefers “US” to “U.S.” and “UK” to “U.K.,” whether or when certain proprietary words should be capitalized, or whether there should be a space on either side of an em dash.

Written by Shepcat

July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Work, Writing

No Idle Chitchat

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It’s not quite Grady Tripp’s description of James Leer’s overcoat, but I came across the following paragraph this past week and immediately enshrined it in my literary hall of fame’s circle of honor:

“Your wife make you do the shopping too?” Jackie Brown said.

“My friend,” the stocky man replied, “you don’t have much time and I’m kind of in a hurry myself. I don’t have time to explain married life to you, and besides, you wouldn’t believe me anyway. I didn’t believe it when they told me, and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. Let’s stick to business.”

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
by George V. Higgins

Not that it isn’t great on its own merits, but it helps to imagine Robert Mitchum saying it.

Higgins’ book itself is filled with hard-boiled dialogue so rich that you feel like you’re right there on the streets of Boston. Foley’s virtuoso ode to the worst grilled-cheese sandwich ever and Waters’ instructions on how to make one properly is too long to reprint here — for that, you’ll have to read the book. You can thank me later.

Written by Shepcat

October 4, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Literature, Movies, Writing

Hence, the Drinking

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“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

— Dorothy Parker

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s essential primer on grammatical style turns 50 this year. Bourbon is timeless.

Written by Shepcat

April 22, 2009 at 9:04 am

Posted in Writing

But I Digress …

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Perhaps love is too strong a word to describe the compulsion — although those of you who read me with any regularity may beg to differ — but certainly as a writer I have come to appreciate 2 the usefulness of footnotes, at least in the practice of blogging, if for no other reason than they allow one to introduce supporting evidence or to indulge one’s impulse to offer an aside or non sequitur to one’s readers without completely disrupting the flow of the primary text.

That said — and for all the demands I place on you who make the effort to read me — I’ve got nothing on the late David Foster Wallace.3

That I am reading Wallace at all right now can be traced to two recent developments:

1. In late July Wheat and I engaged in an exchange in which he made the following recommendation after I admitted some trepidation about tackling Wallace’s oeuvre:

“I’ve read very little of him. But I can heartily recommend what I have read, which is his collection of […] essays called Consider the Lobster. These are fascinating. And his style is either one you like or hate (I like it; my wife can’t stand it). You, unless I am entirely mistaken, will like it quite a bit.”4

I’m an incorrigible buyer of books I don’t get around to reading right away, if ever, and at the time I was embarking on my third attempt at the especially daunting Thomas Pynchon tome Gravity’s Rainbow, but trusting Wheat’s judgment I kept Wallace’s Lobster in my mental on-deck circle, knowing that sooner or later I’d succumb to its purchase5 during a trip to Borders or Barnes & Noble.

2. In mid-September David Foster Wallace committed suicide after a long battle with depression.

Ordinarily this latter tragedy, in and of itself, would not be and has never been reason enough for me to take an immediate interest in an artist’s work.6 I reversed my policy, though, after reading a number of warm, funny and moving tributes to DFW7 following his death (particularly those posted here and here by the contributors to and readership of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency). The unifying theme of all of these remembrances is not merely that DFW was a literary genius8 but that he was, rarer still, a great artist almost completely devoid of ego, conceit or pretension, who went out of his way to engage everyone he encountered — his contemporaries, readers and students alike, regardless of their status or stature — as thoughtfully and warmly as though he had known them for years. In short, DFW’s widely acclaimed mastery of language and discourse didn’t finally compel me to read his work as much as the widely reported consensus of his being a genuinely nice guy.9

And so it happened that, after the events of the last few months (and the nine digressions in our story to which I’ve subjected you thus far), I found myself Saturday night reading perhaps the shortest essay in Consider the Lobster, titled “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed.”

The title of the story pretty much informs you of its content (i.e., that Franz Kafka was a much funnier guy, albeit in very subtle, esoteric ways, than he is generally given credit for being), so we may proceed straightaway to the subject of this post, footnotes in general and particularly those in the Kafka piece.

