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Archive for March, 2008

Every few months or so, someone blogs that free software would be more popular if it had fewer applications in each category. If a distribution would only include, say, Firefox, rather than Konqueror and Epiphany as well, or only OpenOffice.org without KOffice or Abiword, then users would have less anxiety option and locate the software they need more easily. Recently, though, I was very glad to have the choice.

For the past while, Trish’s GNOME desktop has been freezing after a dozen or so windows are opened or closed. The problem is an obscure one, and elusive when I try to track it down. I know it is peculiar to her account, since I don’t suffer from it, but more concrete information is slow to come by. Changing every configuration option that might even remotely connected doesn’t help. Ditto running her key files in another account. Removing the GNOME configuration files so that new default ones are created does nothing. Nor does upgrading GNOME or any of the software I suspect of being involved with the problem. I suspect that either Firefox or Thunderbird are complicit, and my investigations continue, but, meanwhile, Trish is left with a major annoyance every time she logs into her account.

If we were running Windows or OS X, she would have no choice except to endure while I troubleshoot. However, because we’re on GNU/Linux, I switched her over to KDE instead. After about ten minutes of customization, her new desktop looks about 90% the same as her old one, so the transition was minimal, so she can carry on with reading her email and browsing the web while I track down the problem.

Had KDE not removed the problem, I could have set up Xfce. Had Xfce not solved the problem, I could turned to IceWM, Blackbox, Fluxbox, Afterstep or any of a couple of dozen other desktops or window manager..

By contrast, had we been running Windows, she would have had to endure the problem, because only one desktop would be available for her (or perhaps I would have had to re-install). But, under GNU/Linux, I had an immediate choice of workarounds – and all because free software isn’t so rigidly organized that it has only one of everything. The redundancy that people love to decry makes an emergency far less urgent, so I, for one, hope that no distribution every tries to do much tidying. 

Diversity may be messy, but, sometimes, messiness is better.

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A comment on my blog entry “What Editors Want” suggested that I forgot to mention that writers are also required to write to a certain style. Actually, I didn’t forget so much as think it irrelevant, at least in the sense that most beginners usually think about style.

True, editors usually have a style guide full of arcana such as what terms you should capitalize, and whether you should write “email” or “e-mail.” Sometimes, too, they contain phrases and words that either you shouldn’t use, or should only with a particular meaning. And, in the case of major newspapers or wire services, these style guides can run to hundreds of pages.

However, writers – especially beginners or freelancers – are rarely expected to submit work that conforms to a style guide in every aspect. Even regular contributors or full-timers are generally asked only to conform to the most common aspects of a style guide. The practices outlined in a style guide are usually trivial to fix, especially with a search and replace function, so making your manuscript conform to a style guide is usually relatively trivial.

Nor are these technical aspects what beginners usually mean by style. Usually, what they mean is a distinctive voice, either for themselves or for a publication.

Beginners often worry considerably about style – probably because the concept is so difficult to define or analyze, partly because we lack the vocabulary. But, in my experience, style or a lack of it rarely determines whether a piece is accepted.

Sometimes, a publication will favor a particular style. For instance, Maximum Linux, a companion to Maximum PC in 1999-2000, favored an edgier style with more slang than most publications. However, regardless of a publication’s preferred style, most editors are so glad to receive literate and interesting copy to fill their schedule that they aren’t going to insist that it conform to a house style. That’s a nice luxury, but not an essential. If necessary, a few edits can usually bring an otherwise publishable piece of work into line with the house styles.

So far as style is an issue at all, what matters to editors is clarity, a decent sense of structure, and knowledge of your audience. Unlike the obscure concept of style that floats around in most beginner’s heads, these concerns are intensely practical – and, unlike beginner’s concepts of style, can be easily codified.

The rules for clarity listed at the end of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” have never been bettered in the sixty years since he wrote them. As for structure, you can learn the basics by reading Aristotle on rhetoric. Where to position your most important points, how to deal with opposing views – in the last 2500 years, Aristotle’s suggestions have been often repeated, often expanded upon, but only very occasionally added to.

Unfortunately, no equally well-regarded guide to knowing your audience exists, but that is mostly common sense. For instance, if you are writing for an audience with no background in your subject, you may have to explain terms that you could assume an expert audience would know. Similarly, writing for academics, you can use more compound and complex sentences that in writing for the general public. If you ask a few questions or take a look at a few articles in a publication, usually you can quickly pick up such details very quickly.

Instead of focusing on style, I always urge beginners to concentrate on these concrete considerations. If they do, they usually find that they don’t have to think too much about style, and that it has taken care of itself instead.

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