Lower Mainland editors have probably heard of the Vancouver Public Library’s Blue Pencil sessions but may not know what they involve. At January’s Editors BC meeting, moderator Wendy Barron and a panel of editors who’ve participated in them—Sarah Robins, Erin Parker, Meagan Dyer, and Nancy Tinari—set out to demystify the program and encourage other editors to volunteer. Continue reading “A behind-the-scenes look at the Blue Pencil (Editors BC meeting)”
Yeah, I know. This cartoon has nothing to do with editing or publishing. I’d considered a more subtle “Let’s mark up 2016 with a dele and an editorial note saying something like ‘Unrealistic’ or ‘Too dark,'” but that joke’s been played out on social media. Here, then, are my raw feelings about this horror show of a year. Let’s hope things get better.
Love to you and yours this holiday season.
Greg Younging, member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and publisher of Theytus Books, led an engaging, eye-opening seminar on Indigenous editorial issues for members of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), which invited Editors BC to join in. Younging was Assistant Director of Research for the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and is chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Creator’s Rights Alliance. His seminar was a perfect balance of important historical context and practical suggestions. I’ll do my best to recap the highlights, but if you ever get the opportunity to attend this seminar or more in-depth training through the Indigenous Editors Circle (formerly Aboriginal Editors Circle), I’d highly recommend taking it. Continue reading “Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues”
For the stereotypically introverted editor, marketing and promotion can feel unnatural and effortful. This discomfort has obvious consequences for a freelancer who’s always on the lookout for the next contract, but it can also hurt in-house editors: when editorial departments aren’t vocal about their function within the larger organization, their work may be ignored or undervalued. Continue reading “Everybody in the house make some noise”
Jordan Abel, Nisga’a poet, editor, and PhD candidate, and Ann-Marie Metten, managing editor at Talonbooks, had a conversation about telling Indigenous stories and about establishing good working relationships between non-Indigenous editors and Indigenous authors.
They began the session, as the conference itself did, with an acknowledgement that we were meeting on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, but they also wondered whether such an acknowledgement was truly helpful. At some events it’s the only time Aboriginal people are mentioned. Abel said that the practice is a courtesy but can be a problem if it’s done out of routine. The acknowledgement is fine as long as it’s not the only action you take to include Indigenous people. Continue reading “Dialogue on editing Indigenous writing (Editors Canada 2016)”
Herbert Rosengarten is a professor emeritus and former head of UBC’s English department. A textual editor and authority on the work of the Brontës, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and co-compiled the entry on the Brontës in The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Rosengarten spoke at a recent Editors BC meeting about textual criticism and scholarly editing.
Textual editors study the creation of a literary work from manuscript to print and through its various editions. They also supplement the text with annotations, translations, and explanations of allusions or quotations that the reader might not be familiar with. “The goal is to present all the information a person needs to understand and interpret the work,” said Rosengarten. Continue reading “Herbert Rosengarten—The tyranny of the copytext: the trials and tribulations of textual editing (Editors BC meeting)”
Robin-Eliece Mercury is an editor and applied linguist who taught composition in Japan and the Czech Republic. At the November Editors BC meeting she moderated a panel discussion about the particular challenges and considerations when editing authors who are not native English speakers. On the panel were
Mercury framed the discussion by asking us to think about whether our national association has role to play in creating guidelines, strategies, or tools to help editors approach this kind of editing. “All of us have our personal preferences or policies when editing copy from a non-native speaker of English,” she said. “How can be aware of and sensitive to non-native speakers of English” while meeting the expectations of those who publish and read their work?
Heng Hartse began by pointing out that he’s the only non-editor on the panel, although the work of academics and editors does overlap a lot. His research interests are in the globalization of English and World Englishes. “The pluralization is very intentional,” said Heng Hartse. “It’s ideologically purposeful. We want to emphasize the pluricentricity of English. English is increasingly not the sole possession of a single people, nation, or cultural group.”
Just as we wouldn’t say that a Canadian speaks worse English than an Australian, we can apply the same attitude toward those who speak Singapore English or Indian English, for example. World Englishes “recognizes each variety as legitimate and having its own norms,” said Heng Hartse, which can lead to some interesting controversies. We are seeing more situations in which writer, editor, and audience are working with different norms.