You will note below, if you haven’t already, that I have, perhaps to your annoyance, included two asterisked footnotes within a single numbered footnote — asides to an aside, if you will. And while I’m almost certain I’ve done this at least once in a previous entry, I’ve not done it in exactly this fashion. The asterisks herein are somewhat derivative of the footnote-within-a-footnote in DFW’s Kafka piece that lit the fuse on this particular entry of mine. Without going into greater detail than is necessary, the nuts and bolts of the footnote in question were presented as follows:

2 I’m not referring to lost-in-translation stuff here. Tonight’s whole occasion[*] notwithstanding, I have to confess[…]
* [= a PEN American Center event concerning a big new translation of The Castle by a man from I think Princeton. In case it’s not obvious, that’s what this whole document is — the text of a very quick speech.]

The mind reels. Mine did, anyway.

What we can divine here is that the asterisked footnote is an editorial footnote placed in order to clarify the matter for readers of the Kafka piece as a published essay. But in addition to providing this bit of background information, what it effectively achieves is to refer the reader back to the original footnote, to there ponder the question: How might DFW (or another public speaker so inclined) pause in mid-address to deliver prepared footnotes in such a way as to make a cogent aside without completely obliterating the flow of the speech he is delivering?10

Granted, public speakers digress all the time, and the very best of them either keep their asides brief or meticulously construct their digressions to come full circle back to their original point and the place at which they veered away from their text. Such digressions tend to be written into the text of their speech, however. Wallace, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have worked that way. Rather than writing a textual digression introduced by and culminating in transitional phrases, Wallace wrote his Kafka speech just as he would write one of his essays — with footnotes presented as stand-alone, extratextual asides that would require the reader (or, here, the speaker) to take himself out of the flow of his address to present the footnote in question.

If any of you have had the pleasure of hearing DFW deliver such an address on any topic, please leave a comment to let me know how he pulled off this feat. In the meantime, here’s the solution I would have proposed to him:

Two podiums or lecterns, positioned about two steps apart, the secondary of which would be equipped with a microphone that may or may not be tuned differently (more treble, perhaps?) than the primary microphone. The twofold effect of this setup would be to give the audience both a visual cue (i.e., the speaker literally stepping aside from his prepared text) and an aural cue (i.e., a slight alteration of the pitch and tone of the speaker’s voice to imply the information being delivered from the extratextual plane on which it exists in the writer/speaker’s mind as well as on the page).

The added effect would be to present a DFW speech as something akin to performance art, introducing minimal intrusions of choreography and sound design as a means of mimicking or spotlighting the extratextual acrobatics of DFW’s writing.

Whether or not DFW would have gone for such a suggestion is another question entirely. As I noted above, he was, by all accounts, utterly devoid of pretension. So probably not.

So how do you read footnotes? If you’re like me, you will read at least to the end of the paragraph in question, so not to disrupt the one-idea-at-a-time flow of the writing, then refer back to the footnote within, regardless of its placement. Adriane informs me that she ignores all of my footnotes until she reaches the end of one of my entries11, then reads my footnotes in order, referring each individually back to its original point of digression. And I can imagine any number of you ignoring them altogether and moving on with your busy lives. Because, really — how annoying are footnotes, anyway?

I would like to say that I could get by without footnotes if I had to — certainly there was a time when I didn’t employ them at all — but my blogging in particular has evolved over time, and now that I’ve developed an affinity for them, I’m not entirely sure I can stop. As someone who occasionally has a lot on my mind that I would like to get down on the page, they seem an indispensable method of sharing information and ideas in as clear and unobtrusive fashion as possible.

Which point makes the life and oeuvre of David Foster Wallace all the more remarkable to contemplate, even at this early point in my exposure to him. When one considers the scope and breadth of his writing in general and the quantity and density of the footnotes generated within it, one is awed by the sheer volume of ideas, knowledge, data and arcana that must have vied for purchase in his gray matter on a daily basis. One wonders how he could so exacerbate a creative process so Herculean to begin with, then make its execution appear so effortless.

