Archive for the ‘editing’ Category

(Written in response to a recently seen email exchange. The views expressed are entirely my own)

I’m sorry that the article you submitted was rejected. Nobody handles rejection well, and being rejected after considerable effort is even worse. I’ve had my own share of rejections, so I can sympathize with your disappointment. Unfortunately, submitting an article isn’t like high school – you don’t get points for effort. But do you really think you did the right thing after your request to go over your rejected article with the editor when you replied, “Thanks for your high-handed attitude?”

What you don’t seem to understand is that you were the one who was being high-handed. Your desire to improve your writing is commendable, but did you think what you were asking?

Maybe you were deceived by the casual tone of the editor. However, you seem to have forgot that the editor is not a member of an online writing group. The editor is a professional, who reviews submissions for a living. What you were doing was asking him to do additional work for free. You wouldn’t ask your mechanic to give free advice about your car, or your doctor to give you a free examination – at least, not unless you were exceptionally rude. So why would you expect an editor to give you free editing? People frequently under-estimate the difficulty of writing and editing, since most people in our culture learn how to do both to a degree, but, in effect, you were implying that his time was worthless. When he already edits for twelve hours or more a day, his reluctance to do more is hardly surprising.

As the editor told you, he is not a writing coach. He has a love of writing, and some expertise in it, or he wouldn’t be in his position, but his job isn’t to teach. It’s to get half a dozen or so articles ready to publish every day. If he takes the time to discuss an article with its writer, he does so because he is reasonably confident that the effort will result in an article he can use. Yet he has already established that your article isn’t usable, so, as far as he is concerned, you are not only asking him to work for free, but to waste his time. Under the circumstances, he won’t want to waste his work hours, and why should he waste his own time?

Moreover, it’s not as if he hasn’t already gone out of his way with you. He was polite when he explained his rejection of your article, and encouraged you to try again when your writing had improved. He even went so far as to send the draft he did trying to get your article into publishable shape and to suggest that you compare his changes with your original article as a learning experience. He wasn’t obliged to do any of these things. In fact, many editors wouldn’t have bothered.

Finally, just to make matters worse, you ended the exchange with a sarcastic email. The temptation to do so may have been enormous. However, in giving way to that temptation, you proved yourself an amateur, unable to distinguish between rejection of your article and rejection of yourself. Did you ever stop to think that you might try again – or that the editor might not care to deal with you if he remembers your sarcasm? Being a professional, he might consider another work by you regardless, yet he would hardly be human if he didn’t prefer to work with other writers with less attitude, given any choice at all. If nothing else, if he ever had to choose between an article by you and one by someone else, guess which one he’s likely to pick?

Learning to write is difficult. But the unfortunate truth is, you have made the effort more difficult than it has to be – and all because you didn’t stop to think about what you were doing and how you presented yourself.

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So you think you want the life of a freelance writer? Maybe after you hear about my monthly ups and downs, you’ll think again.

Currently, I am under obligation to provide 16 articles – about 22,000 words – each month about GNU/Linux and free software. I may also do a number of other paying articles on other subject, depending on what other contracts I have going at any given moment. Unless I am working on a breaking story, most of this work doesn’t have to be submitted at a more particular time than by the end of the month.

I start each month by sending out invoices. Invoices are the part of my work that I enjoy the least, but are also the whole point of my efforts, so I grumble and force myself to send them out. Then, overcome by the effort and aware that a whole month stretches ahead of me, I am likely to take a few days to slack off. I may do a little research for possible stories, but, more likely, I run the errands that have been piling up for the last couple of weeks, and work on other projects.

By the end of the first week of the month, I start to get nervous and produce a few articles. Come the second week, I am producing steadily, but anxiety is riding me like a nightmare as I count the remaining number of articles I have to finish by the end of the month.

In the third week, the anxiety leaves me hag-ridden. “You’re not going to make it!” a mocking little voice seemingly just above my head starts saying over and over. At night, I have dreams of inadequacy and lie awake staring up at the dark as the little voice continues its chorus. “You’re not going to make it!”

In the day, motionless and cramped in front of the computer. I start scanning the Internet for possible story leads – any leads – and making the rounds of my contacts. I start writing furiously, sometimes even managing to submit two stories in one day.

