Thursday, April 17, 2014

Editing Can Save More than Face

I'm reading about the HeartBleed bug this morning, like a lot of people. I feel for Robin Seggelmann, a doubtlessly brilliant person prone to human error, just like the rest of us. He made a mistake, and now the poor guy is infamous.

"If everybody just keeps using [the software] and thinks somebody else will eventually take care of it, it won’t work. The more people look at it, the less likely errors like this occur." Seggelmann told Mashable via e-mail.

I thought that this was an appropriate statement for endorsing the importance of what editors do, specifically editors for scholars. I work with people every day who are equally as brilliant as Seggelmann, just in their own fields. And I fix things that they might have missed.

They didn't miss these errors because they aren't smart. They miss them because they have bigger fish to fry. They are wrestling with the realities of presiding over a university department, or achieving a PHD, or analyzing the digital equivalent of reams and reams of data.

Here's something I read just this morning (with pseudonyms in italics):

"Green people are 2.4 times more likely to kill their children than blue people."

OK, setting aside the morbid topic of child abuse, there are problems with this sentence. Is the writer saying that Greenies are 2.4 times more likely to kill their children than they are to kill Blue adults? That's not what the writer meant. Greenies are 2.4 times more likely to kill their children than Blues are to kill Green children? No. The writer was trying to say that Green people are 2.4 times more likely to kill their own children than blue people are to kill their own children.

Really, in the context of the entire academic article, you might think that this little bit of confusion doesn't matter.

And it doesn't matter. Until Green people sue you for libel, you get quoted on the evening news, and a government official works your results into the next bill she's writing.

Just a thought.

Brilliant people need editors too more!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Reader: Always on My Mind

When I answer my phone and I suspect it's one of my clients on the other end of the line, I answer with a cheerful, "Hello, this is Betsy." ("Go for Betsy!" seems a little casual.) This makes it easier for my clients to skip the step of "May I speak to..." and it's always helpful for someone to know exactly who is on the other end of the line. Even my voice mail greeting is a quick, simple, "This is Betsy. Sorry I missed you." [beep]. No one needs to be reminded to leave a message anymore. And no one needs to be promised that you will call him back. Callers just want to know, for whom am I leaving this message?

In our writing, this question should be one of our first considerations. When we publish, we are leaving a message for people, and we need to know who they are. That's why one of the first things I say to a new client in an initial get-to-know-you discussion is, "Tell me about the person who is going to read this."

Why is it important to keep a reader in mind as you move along in your writing process?

Simply put, because everything has to be translated.

Maybe you think there's no translation going on with your writing unless it's being changed into another language. As long as you are writing in English for English-speaking readers, you might not imagine that translation is happening. Keep in mind, though, that even language itself is a translation. Our brains run on glucose, not phonics.

When you write, your ideas (thought pictures) are being translated into words (sound pictures), which will then be translated again by the reader into her own ideas. In addition, she is building on these pictures herself as she reads, translating and altering, interpreting and recomposing, as she fixes her eyes on your words and new thoughts emerge in her mind. Every new thought picture is a mixture of 1) what you were trying to translate into words, and 2) what she brought with her in her mind before she ever picked up your document. Nothing is ever purely translated. Nothing. Because we are complex creatures. If you want your writing to always be translated perfectly, you probably should take up computer programming.

So while content and syntax, yes, are the bread-and-butter of your work, always keep in mind that someone is going to be digesting that bread-and-butter.

Bread = content. Butter = syntax. Editing = yumminess.

And, to complicate things further, consider this: What is really communicated to readers is something even deeper than words and even deeper than pictures. Something even harder to measure...emotions.

Emotions like frustration are what we want to to avoid at all costs in academic and technical nonfiction. For instance, when you describe an esoteric term in simpler language, remember that your reader is building a picture in her mind. Use shorter sentences with uncomplicated subjects and predicates so she can build one part of the picture at a time. When you are explaining a concept with which you anticipate your reader will be familiar, you can use longer, more intriguing sentences. When you label a graph, don't force the reader back to the text again and again to understand your main point. If she feels like you are wasting her time, she won't be motivated to trust you in the next chapter.

