Tag Archives: books

The performance of a text

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

A novel or a short story – or a nonfiction book or article – is, on the other hand, a finished work. You sit down, you read it, you get the same thing every time. Right?

Ha, no.

We’re all editors here, so we know how many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on a text before it’s published. But we might casually assume that once the wording is finalized and all the errors are fixed, the text is done and all printed versions are fungible.

Even though we know it’s not true.

We know it’s not true because we know that reading a nicely laid-out print magazine version of an article is a different experience than reading a text flow of it on a website. We know, if we’re proofreading, what a difference some seemingly small things can make – misalignments, for instance, or bad breaks.

And we also know it’s not true because when we’re shopping for books, if there are several different editions of the same work, we will choose carefully between them. Just as we may choose between a performance of Beethoven’s 5th that is fast-paced and percussive and one that is more stately and smooth, we may likewise choose carefully between two editions of, say, Jane Eyre. One of them might be on pulp paper in a casewrap hardcover with a photo on the cover and a small, tight type face with narrow margins and no paragraph indents, while the other might be a trade paperback with a stylish minimalist cover, creamy, durable paper, and well-set type in a graceful face. You’ll get the same story, sure, but you won’t get the same feeling from reading it – about the story or about yourself.

A book is a performance of a text. So is a magazine layout of an article. So is this website’s presentation of this article you’re reading now.

Different performances differ in so many details. If it’s a website, are there pictures? How wide is the text column? Is it cluttered with ads? What font is it in? If it’s a book, does it feel cheap or luxurious? Is it light or heavy, soft or hard? What does the cover look like? Do you like the type face? Is it easy to read in low light? Do the pages turn easily? And, for heaven’s sake, how does it smell?

Does all this seem peripheral to the actual text? Tell me this, then: if you’re buying an audiobook, does it matter whether it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Waits? Helen Mirren or Siri? You’re getting the same story, right?

Sure you are. But a different performance. And the difference between type faces in which you read Sherlock Holmes stories can be as affecting as the difference between Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and Basil Rathbone’s. The difference in page layout, paper, and binding can make as much difference as the set design of a production of a play. The page is a stage – or a concert hall.

Sure-fire opening lines

This was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in want of readers must be possessed of a good opening line. A book is a relationship – many of us spend more intimate time with books than with people – and it is important to start the relationship off on a good foot.

So, naturally, I wondered whether good opening lines for books were like good opening lines on Tinder.

A book, of course, is not addressing you personally. Still, like your first message to someone on Tinder (I’m told), a book’s opening line should include a couple of attention-grabbing details, be about something the reader is interested in, refer to things they know about, present honesty and vulnerability, and leave the reader wanting to know more. It’s even better if it’s witty.

On the other hand, books are supposed to bring adventure, with danger and disturbance. It’s safe, since you can close the cover and return to normalcy, but it can’t be like a nice date. Death makes for bad dates but good reading.

So, as a study in pragmatics and discourse, let’s try some opening lines of books lightly adapted to be Tinder opening lines and see how they do.

  • “Hey. I am somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert and the drugs are beginning to take hold.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • “Good evening. It is a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • “JSYK, everything in my profile happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
  • “Greetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • “How’s it going? If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
  • “Greetings. I am a woman who has discovered she has turned into the wrong person.” (Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups)
  • “Nice day, eh? The sun is shining, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
  • “A bit about myself: All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
  • “Yo. I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)
  • “Hi there. I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” (Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche)
  • “Good day. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
  • “My name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and I almost deserve it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

From these we observe two further truisms:

  1. The genre expectations of narrative fiction are sharply different from those of dating.
  2. Most protagonists of novels may be very interesting to read about but are not the kind of people you would want to go on a date with.

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

What my fingertips tell me of books

Paper, in general, is hard.

We may be used to thinking of paper as soft. It bends, doesn’t it? But take a dozen or a score of pages, a quire or even a ream, and pinch. It doesn’t give. Not most kinds of paper, anyway. Crumple a sheet of printer paper and rub it against your face. Not exactly pillowsome, is it? Run your finger along the edge of a single page. Oops. Feathers don’t cut you like that.

But not all paper meets the fingers the same way. And while the paper in many books is merely functional, cool and flat and impersonal and barely textured under my fingers like an institutional wall, some paper has a rich texture. Some has a soft give. And, yes, some bends more than other. But the bend and the texture and the softness are entirely separate things. Continue reading

Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.