“What responsibility do individual editors have to learn about World Englishes and their role in the global context?” Mercury asked Zhong.
“It’s like any other aspect of professional development,” said Zhong. “We need to become familiar with what they are, in what context they’re used, how we can best serve writers and their audience—with sensitivity.” Ultimately, we have to make sure that the document’s readable. “Other academics all over the world have to understand what someone in Singapore has written.”
Fleury wanted editors to understand that “nonstandard is not a mistake. The challenge is to understand what is standard for the audience.”
Zhong says that tries as much as she can to maintain an expert’s voice and style, but context is important. Sometimes authors will write a term or word that they’ve heard somewhere but haven’t used in the right way. Her example was an author’s use of “significant others” to refer to other important people. She explained how that term is usually used and suggested other possibilities that might be clearer to the reader.
Zhong also adjusts her level of editing depending on the purpose of the document. “I edit course material for the Open University of Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes place the place of a lecture, so it has to be accessible to the students. And it has a certain degree of informality that you don’t get in a journal article. So I edit more intrusively: students have to understand the material without the instructor.”
“I query a lot,” said Zhong. “You have to be as clear as possible and always give options. ‘Did you mean X, or did you mean Y? If you meant X, you’ll need a comma here. If you meant Y, maybe you could say it this way.’”
“Is it fair for editors to assume that non-native speakers of English need extensive editing?” Mercury asked Fleury.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “You will find native speakers who are working as writers and need extensive editing. It’s not a problem of second-language speakers or writers. It’s a misconception that second-language writers are not good writers that will give more trouble than pleasure to editors.” Those who are serious about a language, Fleury said, will never stop studying it. “If you can choose, just work with the right writers.”
“How can we edit with a sensitivity to authors who are non-native speakers of English, when standard English is expected?” Mercury asked Heng Hartse.
“The first thing is not to assuming a non-native speaker has a deficit compared with a native speaker,” he said. “There are many ‘literacy brokers’ between author and publication.” The process could involve many people—family members, colleagues, editors—“all of us making contributions to the text.”
“Approach their work in an open-minded way,” said Heng Hartse. “We need to step back and be reflexive about our perceptions. Build an ethic for yourself of continually asking—What is style? What is grammar? What is just a pet peeve? It’s incumbent on us to develop a way of dealing with other people’s text that respect them, while bringing our expertise.”
“What’s your approach in getting agreement with you and the author in terms of how far you would edit the text stylistically?” Mercury asked Zhong.
“Authors normally tell me what they want me to do,” she said. Some authors want her to focus only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. “If you have any questions, ask. Don’t go ahead and make changes.”
Heng Hartse warned us to be aware of “rules” that are actually a product of folk linguistics—like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “None of us are immune to the ideological dimension of making language choices,” he said. “That’s where we have to be careful.”
Mercury asked Fleury if she’s encountered editors’ prejudices as a writer whose first language isn’t English.
“Sometimes an editor will say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ Was there a prejudice or an expectation that it wouldn’t be good? There’s a misconception that native speakers are better writers in that language and that non-native speakers wouldn’t be good writers and would need a lot of work. That’s behind why people are surprised.”
“I’m aware of my weaknesses and strengths,” said Fleury. “I wouldn’t submit anything as a final product if it’s not good enough. If I don’t think I have the skills to write about a specific topic, I will refer a friend.”
“My two prejudices,” said Heng Hartse, “are that (1) I’m right, and (2) I understand what the writer means.”—and it’s important to check these, he said.
Mercury asked the audience if it would be helpful for an organization like Editors Canada to synthesize some of the considerations we’d discussed into guidelines to help the growing number of editors working with non-native speakers of English.
Ruth Wilson responded: “I haven’t heard anything tonight that wouldn’t apply to any thoughtful, sensitive editing in any other discipline. All of the [Professional Editorial] Standards apply equally to this. We’re just opening a window to a new discipline.”
“It’s good to have an open discussion about bias,” said Wilson, but what we’re talking about isn’t a new skill set but an expansion of existing skills.”
