Posts tagged editing
Shit, tits and bastards

Dealing with ideas rather than events.
Extract (something).
A summary.

Last month, the NHS published an explainer about its adoption of simple – some might say childish – words to describe bodily functions. Pee, poo and sick now take the place of urine, faeces or stool and vomit in their web copy, in what some will argue is a race to the bottom (formerly rectum) in medical vernacular. It’s tempting to agree with them: hospitals are serious places, doctors are scientists and we shouldn’t trivialise illness or infantilise patients.

But this shift in language wasn’t taken lightly. Content designers reviewed common search terminology and survey data and weighed it against the comparatively small number of complaints they’ve received for similar changes in the past. Ultimately, the need to communicate clearly and effectively with as many people as possible (including those with learning difficulties and non-native speakers) won the day. Indeed, the squeamishness, pedantry and pomposity of the few shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone’s health and well-being.

Also, it turns out that doctors actually aren’t scientists, they’re jazz musicians – or so says the British Medical Journal. In any case, they’ll definitely treat you for Whiplash.

Another British institution became more inclusive this week, with a raft of updates to the Oxford English Dictionary. Heavily featured in the 650-word entry instalment are a range of Scottish words and phrases and gender-related terms that will be unfamiliar to many or most English speakers.

Among the Scottish entries (a lot of which just happen to be insults), highlights include:

  • roaster (n.) an obnoxious, annoying, or otherwise objectionable person; an idiot

  • sprag (n.) a person with an arrogant, swaggering manner; a boaster, a braggart

  • tube (n.) also in form choob a stupid or contemptible person; an idiot. Frequently as a disparaging form of address

Gender-neutral, gender inclusive and ungendered terms have been added, most notably the pronouns hir and zir, alongside Latin@, a term adopted by the Latin American trans community as an alternative to Latina, Latino, and Latinx. Where the latter refers to the community without referring to gender, Latin@ encapsulates those who identify as third gender, genderless and a combination of genders. Laypeople (and all of peoplekind, also added) may want/need to read more.

Less confusingly, the concept of misgendering (i.e. to mistake or misstate a person’s gender, or to refer to someone using language that ascribes a gender to which they don’t identify – often maliciously) has officially entered the lexicon.

Perhaps less pleasing is the knowledge that the first known use of the term comes courtesy of Vladimir Nabokov back in 1959 – an author whose prejudice against female writers was both well-known and self-declared. The inclusion of the Scots term tittie, meaning “a young woman, a girl, a lass”, will likely provide little consolation.

Finally, Damian Hinds, the government’s education secretary, has called on students to report users of so-called essay mills to their institutions’ academic malpractice boards. He also suggested universities should ask students to sign “honour codes” declaring that they will not cheat in their assignments and examinations.

Students who use essay-writing services pay enormous sums of money to unscrupulous companies who will write bespoke essays for them, evading plagiarism-detection software because the material, while authored by a third party, is ostensibly original.

As an academic proofreader, this issue is of great concern. Sometimes people mistake third-party proofreading for cheating (when in fact most universities now explicitly permit it), believing such assistance to be a nefarious attempt to get ahead of the curve. The reality is very different, however, and academic proofreaders are bound by institutional regulations that stipulate the type, level and frequency of intervention permitted.

Essay mills should be banned (as they are in many countries) and more should be done to prevent those operating outside of UK jurisdiction. Users of such services should be punished, but encouraging students to inform on one another like a particularly boring Stasi could further stigmatise the use of academic proofreaders, whose clients often speak English as an additional language or have language-based learning difficulties.

Calls for pledges are similarly tone deaf: students are already bound by terms that forbid all forms of plagiarism, and are warned against them regularly throughout their academic careers. The education secretary’s concerns are legitimate, but his response unfairly vilifies students – most of whom are of course honest and hardworking.

Twenty-five thousand people died in the course of four British/American air raids on Dresden over three days in February 1945.

Twenty-five thousand people died in the course of four British/American air raids on Dresden over three days in February 1945.

House bile is an occasional feature explaining a) what to do, (2) what not to do and iii. why that convention you've been following is dumb. This time, we look at semicolons.

Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Here’s another lesson: Kurt Vonnegut was a de facto apologist for antisemitism whose patriarchal wisdom and puerile cartoons have distracted generations of nerdy only-child devotees from his (mostly innocuous, but unmistakable) misogyny.

Vonnegut also claimed to self-edit every sentence in real time: writing and rewriting until perfect, before moving onto the next. This is a terrible approach that will frustrate your development as a writer the same way his take on the semicolon might permit you to think that not learning how to do something might somehow make you better at it than everyone else. (And I’m a fan.)

Here’s my lesson: write lots. Write often. Write well and rewrite worse. Write badly and throw it away. Write middlingly and store it on a cloud drive you’ll lose access to through unwitting non-compliance with Orwellulaneous updates to the privacy policy. Write and write and write and write, and eventually you’ll get to something that looks like the truth – even if that truth is that you weren’t meant to be a writer, which is something that is both okay and fine.