Emotions like delight and pleasure, of course, should fill our writing. There's no reason not to build pleasure into the most technical of documents. Start by eliminating frustration; anticipate a reader's question, and answer it for him. If the text allows for it, answer it in such a way that he learns something interesting, perhaps even about himself, in the process. Say something respectfully self-deprecating at a surprising moment in the text. Make a connection between a drab concept and a pleasant part of everyday life. Care enough about the reader to make his reading adventuresome.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

What is Esoteric?

Let's assume that you are one of my many brilliant clients, and you are trying to present your great ideas to a public audience. One of your priorities is going to be to alter esoteric language. Also known as specialist language, it's the terms and ideas that you and your colleagues are used to throwing around but that might not be as familiar to your readers.

Here's a rule of thumb: if a word or phrase can be looked up in the dictionary and the reader can fully understand your message, then it's not too esoteric for the public audience. It might be a bit advanced or even highbrow, but it needn't necessarily be changed.

If, however, a reader needs a college degree in your subject (or even needs to Google a term and then spend thirty minutes reading about it) in order to understand your meaning, then it's too esoteric for the general public.

Please, by all means, use the word or phrase. But take a sentence or two or five to explain it in simple terms. I can help.

Monday, April 9, 2012

My First International Project

Just released: Natural Law, Economics, and the Common Good. I learned a lot while working with many different scholars from around the world to help bring together a unified, coherent text. (If you read it and see a lot of terminal punctuation outside of quotation marks and single quote marks instead of double . . . it's because it's published in the UK. Don't judge.)  :-)

It was a real honor to work with editors Samuel Gregg and Harold James, and to assist editorial director Alicia Brzycki at the Witherspoon Institute.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Recent Accolade

As Scripture might have said, "A gifted editor—who can find her? She is more precious than pearls." That's our Betsy!

—Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University

Read more recommendations from past clients here. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Citations: Styling vs. Verifying

I have been styling and verifying a lot of citations lately for a particularly heady document, and it occurred to me that it might benefit my clients to fully understand the differences between these two tasks.

Styling citations (whether they be in footnotes, endnotes, a bibliography, or a works-cited list) is different from verifying them. When I style your citations, I'm making them conform to a particular style guide. For instance, the folks at Oxford University Press want the citations in their books styled a certain way, while the Journal of the American Medical Association has its own unique citation style, too. When I style citations for a client, then, I'm just preparing them for publication and making sure no elements are missing from them.

Verifying citations means that I am checking them for errors. I find the original document's information in one of the databases to which I am subscribed and usually am able to view the cover to check for title, subtitle, and author names. I check page ranges of chapters by looking at the table of contents for each book. Or I search for the journal article through a database and verify its information that way. We editors have all kinds of magical resources.

So when I verify citations for your document, you can count on my checking the accuracy of each of these elements:

• book, article, and journal titles (including spelling and other details of the title),
• subtitles (adding them if missing),
• author names (as they are listed on the cover),
• publishing companies and their locations,
• dates of publication,
• page ranges of book sections such as chapters, and
• page ranges of articles within a journal or other periodical.

If I'm ever not able to verify one of these, I will clearly mark it on your document so that you'll know it wasn't verified.

What I don't verify are page numbers of quotations you pull into your document. So be careful to check these yourself. I also can't verify the accuracy of most quotations, so if a quotation looks squirrelly to me—that's Southern for not quite right—I might flag it for you to look up again from your source and double check. Lastly, when I verify a publication date for a book, I'm verifying that this book was in fact published, in some edition somewhere, in that year. There's no way for me to know, naturally, if you wrote down the date wrong ("1967" rather than "1976") and so the page number of the quotation would apply to a different edition.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A High-profile Publication Begins With a Good Edit

Yesterday, Brad Wilcox (director of the National Marriage Project) released a report about how the Great Recession has affected marriages in America. Today, it's already being disseminated in outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post online editions to the blog of Illinois Family Law and Deseret News of the LDS Church.

But before it saw any of these outlets, I saw it on my desk. I fixed mistakes, rearranged a few sentences, and double-checked the charts to make sure they made sense. Because no matter the brilliance of the author, everybody misses some details. And you never know when your publication (along with any errors that might have snuck in) will spread like wildfire.