Submitting facts to a candid world

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“Writing the Declaration of Independence,” a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

As one of the best breakup letters of world history, the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful document.

Its author is Thomas Jefferson, with editing help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress also changed some wording before approving the declaration.

The list of complaints against King George III is especially interesting in its detail. That section is introduced this way: “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

On this holiday, I encourage you to read the full text of the Declaration of Independence or listen to a reading by NPR journalists. In either form, please appreciate the declaration’s language, structure and message, and have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

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Q&A with Kathleen A. Flynn, author of ‘The Jane Austen Project’

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Kathleen A. Flynn is a copy editor at The New York Times. Her debut novel, “The Jane Austen Project,” will be released May 2. In this interview, conducted by email, Flynn discusses how she researched and wrote the book, and how it was edited. (Photo by Bryan Thomas, 2016)

Q. How did you get the idea for “The Jane Austen Project”?

A. It came to me in a flash, not everything, but the main idea: a time-traveling physician sent on a mission to Jane Austen, a terrible price for achieving an amazing thing. I felt chills go down my spine. I thought, I can totally do this! For some reason I never stopped believing that.

But no idea comes from nowhere. It had to do with what I was reading at the time: the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander,” etc.) about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and his friend, a doctor. These are like Jane Austen novels, except with sea battles – in their wit and subtlety, their depiction of human nature – and of course they take place in her time. Two of Austen’s brothers were captains in the British Navy and could have met Jack Aubrey, had he been real.

These books make the past come alive in a way that is very unusual and hard to do, and they made me start thinking about Jane Austen as I never had before: as a person, not just an author, and wondering what she was like. Because she wasn’t famous in her lifetime, there is a lot we don’t know about her. I found myself wishing there was a way to go back in time and get some answers. It made me sad we couldn’t. Then it struck me that I could — in a story.

Q. How did you go about researching, writing and pitching the book?

I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels; other novels by writers of her time that she would have read; biographies and discussions of her work. I also read to try to get a sense of what life was like then: books about household management and 19th-century cooking, biographies of some other important people of the time.

Eventually I traveled to England, to see the neighborhood where Jane Austen would have stayed in London (unfortunately her brother Henry’s house has been replaced by something larger and Victorian), and some other notable things, like a house museum and this weird museum about the history of medicine. I went to Chawton, where the Jane Austen Museum is in her last house, and to Winchester, where she died.

Although I had read many novels and even attempted to write one earlier, there was a lot to learn: about the architecture of a novel, about how to convey information gracefully, about sentence structure. How to keep going, how to make it all cohere. What to show, what to summarize.

When I finally had a draft that I didn’t completely hate, I did a manuscript workshop. There were five of us, and we all, plus the instructor, read and commented on each other’s novels. This was a big step because I finally had to show it to someone. It was also helpful reading other people’s work, thinking about what worked and didn’t.

I revised it for another year or so after that, and then I started trying to identify agents who might be a good fit and sending them queries. And mostly heard no or nothing.

It’s hard to think about how to describe your own work, how to interest an agent who’s never heard of you and has an inbox full of queries. I was not connected to the literary world at all. How I found my agent was this: I read a recently published novel that I liked very much and learned (by reading the acknowledgements) who the author’s agent was. I emailed him and said: I really loved X, I’ve written this book that is not like X exactly but has these certain similarities, would you consider taking a look?

It’s important to emphasize that all these things were true — I don’t think this approach would work if they weren’t. And that’s no guarantee it would have worked in any case, although it did in mine. Eventually.

Q. You’re a copy editor. What was it like to be edited?

A. It was fascinating and humbling. Naturally, I am a fan of copy editors and believe in the importance of editing.

I imagined I had done a pretty good job with at least that part of it, but the copy editor found several mortifying things I’d missed, including typos, a wrong birth date for a character and a number of dangling modifiers. And HarperCollins has its own house style rules on things like hyphenation, numbers, and the serial comma, which I had repeatedly violated. Everyone needs an editor!

Another cool thing was the “style sheet” they sent to me along with the page proofs. Part of it was a list of words from the book that needed style attention or a ruling of some kind, like capitalization or hyphenation, for consistency.

Reading this list was a strange experience, because the words seemed so odd out of context: banditti (pl), beetroot, bell cord, belowstairs, brickworks, coal smoke, country-gentry (adj), curlpapers, dairymaid. … Another part was a list of the names of all the characters in the book, the page where they first show up, and age and eye color, if mentioned.

This seemed quite obsessive! But also important for consistency. How to remember otherwise, a hundred pages on, if someone had green eyes and now they have blue? It made me realize how copy editing a book must be more challenging than editing even the longest piece of journalism.

Q. What advice do you have for other journalists who want to write fiction?

A. Journalists have some advantages: They are used to working with words, they are sensitive to the power of story, they are used to being edited and being rejected. But most of us tend to think in the short term; it is a big mental adjustment to the long time horizon required to write a novel.

I think writing journalistically is also something we need to overcome. Newspaper prose is functional: Its main aim is clarity and directness, but it can also be clunky. Ideally fiction should be a pleasure to read, with a kind of subtle music created through word choice, variations in sentence length, rhythm. So there are some habits to break, and new ones to get into.