Besides which, where did he find the time?

Suffice it to say that, at this late stage in the game, I could never aspire to emulate Wallace’s singular talent12, let alone his prolific output. (As if anyone could.) The best any writer can hope for is to leave an impression on his readers as profound as those to which Wallace’s admirers — of whose numbers I am belatedly becoming one — testify.
1 In this particular instance, I have nothing to add. (I mean, it’s still incredibly early in the post. What could I possibly have to digress about now?) I just thought, given the subject of this post, that a superscript ‘1’ would be a playful, if purely cosmetic, preview of coming attractions. I apologize for jerking your chain and promise that all subsequent footnotes will be substantive rather than stylistic in nature.

2 Don’t ever make that distinction to anyone with whom you’re romantically involved, by the way: “I can’t say that I love you, exactly, but I certainly appreciate you[r usefulness].” Especially the part about usefulness. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but 23 percent of Americans still approve of the direction in which George W. Bush has led the country, so you can see how I might want to cover all the bases.

3 I mean, wow.

4 In other words, “I highly recommend you try the Lobster.” (Sorry. A cheap joke, I know, but that’s how I roll down here in the footnotes.) And in response to Wheat’s conjecture, I’d have to agree that, yes, I like Wallace’s style quite a bit, baffling though it may sometimes be.

5 Said purchase would likely be transacted not necessarily because of any compelling readiness or eagerness to read Wallace or a sudden surfeit of free time to devote to reading but to my obsessive-compulsive habit of buying two books whenever I make a bookstore purchase. That is to say, I’m capable of leaving a bookstore without buying anything at all, but if I pick up one book, I won’t leave without finding another to complete my purchase. It is reasonable to expect that, on any given visit, Consider the Lobster would have been that second book.

6 To wit, after Kurt Cobain committed suicide* in April 1994, I resisted for a very long time the impulse to purchase any of Nirvana’s albums, as I didn’t want any part in feeding the notion that he was his generation’s John Lennon, that his loss was some egregious wound from which his generation — my generation, to be precise; Cobain was only five months older than me — and its music could not recover. In my mind, there is no comparison between the two.

Over the intervening years, however, I have developed an appreciation for both Cobain the artist and Nirvana the band and have made those purchases that I put off long ago. I should note, though, that while I can’t imagine the alternate timeline in which Cobain lived on and his and Nirvana’s music evolved over time, I suspect that I am a more devoted admirer of Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters now than I would have been of Cobain’s hypothetical latter-day Nirvana. Blasphemy, you say? Piss off, I reply. Now pass the Jägermeister.**

* Allegedly, for all you Courtney-baiting conspiracy theorists out there.
** For the record, I can’t stand Jägermeister, but it’s Grohl’s reported drink of choice, and I imagine that I’d have to acquire a taste for it if I ever got to live out my fantasy of being the Foos’ tour blogger. Really, I just wanted an excuse to deploy an umlaut. Mission accomplished.

7 As Wallace is popularly referred to by his fans and admirers and may henceforth be referred to herein.

8 Again, as with my post-Cobain ambivalence, I am reluctant and momentarily unqualified (lacking as I do ample firsthand evidence) to apply the label of “genius” to DFW. However, based on the few essays and short stories I have read so far, I will concede that he was clearly a formidable literary talent with a dizzying intellect and an unfathomable, to me, sense of breadth and scope.

9 To wit, I imagine a few of my favorite writers — Paul Auster and John Irving, for example — as being very polite, charming men, but I can’t imagine either of them responding to one of my e-mails, as DFW is noted among his following for having done regularly.

10 The only other speech of Wallace’s that I’m familiar with as of this writing is his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, the only version of which I’ve read is the transcription linked herein and not any publication of his prepared text.

11 Hello, darling.***

*** To my readership at large: If I have never personally addressed you as “darling,” you can be assured that the preceding footnote is not directed at you. I’m fairly confident that excludes the vast majority of you. That said, buy me a few drinks sometime and we’ll see what transpires.