It’s not, you might say, the ideal time to confront me with the unexpected, or ask me a favor. At this point in a month, I truly emerge as a geek — and by that I don’t mean a computer programmer, but a grubby refugee from a circus capable of biting chickens’ heads off for a living.

At times, too, in the middle of the month, I wonder if being a circus geek wouldn’t be a less stressful way to make a living. At least the job would get me out of the house and meeting people face-to-face.

By the fourth week, I can see the end in sight, but I hardly dare to hope that I will make my quotas. In fact, I’m a great believer in flop sweat, and have a half-superstitious belief that if I think I can make it, I won’t. But I plug away steadily, seriously over-dosed on writing, and then, miracle of miracles, it happens: I finish, usually with a day or two to spare. Sometimes, I even manage to finish ahead of times in months that have 30 days, or even in the cruelty that is February, with its punishing three days short of a normal month’s length. And, a day or two aside, I rarely have to pull any especially long hours to reach quota.

Part of me is chagrined by this work flow. In school and university, I always had assignments done well ahead of deadline. Common sense tells me that I should dust of those old habits, and write to a schedule, four stories each week, banged out in regular order.

Yet somehow it doesn’t seem to work that way. After my rollercoastering month, I usually need to rest for a few days at the start of a new month, and so the whole sorry cycle gets perpetuated. Maybe the stark, raving terror of deadlines is a great motivator, but it sure doesn’t make for peace of mind.

And you want to know the really sorry part of this schedule? The fact is, I set it myself. I don’t pretend that I am indispensable to any of the editors for whom I write regularly. I’m told that I write well and on-time, and generally need minimal correction – virtues that all editors appreciate – but, should I suddenly disappear or miss quota one month (and sooner or later, I’m bound to), my editors would survive the catastrophe far better than I would the shame of it.

You see, the trouble with being a freelancer – or a consulting editor, if you want to pretty up my position – is that you’re your own boss. And if you have the personality to be a freelancer, you also have the personality to be the most demanding and obnoxious boss for whom you’ve ever had to work.

So pity the poor freelancers. Not only are we under the worst bosses imaginable, but the only escape is back to the nine-to-five jobs we escaped. And nothing, not even our abusive management, is worth such a desperate move.

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Of all the possible contents of a resume, the objective statement is by far the most controversial. Many consider it a waste of time, a piece of puffery that is as empty as a mission statement. Personally, I am in favor of using one, but only if it is written and regarded in the right way.

The major objection to using an objective is that it is too vague to carry much meaning. If you are referring to the sort of objective that most people write, I would have to agree. A single phrase like “a programming position” is wasted space on your resume, especially since you can put the same information in a title after your name.

Nor are hirers going to be impressed by “to be CEO,” a statement that I’ve seen at least a dozen times. This is the kind of objective that is passed around the office for its unintentional humor. It’s especially ineffective at a small company or startup where the person reading your resume is the CEO. Just what everyone wants to see — someone with ambitions to replace them.

The trouble with the kind of objective statements that you usually see are that they say nothing meaningful. However, if you view an objective statement as a kind of teaser, an executive summary that encourages those reading your resume to read more, then you can start to write a more effective objective.

And how do you encourage readers to continue looking at your resume, instead of scanning it and then tossing it among the discards? Simple: use the objective to summarize what you can do for the company. With any luck, the hirer will then read the rest of your resume more carefully.

Let’s take an example from one of my resumes. It has three parts: A statement of the general category of position for which I am looking for work, a description of the three main traits that I have to offer, and, finally, a description of how I can use those traits to the benefit of the company to which I’m applying.

The first part is simple: “A marketing and communication position.” I make it the first five or six words, so that readers know immediately what work I’m applying for.

The second part involves more thought. Before writing it, I made a list of two dozen job skills I could offer in marketing and communications, describing them in a phrase and polishing the phrases until they were as concise and precise as possible. Then, I chose the ones that I wanted to emphasize for this particular position: “defining and developing corporate strategy; building communication links; and marketing products.” These are general traits — if I had more specific information about the position, then I would try to use more specific ones.

The third part is crafted in much the same way as the second. I built a list of different ways that I could help a company, then chose the most appropriate ones based on what I knew about the company. Again, I didn’t know very much, so I kept the list general: “to enable a company to define and realize its objectives and production schedules and to create relations with business partners.”

