About ChristineChristine Rowlands is a writer and editor in the Vancouver, BC area.
Editing and proofreading don’t enjoy the glamorous image of writing. They’re kind of like the siblings to the star. Sometimes you see a picture of, say, Nicole Kidman posing with her sister at a movie premiere in one of those magazines you only admit to reading at the hair salon. They look somewhat alike, but one is clearly less glossy than the other. Editing is the rarely seen sister. But without editing, most writing would look quite different. (Perhaps a better analogy would be the star posing with her hairdresser, but now you know too much about my low-brow reading habits, anyway.)
When I edit, it’s a privilege to help improve someone’s writing. When I write, it can be a privilege to be edited. But it’s a rare privilege to be edited by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and can convey suggestions for improvement in specific, tactful terms. For example, on an assignment I took to write a newsletter, the copy for the events calendar section came back with a reviewer comment: “Where did the info for these events come from? Please change.”
This is the opposite of good editing – it insults the writer and gives no direction on how to improve the content. Blunt, nonspecific, unhelpful, uninformed comments are exactly what professional editors are trained to avoid. And it gives me no small measure of joy to give my clients a better editing experience than what is usually afforded me!
When I’m editing, I love catching all those little errors: typos, inconsistencies, factual errors, bad usage, deviations from the style sheet. I take pleasure in reducing the number of times in the world that “impact” is used as a verb (most of the time it should be “affect”) or weeding out wordy, redundant expressions. These little things make up for the sometimes tedious cleanup of
maybe thousands hundreds of stray commas, hyphens, and apostrophes from a manuscript.
I also take pride in knowing my boundaries in editing, that is, what is out of my scope to change on a particular job, even if I would have written it differently. Yes, we want to improve a thing, but like doctors, we also must avoid doing harm. And we are constrained always by time and budget.
Editing is invisible to the reader, but transparent to the writer and to the rest of the team. Editors often work alone, physically, but are almost always part of a team and a process. Others will see our work, and will question it, and we have to be prepared to explain every single change. Luckily, I am not often asked to defend the removal of a comma, but I need to supply a (specific) reason if asked. And then I get to display my nerdy command of style guides and writing conventions and arcane references. “Did you really want to talk about punctuation?” I’ll say, excited. “Because we can talk about punctuation.”
I don’t always win the battle for minutia, but I’m willing to at least spar a bit on a point where I think it will really affect the reader. That’s who it’s all about, after all, the reader to whom I am mostly invisible, except when a typo shows up in a headline and they invoke me, crying out, “Where was the editor?!” Most likely I was down in paragraph 5 checking a crucial fact and confirming and correcting the spelling of the subject’s name, and the headline may have been rewritten hastily after it was out of my hands. It’s a good thing no one ever died of a typo.
The joy of editing is neither in the glory (non-existent) nor the blame (world’s funnest game), but in the craft. We do our magic, the red ink is scrubbed away, and then we disappear. Until the cheque arrives, and the next project begins, and my eyes are needed once more.
“Writing is starting.”
“Writing is finishing.”
Yay! Now that I have those two quotes down—I heard them somewhere and will check them later*—I have conquered a blank screen. I have started writing. I have an idea in my head of what this post will be. I scrawled a few notes on a notepad beside the bed about a week ago. Now with a space in the calendar, I finally sat down to try it out.
If this post sounds a little stream of consciousness, it is because I am drafting. When I am drafting, I am trying to turn off the editor and JUST GO. Usually when I write, I never get up too much of a head of steam because I fall into the trap of revising as I go. Computers let us do that. Back in the day, you just tore out the paper from the typewriter and crumpled it up and started again. At least, that is the classic image of the writer in movies, agonizing over starting. And then, the music comes up and we see him or her typing and motoring along with inspiration as the words just flow through the fingers.
Today, maybe the equivalent image would be someone on a computer screen, deleting several tries and then finally getting into the flow. It doesn’t translate as well to screen, but then writing never really looks like it does on TV. (Does anything?) Me, it’s sitting down at all that’s the challenge.