12 In narrative style and scope, Wallace appears to be too far removed from my own well-established literary and journalistic influences — Raymond Chandler foremost, and to a lesser extent Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Breslin, among others. That I have mimicked DFW at all in the structure and style of this post is to reveal myself as a modestly talented hack but, I think, an exceptional and accomplished smartass.

Written by Shepcat

November 2, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Writing

An Open Letter to “Anonymous”

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Rather than attempting to squeeze this response into the confines of the comments thread that prompted it, I am publishing it here, on the front page, above the fold, because even though it is directed at one commenter in particular, it is a message intended for all who find their way to my virtual doorstep.

Be apprised:

I am a work-in-progress, an imperfect, impatient man who wears his emotions on his sleeve and leaves his house every morning with his sword raised against the day to come. I used to be one of the meek, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I became the other thing, and I started speaking up for myself and putting others on notice.

I am a citizen of the world who has begun engaging in politics and the public discourse relatively late in the game, but I engage now because I don’t like the path we’ve been going down or trust the people who’ve been leading us. I believe that the great dream that is America will always be worth defending from those who would plunder it for their own gain and deny it to those of us without influence or affluence. As much as any other forum or venue, this space is where I articulate my ideas, express my ideals and, often, rage, rage! against injustices both real and perceived, both great and small.

I am also an imperfect Christian, and I know I’m not always the witness to others that Jesus deserves. But I believe my savior knows what’s in my heart, knows that the battle I wage every day is to be a better man and a better servant. Someday we’ll have a conversation about that, and he’ll let me know how I did.

My first impulse was to lash out at you, Anonymous, to be both impolite and impolitic, but I have suppressed that impulse as much as possible because I know on many levels that doing so is not the way to win hearts and minds. So in lieu of a more forceful rejoinder, right now, for once, I’m going to do the thing I know Jesus would want me to do.

From one poor sinner to another: Anonymous, I love you, and you’re welcome here at the Chronicles.

I’ve got to warn you, though: It’s a big tent (sadly, not a crowded one), and the people who drop by here from time — my friends from both the physical and virtual worlds, and even strangers who drop by for the first time (and I hope not the last) — represent different races, different nations, different social strata, different sexual orientations and different faiths (even some professing no faith at all — but there’s still hope for them, right?). Thank God, they also tend to be well read, they come armed with different experiences and points of view, and as often as not, they share fantastic new ideas and teach me things that expand and illuminate the way I see the world. They make me smarter just by showing up.1

If you’re willing to engage them along with me, to respect these diverse and divergent points of view and attempt to see us (at least here in the Chroniclesphere) as something more formidable and reasoned than mere enemies of your particular values, I think you’ll find that your opinions, your ideas and even your faith will be accepted with as much thoughtfulness, understanding and open-mindedness as you offer in return.

I’d love to see the comments section light up around here more often (lurkers, come out!), and I always welcome the free flow of opinions and ideas. But when you come in here and uncap a fire hydrant, it disrupts that flow. I want this space to be as civil, as spirited and as lowercase-‘d’ democratic as possible, but remember this: At the end of the day, I am still the one-eyed king of this particular land of the blind, and I know where the ‘delete’ button is.

Thanks for dropping by. Come again soon.
1 It is worth noting that they are also some of the funniest people I know. We trade in satire, irony, sarcasm and outright farce around here, so it helps to meet the minimum sense-of-humor requirement and to possess sensibilities and sensitivities that aren’t so easily bruised.

Written by Shepcat

October 16, 2008 at 10:25 am

Posted in Writing

Thoughts and Observations about Craft

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Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh, one of my regular reads for the past few years, recently wrote at Blogslot about an alarming trend that I fear is not confined to the newspaper business in which he plies his craft. It seems that “the jobs of editors, mainly copy editors, will be in danger as newspapers continue to cut costs in the face of shrinking circulation and advertising revenue.”

