Tag Archives: editing

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive.

Words are known by the company they keep, of course; words that show up most often in texts by or about children will have something of a childish air. But words are also often thought of on the basis of how they sound: we engage in phonetic profiling. If I said “I’m just credging this glivver,” before you find out what credging and glivver mean you might well imagine credging as something involving some effort or strain, and perhaps pushing or scraping, and glivver as something wet, shiny, fishlike, and/or mechanical. This is because credging sounds like dredging, budging, and several words to do with effort or constraint starting in cr– such as crank, crunch, and crush, and glivver sounds like flivver, river, glimmer, and other words related to light that start with gl– such as gleamglitter, and glint.

Words with sound clusters such as “kr–” and “gl–” and a number of others (including “fl–,” “sn–,” “spl–,” “spr–,” “tw–,” “–ump,” “–ash,” “–irl/–url,” and “–op”) have a greater-than-chance tendency to share some aspect of meaning with otherwise unrelated words containing the same sound clusters. These clusters are what linguists call phonaesthemes. They also tend to feel especially vivid – expressive, unrestrained, sometimes even childish. Glowing has one, while radiant doesn’t; snout does, while nose doesn’t; flop has two, while fail has none.

Phonaesthemes aren’t all onomatopoeia, though some are: “splash” sounds rather like a splash, but “glitter” doesn’t sound like glittering – glittering doesn’t have a sound. But they all have some degree of a performative air to them, which is why they seem so lively: their expressivity gains by association with onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (which is the sound associations we have that lead us, for instance, to expect a character named Tika to be smaller than one named Dubo).

But can throwing in a few words like dumpsplay, or snoot really make a text seem less dignified? The answer is yes. I know – I did a detailed study of how words containing phonaesthemes are used in different genres of writing and in different time periods in comparison with other words having the same general sense and length. And what’s most telling is how much some genres avoid them. Any writing where the author would not want to see unduly undignified will have far fewer phonaesthematic words than average. Academic writing in particular avoids them. Newspaper articles used to use very few; now they’ll sprinkle them throughout, tabloids especially. Political speeches avoided them in times past, but now they’ll plop the occasional one in. It doesn’t take more than one or two to add just that little glimpse of glee.

So if you’re at your desk working on a text that could be just a little spunkier, you may already know that you could be more gleeful with gleam than with shine, with slash than with cut, and with swirl than with circle. Now you know why.

Just for reference

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

If you edit academic books or articles, you probably spend a lot of time tidying up references. Sometimes as much time as editing the entire rest of the text. First, you have to pick your style: Chicago (note or name-date), MLA, APA, or, in the sciences, AMA or Vancouver. Then, you have to make everything consistent with it, to the extent possible. On top of that, you may have to look up the sources to double-check them.

I’ve edited medical continuing-education presentations that had no bibliographies and would cite some sources as just, for instance, “Heinz & Wong 2013.” I would have to find the rest of the citation—and I would, nearly every time, with a single search. Which means that anyone else who wanted to know would also be able to find it as quickly. Our citation standards were developed before the wonderful world of high-powered search engines. If we can find the source from an incomplete or inaccurate citation, how much of this tidying up is necessary? Continue reading

Novel medical treatments

To go with my presentation “Translating medicalese into everyday English,” here’s the article that I wrote for The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

People with serious health problems are often subject to novel treatments. But that shouldn’t mean being treated like they’re in a novel. Continue reading

Be an editorial Machiavelli

This was originally published on the website of ACES: The society for editing

Editors need to think more like Machiavelli.

You know who Niccolò Machiavelli was, right? He’s famous for having said “The ends justify the means.”

Except he never said that. Or wrote it. Continue reading

5. Professional writing is a group activity.

When you’re being paid to write something, you’re not the lone romantic protagonist doing everything yourself, expressing your true vision, et cetera, et cetera. You’re writing a thing that other people are going to read, and you want to make sure that they’ll be glad they’ve read it. I already told you this: It’s not about you, it’s about your readers. Continue reading

4. Don’t write from the heart. Write FOR the heart.

One time a medical editor friend told me about being introduced to someone who was “a writer.” My friend asked what kind of writing she did: technical, medical, magazine articles, fiction? She said, and my friend quoted, “I write from the heart.”

I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Oh noooooooo.” My friend joined in.

I mean, I’m sure she has good feelings about it. But if you’re writing for other people, it’s not your heart that matters. It’s theirs. Continue reading

3. Seek qualified advice.

If you’re just writing in your journal for your own fulfillment and you don’t care about anyone else’s opinion of it, congratulations: You’re in a happy place. On the other hand, if you want other people to read and enjoy your writing, you’ll want to get some opinions on it.

Here’s the problem: Your target audience may know whether they like something, but they may not know exactly why, or what you could do to make it more likeable. Continue reading