When I have an assignment, it usually has a deadline, which is the ultimate motivator, along with the promise of some money at some point in what I hope is the near future. And the deadline means the sitting and writing shall be done at some point, because I like hitting my deadlines as much as I like writing in a clean house with alphabetized CDs.
Another saying: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker also reportedly said two of her favourite words were “Cheque enclosed.”
Personally, I love typing. I love the sound of typing. I feel good when I’m typing. Breathe. Thinking. Keep typing. It’s the music we crave.
Speaking of music, I love drafting to music. When I need to write, or when I need to have written, I put on beautiful, motivating rock. When I’m editing, it’s non-distracting classical piano like Chopin or instrumental jazz like Brubeck or Bechet. But for writing, nothing gets the fingers moving like Led Zeppelin. I think I’ll put it on now.
Houses of the Holy Physical Graffiti, disc 1, because I want to hear “Kashmir.” (Edit: I always get those two albums mixed up, because the image of the building on the cover throws me off.)
If I even think of Facebook, I have to go check it. Resist, resist.
Once I get started with a piece of writing, the thing I love about drafting is the freedom. The piece is nothing yet, so it could be anything. And if I can turn off that revisional urge to shape it while it’s still a heap, it can be. I’m not just talking about creative writing, but also copy writing, in which the final product has to be extremely focused, catchy and, these days, short.
Copy writing will also be relentlessly scrutinized and revised before unleashing to the world, so drafting is the part of the process where it’s just me and a bunch of ideas and more than a few naughty thoughts. Shocking words and dirty mind: it’s all part of the process. Drafting is the party—it’ll get cleaned up eventually, so never mind the mess and inappropriate language.
Maybe that’s my editor talking again. I suppose I look at drafting as a reductionist process—if you can get the words out in a big block of text, you then have something to carve up. You start with something and then you cut it down.
But when I think about it some more, I often work the other way too: I write ideas out in bullets and phrases and then flesh them out. It helps, sometimes, to have a skeleton to hang the details on, an outline to keep you on track. God knows, I have enough rambling essays that started with an idea, were drafted in a burst of inspiration and added onto over time, and were never finished. They’re in a folder.
The nice thing about outlining and then writing to it is that it’s non-threatening. Getting a few words and ideas out is a lot easier than trying to achieve artistic perfection out of a blank page. And it’s still something. It gets you started on the process. It’s a shape.
And you’re off.
*As it turns out, neither of my quotes was really accurate. Both are paraphrases of common writing advice. For the first, you might listen to Anne Lamott, author of the well-known book, Bird by Bird: ““Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” For the second piece of wisdom, bestselling author Neil Gaiman says, “Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.” Then again, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck gave this advice to a friend: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” In other words, just get started.
Though I consider myself a pretty good speller and perceptive picker-upper of words, the connection between spelling and pronunciation of “segue” — meaning to make a transition from one topic to another — has completely escaped me up until now. I don’t know about you, but I always read segue as something like “seeg.” The last syllable seemed to be silent, like similar-looking words like vague or tongue or league. But as it turns out (pointed out very tactfully by a colleague), segue is pronounced “segway.” And segway is not actually a word at all, though I could have sworn it was, meaning the transition from one news segment to another, and not just a brand name for Gob Bluth’s preferred mode of transport.
The unusual pronunciation is due to the word’s Italian origin, which won’t help you spell or pronounce it at all in English, world’s trickiest language.
There it is. I’m going to open up. Sort of. No, I’m going to try. I consume too much media and write too little of it. On a daily basis, I cruise a slew of mostly local media sources – CBC News, the Straight, Scout Mag – with frequent stopovers in Facebook and Yelp, and an occasional dip into Yahoo Screen to get my daily fix of Burning Love.