Disquieting as this revelation is (now that it carries the authority of publication and discussion within the industry), I can’t exactly say it’s shocking news, given my own experiences of the past few years in both journalism and commerce, as well as in the job market, where hiring managers and human resources departments aren’t exactly flooding my inbox with fawning admiration for my seven years of editorial experience (among my many other talents, abilities and intangible qualities, or what the French call “a certain I-don’t-know-what”).

Walsh’s post refers to an unidentified newspaper editor who asks, “Why do we have all these people processing stories after a reporter writes it? They are not producing anything that will get us traffic on the Web.”

This quote is indicative of prevailing attitudes toward the written word — increasingly casual, sometimes inhospitable, sometimes downright hostile — by those who make business decisions in today’s media environment. The speaker commits two errors here: 1) He tacitly assumes that all reporters and writers are meticulous editors of their own work, which is not strictly true; and 2) he implies that language, grammar and style for their own sake are no longer important because they are not in themselves a source of revenue for the publication.

When I worked for The Firm, writing sales and advertising copy in an e-commerce environment, I saw my stock plummet virtually overnight after our general manager was dispatched to a new high-profile assignment elsewhere in the company and was replaced by a dubious up-and-comer with his own ideas about the direction of the business unit. Whereas my former bosses had valued my contributions to the larger team effort and often sought my counsel on a number of matters not explicitly specified in my job description1 — everything from polishing marketing copy to fine-tuning FAQ responses for the home page to “Hey, Brent, would you mind giving this memo a once-over so we don’t look like idiots when we send it out?” — under new management I found the ball being taken out of my hands with greater frequency until finally my job was very narrowly defined.2

A more distressing incident occurred a few years ago, when my best friend introduced me to a friend of his here in Kansas City, the publisher of a couple of gorgeous glossy local-interest magazines. My friend had wanted the two of us to meet for some time, thinking that we’d have a lot in common, as well as imagining that a job offer might come out of the meeting at some point. In preparation for our introduction, I obtained a current issue of the magazine in question and, over the course of a few evenings, read it from cover to cover with red pen in hand. By the time I finished, my editorial marks, factual corrections and sentence revisions were visible throughout the issue. I tucked a copy of my résumé inside and took it with me to the meeting.3

During the course of our discussion, I complimented his publication but also seized the moment to tell him that I found it wanting from a copyediting standpoint, gesturing toward my red-lined issue to support my assertion. Without so much as a glance at the issue, the publisher looked at me deadpan and said, “Well, because of the way our business model is constructed, we publish on a pretty fast turnaround here, so we aren’t terribly concerned if an issue makes it out the door with a few mistakes in it.”

OK, first things first: If he had opened the magazine I had so helpfully red-lined to illustrate my assertion, he would have found much more than “a few mistakes” in it. He did, however, counter me by saying, “Well, many editors differ on matters of style.” And while that statement is certainly true, mere differences of opinion would not dismiss the sheer volume of red ink I had spilled in his magazine.

Second, as far as turnaround is concerned, it had taken me only three evenings worth of spare time to edit the entire magazine. In a professional setting, I have never been so pressed for time that I couldn’t perform what is, to me, the most vital task in publishing and writing.

Third, I understand, even respect, that a publisher is first and foremost a businessman and therefore concerned chiefly with his operation’s bottom line. But as he clearly wasn’t cutting costs in the production and printing of his glossy monthlies, I wanted to ask, “Is there anything in your business model about the undeniable fact that you publish the written word?” Permit me to italicize here to make myself perfectly clear: I find it unforgivable that a publisher in any language would be so dismissive of the editorial content of his own publication. The implication being that writing is mere filler in the white space between pictures and display ads and that the average reader, though bothering to read it, won’t notice such minutiae, distracted as he or she is by the lush full-color photography and slick coffee-table quality of the magazine.