The final version reads: “A marketing and communications position that involves defining and developing corporate strategy; building communication links; and marketing products to enable a company to define and realize its objectives and production schedules and to create relations with business partners.”

This objective isn’t perfect. It’s more general than I would prefer, but you don’t always have the information to do better. However, it does tell hirers what I am looking for. In a few lines, I’ve made clear that I am not looking for an entry level position, but a reasonably senior position (since I talk about shaping corporate strategy first and also mention defining objectives). It also suggests that I might be interested in product management, and that I have experience working with other companies. If I’ve done my research properly in looking for places to apply, with any luck I will have attracted a readers’ interest and he or she will be looking at my resume a little more carefully than the rest in the pile.

Also, since I use semi-colons correctly, I am signalling that I have a high degree of literacy. The implication, if anyone notices, is that I can be counted on to represent the company in a polished and professional manner.

Boiling down your career goals to a few lines isn’t easy. Realistically, you can expect to spend at least several hours coming up with an exact summary of your skills — and don’t be surprised if you spend even longer. But considering that the point is to interest readers enough to notice the details of your skills, then you’ll find that time well spent.

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I’ve thought of myself as an aspiring writer for so long that I took several years to realize that I had become a professional. The regular checks from Linux Journal and SourceForge should have tipped me off earlier, but somehow my situation seemed more a fantasy than a reality. My change of status only sunk in when I tried to describe what was happening to an acquaintance from school, and – more importantly – when a couple of people emailed me recently asking how they could break in to professional journalism.

The first time, I didn’t know what to say, but, the second time, I started to codify the differences between a professional and an amateur writer, based on my own experiences and observations:

Professionals don’t wait for inspiration before working
Often, of course, profesionals can’t wait for inspiration because they have deadlines. But, even more fundamentally, professionals have learned that word done when you’re inspired is not necessarily better than work done when you’re not in the mood. What’s far more important is to keep in practice by writing regularly.

Professionals don’t obsess over grammar
Naturally, professional writer care about clarity and precision. But grammar is only one of the means to those ends. I’ve yet to meet a practicing writer who doesn’t cheerfully break any rule in the textbook if they can write more effectively by doing so.

Professionals submit work in readable form
Remember the story of great writers who submit work full of spelling and presentation errors and written on the back of napkins and paper bags? Some of them are true – but very few. And even in those cases that are true, the writers are often handicapping themselves by creating a reputation as difficult.

For anyone else, ignoring the advantages of a clean presentation that follows the publishers’ style guides is career suicide. The less work that editors need to do in order to make your work ready for publication, the more likely they are to accept it – assuming, of course, that it is at least minimally competent. It takes very unique content to make an editor accept the extra work required to correct poor presentation.

Anyway, you don’t want mistakes to distract from what you say. Think of the editors to whom you submit work as people with Adult Attention Deffict Disorder. Anything you can do to ensure that they’re not distracted from your content is only going to help you.

Professionals meet deadlines
At Linux.com, the editors regularly accept story pitches from amateurs. Yet a surprising number – maybe as many as two-thirds – never return with the finished story. For editors who constantly need content, writers who do what they promise when they promise are rare assets. In fact, writers who finish what they start are so valuable that editors may prefer them to people who write better stories but are more erratic.

Professionals accept editing (mostly)
Edit amateurs, and you are likely to get protests. They’ve usually worked long and hard to produce their writing, so they’ve become fiercely attached to the results. Professionals don’t like editing any better than amateurs, but they’ve learned to accept it. They know that publications may have style guides that differ from their personal preferences, and that writing may have to be edited to fit a given space. They’ve learned, too, that a trustworthy editor can make them look better, or at least keep them from making mistakes in public. Professonals may complain if an editior changes the sense of what they’re saying – but then they will try to respond calmly. Those who do otherwise rarely last in the ranks of professionals.

Professionals take the work seriously, not themselves
For amateurs, writing is tangled up with their sense of who they like to be. Accepted professionals, by contrast, don’t have anything to prove. They know that their work is going to be uneven, and that they’re going to make mistakes sometimes. Having done the best they could under the circumstances, they know enough to let the work go. They still find praise gratifying or abuse deflating, but they realize that their work is not them.

Professionals write
At some point or other, anyone who has hung around amateur writers has been cornered by someone willing to talk at great length about their plans for some great work. My own worst experience was a house guest who kept wanting me to read her fan fiction when the kindest comment I could muster was, “Oh. Typed, I see.”