And I have to stop. Because comments are killing me. Sometimes I merely scan the article itself, then read the comments in detail. With the exception of The Tyee’s rather erudite community, most comments that people leave are just mean. Mean, small-minded, petty, pointless and often useless. Whatever the topic of the article or video is, there is someone who will take the time to tell us how they hate that thing. Article about how someone pulled themselves out of debt? Comments criticize how they did it, or tell us about how they think people buy too much useless stuff. News about Facebook? Commenters will usually enlighten us about how useless they find Facebook. (Or if it’s about TV, people come in droves to tell us how they don’t watch TV. Thanks. Good for you.) And my very favourite head-shaker is those who watch videos clearly labelled “stand-up” or “comedy” and then proceed to leave comments about how wrong the comic is or how the video “sucks.”
The stupid blind vitriol that fuels so much of the Internet is killing me. It really is toxic. Is everyone stupid? I think I understand the motivation behind all the meanness: people want to be heard. There’s a world full of chatter and so they’re shouting. Me! Me! Me! Over here! And the quickest way to get others to listen is to push their emotional buttons. Well, I’m (unladylike adjective here) exhausted of the name-calling, the anecdotal expertise, the political categorizing, the stereotyping, and the way it riles me up, invades my brain, and kills the creative drive.
Everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen. Everyone says “How are you?” then tunes out the answer and then uses whatever you said as a segway into what they wanted to say. Listening isn’t sexy. Your stories are boring. That’s why we pay certain people to do it for us. Or marry them so they’re forced to lend an ear during commercial breaks, at least. Those comments on the Internet, too, are not there to add to any conversation. They’re just people having their say, reacting to whatever has been put in front of them. Negative, negative, negative – to change, to things that threaten our beliefs, to new ideas. It’s exhausting, trying to process all that.
Who cares?, you say, if you’ve gotten this far (Hi!). If it bothers you, don’t read it! In advance, thanks for the advice, Captain Obvious. I am going to try to stop, but it’s going to be hard. I’ve always loved reading opinion columns, the letters section of the paper, rants and raves, advice columns. I love learning about what people think. I love a good conversation or argument about ideas (in person). Up to a point – I am an introvert and usually need time to charge my batteries after an intense talk or social event or heated forum thread – anywhere and anytime too much information or emotion is coming in from other people. And the online, ongoing nattering of the world wide peanut gallery is getting me down.
And with the amazing, interactive power that all of our communications technology holds and all that goes into designing and making our magic boxes called computers and smartphones, is mean commenting really what we do with it? Bash strangers? Complain about things we had no hand in creating? (And I don’t even spend much time with Youtube comments.) I know there’s a whole positive world out there on the Interwebz, but at the moment, it’s clouded in a veil of “Your [sic] an idiot” level interaction and I am having trouble seeing it, much less breaking through to create, not hate.
This is an attempt to break with the toxic chatter, and to shake off the paralysis it has left me in. This is a writing blog, after all, and you should know why it’s hard to write for the internet. It’s a loud place, full of unpredictable reactions – not the safest place for a writer. It’s not that I’m some delicate flower like a golfer needing silence and shushers. In fact, I would predict this post to garner cricket chirps at worst and some amusing comment spam at best. Interactivity is good. Communication is what I crave. Real live human beings reading these words and talking back to me is the goshdamn thrillingest thing I can imagine.
I think sometimes one person can change the world, but I’m not going to try to be that person. Mean comments will likely continue, because we can make them so easily and the instinct to shout to be heard is never going away. However rational we think ourselves, we’re bags of emotionally charged water and our opinions spill out. So whatever anyone else spews about bike lanes or bad dog breeds or generation X vs Y vs millenials or vegan restaurants or kids in coffee shops or a million topics that are seemingly up for debate, it’s all too easy to get sucked in and then get riled up enough to jump in, all mouth and fingers. Avoiding all that emotional push-buttonery takes strength.
Can I move the mob in a more positive direction? Perhaps. Can I be one less torch n pitchfork in the crowd? Definitely. Can I be a witty little light, an amusing critic, a careful observer, a funny sidekick? Yes. And so can you!