I would advise reading lots of fiction – all kinds, but especially the kind you want to write. Read analytically, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Get in the habit of writing regularly, and try to find a community of people who are also interested in writing.

One useful piece of advice I came across is that there are two basic ways to keep writing despite discouragement and setbacks: developing a work ethic that keeps you going even though the world does not care or notice, or having an idea that you are so on fire with that you can’t help working on it, because you’d rather do that than anything else. Ideally you’d have both, but sometimes having one is enough for a while, and then you can see your way to the other.

Follow Kathleen A. Flynn on Twitter and Facebook, and order a copy of “The Jane Austen Project.”

Q&A with Lisa McLendon, author ‘The Perfect English Grammar Workbook’

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Lisa McLendon is the coordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas. She is the author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English.” In this interview, conducted by email, McLendon discusses the book and her views on “grammar police” and the singular they.

Q. What prompted you to write this workbook, and how did it come together?

A. This was a great example of the power of networking: Someone I’m connected with on Twitter and through the American Copy Editors Society is a freelance copy editor for publisher Callisto Media and edited Grant Barrett’s “Perfect English Grammar.” When Callisto decided to do a workbook, too, she couldn’t take it on so she recommended me.

The publisher uses data to figure out what audiences are looking for and what needs are unmet, so the turnaround was quick. I wrote the book in about six weeks. Then it went through two rounds of editing, design, marketing and then release.

Q. You’re an editor. As an author, how did it feel to be edited?

A. EVERYONE needs an editor, and that includes editors who are writing. It gave me a lot of confidence in the publisher that editing was still an important part of the process.

I was pleased to have a thorough content edit and then a thorough copy edit on top of that. Both editors were excellent, and the process was relatively painless. But still, there were a couple of places where I thought, “yikes, did I write that?” That’s why we all need editors!

Q. What are some areas of grammar that cause people headaches?

A. Agreement, both subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent. Subjunctives. Subject and object pronoun use. Punctuation, apostrophes in particular.

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?

I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing.

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.

But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

A. Oxford comma: Honestly, I wish people would quit arguing about this. There are so many more important issues in language. Follow the designated style guide and be done with it. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2013/07/31/dont-sweat-it-serial-comma/)

Singular they: We have been using “they” for centuries to refer to unspecified or unknown people, and English has not crumbled into dust as a result. (In fact, this exact grammatical phenomenon has occurred before, when plural “you” expanded into the singular, displacing “thou” and “thee.”) It’s here to stay, and it’s rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream publications. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2015/08/12/singularthey/)

Labels and legislation

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Public bathrooms have been the focus of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, but there’s more to the law than that provision.

In North Carolina, two pieces of legislation have been in the news a great deal this year. News organizations commonly call one a “bathroom bill,” and they refer to the other as “a voter ID law.”

These labels are inadequate. Each law has numerous components:

  • House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in March 2016, requires that transgender people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. But it also forbids local governments from enacting laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in any form, including in housing and employment. HB2 also prevents those governments from raising the minimum wage in their communities. (It also stopped people from bringing any sort of discrimination claim in state courts. That piece was reversed this summer.)
  • The “voter ID” law, passed in 2013 and recently struck down by a federal appeals court, requires people to show certain types of photo identification at the polls. But among other provisions, it also reduced the number of days for early voting. The law also stopped same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes from being counted. It ended a program that allowed teenagers to “pre-register” and vote when they turned 18.

These are complex pieces of legislation that present challenges to journalists who are writing about them. Including all of these elements in a headline or tweet is, of course, impractical.

But they could be included in story text or, better yet, as separate textboxes accompanying stories about these topics. That would better serve readers who want to get a full understanding of these laws.

Old style from New York

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On a recent trip to New York City, I visited The Strand bookstore. The store is a treasure trove of new, used and rare books.

One of my finds was a New York Times stylebook published in 1962. The author is Lewis Jordan; he was the first editor at the Times to compile various style guidelines into one volume. He wrote in the foreword:

If style rules do more than call attention to the need for precision in writing, they must inevitably improve it and thus open the way to clear communication. A piece of writing that is properly spelled and properly punctuated is off to a good start.

This stylebook undoubtedly helped editors at the time. But how does it look 54 years later? Here are some its musty recommendations:

  • It mentions companies (Mohawk Airlines, the DuMont television network and Gimbles department store, among others) that no longer exist.
  • It mentions technology that’s obsolete: Have you used an Addressograph or a Dictaphone lately?
  • It lists obscure royal titles such as Dowager Marchioness.
  • It advises that split infinitives “should generally be avoided.”
  • It discourages “boost” as a verb and condemns “hike” when used as a synonym for “raise.”
  • It suggests spellings and word choices that are peculiar now. For example, this statement would follow its guidelines: “I like catchup on my french-fried potatoes. Good-by.”

Other guidelines, however, hold up well. Entries on “gauntlet” and “proved,” for example, are similar to what you would see in stylebooks today.

I enjoyed reading this stylebook. It’s a time capsule of recommendations on spelling, abbreviations, capitalization, word choices and other matters. It’s also a good reminder that style isn’t stagnant.

Style, like language itself, evolves over generations. What made sense in 1962 may not make sense in 2016. And what we write and edit today may seem odd to readers in 2070.

 

 

A challenging word

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This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.