It is this casual dismissal (on a virtually epidemic scale) of something about which I am passionate that cuts to the heart of something I deem to be an essential truth: Whether or not you realize it as it’s happening, you — the average reader, the amateur, functionally literate but not actively engaged or employed in the language arts — learn proper grammar and style by osmosis. In other words, you learn the habits and techniques of good writing over time simply by reading expertly edited prose wherever you find it, whether in newspapers, magazines, books or journals, and by small degrees they find their way into your own writing and influence your speech.

Those of you who visit the Chronicles regularly may not agree in principle with everything you read here — and honestly, who could blame you? — but because I take pains to hone my craft, I like to think of this space as one oasis in the midst of a largely unedited, unregulated blogosphere, where, if you pay close attention, you just might learn something about spelling a particular word, crafting a random phrase or placing a certain punctuation mark.4 Because we as a worldwide race are getting our news and information from the Internet in ever-increasing volume and velocity (often at the expense of attention to detail), because technology is dictating the present and future direction of communication, because we are typing on cell-phone keypads with our thumbs and transacting with each other in abbreviations instead of words, the clarity, precision and integrity of the written word are more important now than ever, lest it be usurped by the language of convenience and expediency.

Or you can just ignore the contributions that I and my fellow craftsmen make to the language, in which case you deserve the vocabulary of grunts and tongue clicks to which you will be reduced and relegated in the span of a few generations.
1 A onetime co-worker, who is to this day a good friend of this blog and yours truly, once confided to me, “You should know, because you probably aren’t told this often enough: Upstairs I’ve heard more than one person say, ‘If Brent ever leaves us, we’re f***ed.’” I won’t pretend that it wasn’t gratifying to hear that.

2 On one occasion under the new regime, I was chatting with our marketing coordinator when I glanced at the printout of a banner ad tacked to the wall of her cubicle. “You know,” I said, “that apostrophe should go after the ‘s’, not before it.” At which point she shrugged helplessly and confirmed that she’d been all but ordered not to run anything past me that would distract me from my specified duties — namely, to write and process as many item descriptions as possible, to the virtual exclusion of all other areas in which I might be of service to our business unit.

3 This may not seem to be the most diplomatic way to introduce oneself to a publisher, but ever since it landed me a posting as editor at large of a major screenwriting publication, it is a calculated measure that I employ whenever I want to announce myself as the right man for the job. Think of it this way: if you were a bank manager, wouldn’t you want to hire the firm that breached your security system in order to illuminate its weaknesses and vulnerabilities? (Admittedly, a nod to the movie Sneakers here.)

4 It would make me very happy, in fact, if you would make room in your style arsenal for the humble em dash — that’s the long dash at either end of this aside — which I believe is grossly underrated as an aid to more precise and colorful personal expression. (Ditto the semicolon.)

Written by Shepcat

February 20, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Writing

Why the Writers Are Striking

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The following clear, concise explanation for the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was posted by Bill Scheft, a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman:
[…] Quickly, lest you think we are a bunch of spoiled brats just looking for a raise, the big issue, money from original content shown on the Internet and other new media, is our way of replacing the money we are losing over the disappearing residuals. Residuals are not a bonus. They are the way writers live when they are between jobs. The standard writers contact is up for renewal every 13 weeks. You can have a five-year contract, but they can let you go every 13 weeks without paying you any more as long as they give you a month’s notice. That is the deal we all enter into. There are 12,000 writers in the guild. You need to make $30,000 a year in guild earnings to keep your health insurance. Last year, 6,000 didn’t reach that figure. Half.

I have been lucky enough to have a job for 16 years. That simply does not happen. So this is what we are fighting for. […]
So the next time you hear some nonsense on TV about how the average working writer in Hollywood (or “Hollywood East”) makes $200,000 a year, please know that someone is talking out of his or her ass.

If you’re at all interested in following the strike, Dave Letterman’s entire writing staff is contributing to the funny and informative blog, and screenwriter John August (Go; Big Fish) is sharing his stories from the picket lines in L.A. Meanwhile, LA Weekly’s Nikki Finke is providing the most comprehensive coverage at her blog Deadline Hollywood Daily.

Written by Shepcat

November 14, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Posted in Movies, Television, Writing