Bonus: Other people who said funny and useful things about comments
- Mother Jones: The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck
- The Onion’s Extremely Accurate History of the Internet, Part 6
- Louis CK: Of Course, But Maybe (The relevant bit is near the end. And I saw him do this live, too.)
The European horsemeat scandal got a little too close to home with the news that Swedish meatballs sold at IKEA stores in Europe were possibly tainted with some off-label, undeclared horsey meat. The stores on this side of the pond were quick to pipe up that their supplier is in the U.S., but with all the recent beef recalls, can it really be trusted?
So it’s back to making my own. Not that I ever really stopped. My late Grandma’s Swedish meatballs blow any processed products out of the water. She always made them for special occasions. Her meatballs are so good that when they were mentioned in her eulogy, the crowd murmured a collective “Yum!”
Recipes are also one of my favourite things to edit, so I am happy to share this special family one. I am lucky enough to have a supply of excellent beef from my uncle’s ranch, and I recommend that you seek out some locally raised and processed beef from your local farmers’ market or butcher for these. I don’t pretend my meatballs are anywhere near as good as Grandma’s, but family members who’ve eaten both say they’re pretty darn close.
Jump for the recipe! Continue reading
I was editing an article recently, and something about it was bugging me. I thought about it and then I realized that it was the word “the” in front of certain words to describe certain groups of people: for example, “the elderly,” “the mentally ill,” etc.
None of these terms are particularly offensive, but by pointing toward these terms with the definite article “the,” a little bit of bias is subtly betrayed. Bias is not necessarily a bad thing; we all have it because we all have a point of view that is informed by our relative position in society and who we consider to be in our in group or out group. (I just used my Anthropology degree there. Yay.) Even if we are careful with the words we choose, a little bit of “the” can make a quality or condition define and group people into the category of being outside of our in group (which in anthropology is called “othering”).
So, look out for “the.” Have you used it to describe a group of people? If you have, consider revising.
For example, instead of ______, choose ______:
- the elderly > elderly people, senior citizens, seniors
- the mentally ill > people with mental illness
- the disabled > people with disabilities
It’s a subtle change, but it puts the person first, rather than the person’s state of being. It may feel a little PC – and who hasn’t gotten frustrated with trying to keep up with changes in preferred terminology that people in our multifaceted society may prefer – and add an extra word or two, but it’s one more way to ensure our words don’t define others by their condition.
The other day on the train, a woman across the aisle dropped her book, and at a glance, you could tell it was of the 50 Shades genre. As she scrambled to pick it up, I thought, that’s what e-readers are for – keeping your private lady reading private – even in public.
Will Edit for Food has now ended, but I’d just like to thank everyone who supported the project – whether by tweeting it out, making sure to donate to the local food bank this Christmas season, or by bringing me some editing to do in exchange for a donation!
Together we raised $270 for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank – which will buy about $800 worth of food for hungry people.
Thank you, and have a very Happy New Year in 2013.
Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration (via Flickr)
Some of my favourite jobs have come via Craigslist, but it seems there’s yet another scam for potential jobseekers to be wary of: the Personal Assistant scam. Basically, the scammer advertises a generic sounding job, then sends a response to applicants claiming to be some sort of successful businessperson who is out of the country or what have you, and in need of an assistant to receive payments or packages for them, along with other admin tasks. In another variation, they are “hiring” a caregiver for a relative who is in the local area who needs an apartment or other arrangements set up.
Then, like many scams of this nature, the supposed employer asks for personal and financial information, sends Western Union money transfers to be processed through one’s own bank account, i.e., they send a lot of money and the target is supposed to deduct their cut and send along some other portion, but of course it’s all a big fraud. Here are some other flags to watch for.
I find this an especially insidious twist on the classic Nigerian scam, as it preys not on greed, but on someone’s genuine desire for a job. Not to mention the loss of time it takes to send a resume and prepare that cover letter, which I sincerely hope, if you ever fall prey to this scam, is all it costs you.
The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary want your help in tracing the history of particular English words and phrases.