By contrast, few professionals will give more than a sentence or two about their current work. Some are afraid that talking will replace writing – and, considering the example of amateurs, they might be right. However, the basic reason that professionals don’t talk about works in progress is that they are too busy planning or working. Writers, by definition, save their efforts for writing.

You may notice that I only talk about work habits and say nothing about the differences between how amateurs and professional use language. The reason for this omission is not that I’m a crass commercialist, but that there is little to say.

Many amateurs show that they have a love of language and some skill in using it, yet they never become professionals. Conversely, I know several professionals who have no more than basic competence in the way they use language. So, I conclude that talent alone does not distinguish the professional from the amateur.

Instead, the difference is your willlingness to work and your attitude towards the way things are done. Amateurs are unwilling or unable to adjust, so their love of language remains a part-time interest. Professionals work and adjust, and are rewarded by being able to do what they love for a living. In the end, the difference comes down to attitude rather than talent.

That suggestion is both good new and bad news to amateurs. On the one hand, it suggests that you don’t need to be special — or not very — to become professional. On the other hand, it does sugges that you need discipline and flexibility — and those may be even rarer than talent.

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Today, I received an email praising my recent article about the Kamloops School District’s conversion to free software, but taking me to task for alleged grammatical errors. On the Linux.com IRC channel, suggestions about how to respond ranged from “Bite me!” to “I don’t see your name on my cheque, so why should I care?” (the response I eventually chose when I got a second email from the same person) I was more amused than peeved by the brief exchange, but as I rode the exercise bike this afternoon, I started thinking about the grammar neurosis that grips the English-speaking world.

When someone becomes obsessed with grammar, they are worrying more about rules than about effective use of language. Of all the dozens of writers I’ve known, none worried about grammar beyond the basics necessary for clarity. If clarity was best served by an ungrammatical phrase, none of them hesitated to use it.

By contrast, I can think of only two English writers who could be described as grammarians: John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, neither of whom are considered major writers today. Yet Dryden frequently took Shakespeare to task for his poor grammar. So, whatever the concern with grammar is about, it isn’t about writing well — despite what generations of school children have been told.

Of course, learning rules is easier than learning how to write. Since we don’t even have the technical vocabulary for discussing writing properly, teaching someone to write even competently is usually difficult and slow. But rules are as clearly defined as writing is not. That makes them easy to learn, and even easier to test.

People tend to obsess about grammar for the same reason that a person I know once learned all about jazz: not because they have much appreciation for the subject, but because they want an expertise in an obscure subject so that they can assert their superiority over the rest of the world. In today’s case, this sense of superiority led my correspondent to contact a complete stranger and correct them on points that were debatable at best. Even if she had been correct, that’s as rude as accosting someone on the street with your fashion advice. Anything that causes such impoliteness, I insist, is dubious for that reason alone.

In Canada, another reason for becoming a grammarian is the idea that spelling like “honour” and “centre” are somehow expressions of national pride. To me, that seems a very shaky base for any sense of cultural identity. Besides, if Shakespeare could spell his name several different ways, why should other writers care about the spelling conventions that editors use in their published work? You might as well worry about the paper or the computer monitor that your work will appear on.

However, more than anything else, the self-appointed guardians of grammar fail to understand what their subject represents. Any language is constantly evolving, so how can it have any firm set of rules? The most you can do is what linguists do, which is to provide a snapshot of how a language is used in a particular place and time. And, although that is what grammarians are doing, most of them are unaware of the fact. What they present as eternal truths are, for the most part, the rules of language as they were used by the educated elite a few decades ago. The elite has the power to make this snapshot the official version of the language, but, for all their efforts, they are unable to do more than slow the natural evolution of language. They are trying to do the impossible, and they don’t realize it.

That is not to say that grammarians do no harm. In fact, if, like me, you had ever watched the agony of first year university students as they try to put their thoughts down on paper, you would soon realize that they do a good deal of harm. Not only do the grammarians in our schools emphasize a relatively minor aspect of writing, but, in the process, they instill such a fear of making a mistake that most students are almost paralyzed when asked to express themselves.

As a result, the average graduate of our school system struggles with even the simplest bits of communication, and loses a potential sense of aesthetic pleasure. Far from educating people, the grammarians convince most of us that education is something that we can never have, and that we are hopelessly ignorant.