Know that semicolons are for complex lists and the separation of independent, but related clauses, and Google examples of their application every time you’re tempted to use one – just to check! – like everyone else.

Another list of banished words is 'in the books'

The aptly named Lake Superior State University published the 44th instalment of their banished words list at the start of the year. This tradition, one of several eccentric marketing ploys dreamed up by the late W T Rabe, invites members of the public to nominate words and phrases that have slipped into common parlance despite their impotent disapproval.

This year’s nominations, as with the full list itself, is a mix of neologisms, management-speak clichés and terms contributors consider to be variously too old-fashioned or too modern to be uttered again. Notable items include:

  • ‘ghosting’, to cease communication with someone suddenly, without explanation, usually in the dating world;

  • ‘crusty’, which contributor Hannah notes has (recently?!) “become a popular insult”; and

  • ‘Thought Leader’, essentially someone widely recognised as an expert in the field.

Lists like this are invariably haughty, prescriptive attempts to define what is and isn’t ‘proper’ in a language whose strength lies in its continuous development. They’re based primarily on snobbery and linguistic prejudice, which often reflect the latent prejudices of their authors and readers.

Of course, these lists also sit nicely in the ‘bit of fun’ category. I’m also aware that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. But any serious suggestion that there are (or should be) rules proscribing the use of modern, fashionable or (whisper it!) annoying verbiage should be approached with caution. That such a message might come from a US university (albeit a small one) at a time when freedom of speech is such a hot-button issue on campus…

Well, just consider the optics.

Five reasons to choose a small organisation for all your editing needs

Recently, I read an (old; 2016) article posted on Twitter called Five reasons to choose a large organisation for all your editing needs and…I didn’t agree with anything it had to say.

So, here’s a rejoinder. Not to the company that posted it (whose claims about their own practices I’m in no position to dispute) but to the broader claims made in the piece and implied by its premise.

  1. Large organisations are slow. More staff = more meetings, more (planned and unplanned) absences and worst of all, more bureaucracy. Go with small companies or sole traders and you’ll work with proud, dynamic and enthusiastic individuals eager to show you what they can do – with the power to make all their own decisions.

  1. Large editing companies who turn work over to a network of freelancers are middlemen: every such company I’ve ever been approached by pays (at minimum) 30 per cent below market rate, and often much less. I’ve even been asked to work on manuscripts by firms handling editing for well-known publishers for fees equating to just half of the living wage. I do get it; things are tough all over. But if you pay a small business or freelancer directly, 100 per cent of the fee goes to the people doing the hard work.
  1. Because these companies tend to pay poorly, they often attract less experienced editors. It’s really hard to get started as a small business, so many newbies will accept unsustainably low rates just to gain a bit of experience, or stay in the game. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but without the ability to personally assess your editor’s credentials and suitability you’re trusting a large company not to hook you up with someone ill-equipped to produce the results you deserve.
  1. Perhaps you’re swayed by the rather romantic notion of large companies taking care of their freelance networks, offering them training, support and advice to help them grow as professionals and, ultimately, serve you better.
    Back on Planet Earth, members of freelance databases are not employees, and don’t have access to the entitlements of employees. Say you work in an office: you’re no doubt familiar with visits from the electrician, the building maintenance team and the people who deliver cleaning supplies. But you’ve probably never seen them in one of your training courses, on a staff away-day, or even at the Christmas party. Sure, some large companies may offer certain benefits to their networks. But access to them is likely extremely limited, while any freelancer worth their salt is already undertaking (and paying for) their own CPD and gaining support from (paid for) memberships to professional organisations, like the SfEP.
  1. I’ve already shown you how large companies often cream huge margins from freelancers’ pay; but don’t imagine it stops there. Large companies can offer competitive pricing, and sometimes offer discounted rates that a sole trader would struggle to match. But common sense tells us something more fundamental: if they’re screwing me then they’re probably screwing you, too.

    Just as businesses can explain away shortfalls in contractors’ pay as some kind of trickle-down finders’ fee, they’re likely charging you a premium for project management – something you’d have done (in my experience, very happily and well) in conjunction with your editor proper.

Needless to say

House bile is an occasional feature explaining a) what to do, (2) what not to do and iii. why that convention you've been following is dumb. This time, we look at the expression needless to say.

If something needs to be said, say it. Don’t tell me it doesn’t need to be said. It’s confusing and unnecessary. Seriously, just what are you trying to do here? Sneak some crucial, always-read-the-small-print detail past without my noticing?

Hm. No. That’s not it. You’re making fun. You’re trying to patronise me in some way I haven’t yet figured out. You want me to know that something is obvious that it doesn’t need to be pointed out, except to me.

Yeah, that’s it! You’ve figured out that when I see ‘needless to say’, I deduce ‘needless to read’. Then I skip ahead a couple of percentage points on the progress bar; I’ve got a Grisham lined up next. He’s turning out two a year these days – more than double my reading rate since I reactivated Netflix for Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away.