What’s old is new again. In 1859, the British Philological Society launched an appeal to the British and American public “to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper, that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and by meanings.” The society’s goal was to create a new dictionary “worthy of the English Language and of the present state of Philological Science.” (
The Oxford English Dictionary was arguably the first example of a work created by "crowdsourcing." As I learned from Simon Winchester's book, the Professor and the Madman, on the relationship between the editor of the OED and one of his most enthusiastic amateur contributors, the dictionary was created through both mass collaboration and meticulous editing. And now, in a major update, they're doing it again. *Dusts off research hat ...
For donations to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, that is! Because being a starving freelancer is a myth, but 25,000 hungry people (almost half of them children) going to food banks weekly is a reality.
So, for one month (from November 15 to December 15, 2012), I’m offering my editing services in exchange for donations to the food bank. Continue reading
The very symbol of neglect, tumbleweeds are rather dramatic in their own way.
Though it’s great to promote reading to kids, is it too much to expect that the poster spells the titles of books correctly? If you really love books and reading, you ought to at least proofread and fact-check the titles.
The consequence of living is accumulating stuff. Papers and brochures and business cards from travels or taking a class or going to a conference. Books and magazines. Little gewgaws and Kinder Surprise toys. Memoribilia, framed photos, ticket stubs, newspapers with my wedding announcement.
Chances are if you ever gave me a card and signed your name on it, I still have it. I save the ones for my husband too, though he doesn’t care about that.
Every once in awhile, usually when I’ve finished a project and need something to do, I try to clean out the excess. I go through boxes and piles, trying to take a hard look at all the physical buildup of memories. I ask myself: the next time I move, do I want to drag this thing with me? Do I want to take this box out of this closet, carry it, put it on a truck, and then put it straight into another closet at the new destination?
It’s hard to get rid of things. Oh sure, I happily shred old bank statements and get rid of instruction manuals and boxes for printers and cell phones that themselves have long since gone to recycling. But anything with sentimental value, anything someone gave me, no matter how ugly, anything attached to any good memory … curse it, why must I hang onto it?
And that’s just the boxes in my own apartment – I still have a load of them at my parents’ house, containing everything from stuffed animals to university papers to a fairly complete set of Sassy magazines. What SHOULD be done with a bunch of 10+ year old textbooks anyway?
That’ll be the topic of my next post – getting rid of the stuff. For now, it’s digging in and deciding what stays and what goes. Decisions must be made. It’s easy to get bogged down. I want to travel lighter, but then I find I can’t quite throw out 10 copies of the 20 extras of my handmade wedding invitations, even though it would be perfectly sensible just to reduce the number of multiples. I wrestle with whether I really should keep copies of classmates’ work from creative writing class, in case someone gets famous. And there’s a magazine I used to like, but never read anymore – why can’t I toss those old copies?
After hours of dealing with detritus from the past, I start having a new sympathy for pathological hoarders. I don’t know if I’ve dealt with the clutter so much as rearranged it and reduced it slightly.
Most of this stuff isn’t worth anything to anyone, except to me. And I don’t think I even want it all. I have a new appreciation for digital photography, ebooks, Netflix, OneNote note taking, and brainstorming, online bills and statements – all things that don’t result in lumpy boxes to deal with. I love getting consumables and experiences as gifts rather than souvenirs from places I’ve never been.
Shredding done, recycling taken out, a garbage bag filled, and a few items set aside to give away, much of the mess goes back in the closet or on the shelves, neatened. I’ll deal with it another day.
I'm super excited to be doing a show in New West's wonderful River Market. I've brought along three of Say Wha?!'s all-star readers who will be sharing two books each for this very fun and packed show. I hope you can join us. If you live outside of Vancouver I'm so glad to finally be coming to you. If you're in Vancouver, it's actually really easy to get to.
Say Wha is coming to New Westminster. Check out the poster - how can you resist that?
E-books are perfect for bibliophile germophobes. You may miss the old-book smell, random marginalia, and chance of finding somebody’s old photos and grocery list embedded in the pages of a library or used book, but you’ll never have to wonder where your e-book has been.