Then, just to make sure that we never recover, they leave us completely misdirected and focused on a meaningless goal, so that we can only stumble free of the limitations with which they have blinkered us with patience or luck.

In fact, so early and deeply is the grammar neurosis embedded in our minds that the average person, faced with what I have said here will instantly leap to the defence of grammar. They will mishear, insisting that these observations mean that I am calling for the abolition of all rules. Unable to conceive that any alternative could exist, let alone what that alternative might be, most will simple retreat into their neurosis.

Yet the alternative is very simple. Just as Nelson once said, “No officer can go very far wrong who lays his ship alongside an enemy,” no would-be writers can go very far wrong if they forget about grammar when they sit down and focus on saying what they mean. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that. And the real tragedy is that, in the reign of the grammar police, most of us forget it.

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One of my current side projects is editing a manuscript for Joe Barr, one of my colleagues at the Open Source Technology Group. The experience has me remembering the thousands of papers I marked while working as an English instructor at Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen College.

On our IRC channel, Joe is best known for having inspired our own abbreviation, NOAFD (Not On A First Date, because he is always telling people what not to do; apparently, a first date with Joe consists of separate sensory deprivation chambers in separate cities), but he is also one of the best editorial writers at OSTG. For several years, he has also been writing a series called CLI Magic about using the GNU/Linux command line, and the collected columns are now being considered by Prentice Hall for OSTG’s new imprint – which is where I come in.

As practiced by me, editing a manuscript is much like marking papers. Both require close attention to structure and develop of ideas. Both, too, require a clear sense of the difference between how I would express something and when the writers haven’t expressed themselves as well as they might in their own terms. Both also require a degree of diplomacy; it would be easier just to write “This stinks on ice,” but the writers will be more likely to listen and find the comments useful if I say instead, “Will the reader be able to follow this argument? How about arranging it this way …”

The similarity is especially close because Joe’s original articles are all under 1500 words, so that editing a section of the manuscript is like marking a dozen essays.

Looking back, I estimate that I must have marked well over 12,000 papers in seven years as a university instructor. This number was dribbled out in batches of 50 to 200, but it’s still an appalling number, especially since I was a very thorough marker, commenting on everything from grammar and punctuation to structure and ideas in considerable detail.

In fact, I did so much marking that I ruined the clarity of my handwriting to such a degree that you’d never have guessed that I had won awards for it in grade school. I switched over to printing, but, in my last couple of years as a teacher, my printing deteriorated, too. Had I hung on much longer, I would have needed to start marking on line, so that students could read my comments.

I used to mark to classical music. I found that Wagner made me work quickly but not very thoroughly, so I soon settled on the Baroque composers, whose implied sense of order encouraged me to be through or careful. Vivaldi was a favorite until his music became a reminder of Fritz Leiber’s death bed, but Pachelbel and Telemann were almost as good. With a dozen Baroque albums ready, I could easily mark a paper in 20-25 minutes and keep up the pace for seven or eight hours

However, I never warmed to marking. I hated the necessity of failing the occasional student, and many were less interested in improving their writing than in getting a better grade, so many of my comments were undoubtedly wasted. If I had had my way, I wouldn’t have given a grade at all – just comments, because worry over grades obviously prevented many students from learning. Of all the parts of teaching, it was always my least favorite, and seemed the least relevant to helping students learn. The best I could muster was a feeling that I might help students survive better in other essay-based courses.

Moreover, at community colleges, the number of assignments I was required to give and the number of classes I had to teach each semester meant that I was more or less continually marking. The work load was much less at university, but, increasingly, I felt crushed by the lack of originality in most of the papers and my increasing difficulties in being impartial. In the last couple of years, I had reached the point of asking students to identify themselves only on their title page, so I could fold it back and have no idea whose paper I was marking.

By the time I realized that, in the current market, I would probably get tenure about the time I was 95, I had seriously overdosed on marking. It’s the one part of teaching I could do without, and when I’ve taught technical classes in recent years, I’ve always been careful to avoid having to mark essays.

Fortunately, none of my misgivings apply to Joe’s manuscript. I hope that I’ve made useful suggestions for improving his work, but since Joe is nothing if not literate and well-versed in his topic, being one of his first readers is much easier than marking students. Still, as I continue through his manuscript, the similarity of the two experiences sets me remembering.

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