Kyra Nabeta asked the panel if they considered it important to know the writer’s language and culture.
“It’s important to be familiar with it,” said Zhong. “I feel I have an advantage. I’m familiar with historical events, place names, expressions, people… It’s not as if you can’t learn that, but for me it’s like a shortcut, because I have that background that gives me an advantage.”
(The evening ended with a few questions about editing translations that got directed to me. For interested readers, I’ve summarized some past sessions about writing for translation, Global English, and editing books in translation. Or check out my posts under the “translation” tag.)
Experimental psycholinguist and author Steven Pinker gave the opening keynote at Beyond the Red Pencil, the Northwest Independent Editors Guild’s fifth biennial conference. His talk covered the same territory as his book The Sense of Style (which I reviewed earlier), but I still very much enjoyed hearing him speak in person.
Why is so much writing so bad, he asked, and how can we make it better?
One common theory is that bad writing is a deliberate choice by bureaucrats who use gibberish to evade responsibility or by pseudo-intellectuals who want to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. But good people can write bad prose, said Pinker. Another theory suggests that digital media are ruining the language, because we can all recall that in the 1980s, Pinker quipped, “teenagers spoke in coherent paragraphs.”
A better theory is that whereas speaking comes naturally to us, writing doesn’t. “Writing is and always has been hard,” said Pinker. “Readers are unknown, invisible, inscrutable—and exist only in our imagination.”
What can we do to improve writing, then? Some would suggest reading books like The Elements of Style, but among some good advice—such as using definite, concrete language and omitting needless words—is advice that is obsolete or downright baffling. “The problem with traditional style advice,” said Pinker, is that it’s an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts based on the tastes and peeves of the authors.”
Instead, we should base our writing advice on the science and scholarship of modern grammatical theory, evidence-based dictionaries, cognitive science, and usage. Pinker made a case for classic style, which uses “prose as a window onto the world.” Reader and writer are equals, and the goal of the writer is to help the reader see objective realities. “The focus is on the thing being shown, not the activity of studying it,” said Pinker. The latter is a feature of self-conscious style that contributes to the verbosity and turgidity of academic and bureaucratic writing.
“Classic prose is about the world, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world,” said Pinker, who suggested avoiding metaconcepts and nominalizations. But he urges caution on the common advice to avoid the passive voice—especially since the advice itself often uses passive voice while condemning it. “The passive could not have survived in the English language for 1500 years if it did not serve a purpose,” said Pinker. English sentences rely on word order to convey both grammatical information and content. We expect material early in the sentence to name the topic (what the reader is looking at) and later in the sentence to show the focal point (what the reader should notice). “Prose that violates these principles feels choppy and incoherent.”
So “avoid the passive” is bad advice. But why is it so common in bad writing? “Good writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who make things happen,” said Pinker, whereas “bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge.
Too much knowledge can be a curse: “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” It’s this curse of knowledge that leads to opaque writing. The traditional advice to solve this problem is to assume a reader is looking over your shoulder at what you write. “The problem with the traditional solution is that we’re not very good at guessing what’s in people’s heads just by trying hard,” said Pinker. A better approach is to show your draft to a representative reader, or “show a draft to yourself after some time has passed and it’s no longer familiar.” Rewrite several times with the single goal of making prose more accessible to the reader.
Another battleground in writing are rules of usage, but Pinker said that the “prescriptivist versus descriptivist” paradigm is a false dichotomy. Rules of usage aren’t logical truths and are not officially regulated by dictionaries, he said. They are tacit, evolving conventions. “Many supposed rules of usage violate the grammatical logic of English, are routinely flouted by the best writers, and have always been flouted by the best writers. Obeying bogus rules can make prose worse.”
How does the writer or editor distinguish real usage from those bogus rules? “Look them up!” said Pinker. “Modern dictionaries and usage manuals do not ratify pet peeves,” he said. “Their usage advice is based on evidence.”
In any case, Pinker said, “correct usage is the least important part of good writing,” compared with a conversational classical style, a coherent ordering of ideas, factual accuracy, and sound argumentation.