The Editor's Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham

, 29 May 2015

This is a basic introduction to editing, no matter you are a beginner editor, a peer-reviewer or just want to edit your own texts.

One expects the book of a professional editor to be good, easy to understand, and well organised, and, generally speaking, this is the case.

Although many of the things Dunham recommends are a bit too obvious (especially if writing is part of your job or just your job) they should never be forgotten. At times, it is painful seeing academics doing the sort of mistakes that Dunham mentions in this book. Actually, these are some of the mistakes I do make while writing for work, or writing a review.

An editor basically reads a text at least twice, and systematically checks the relevance and precision of the content, whether the focus of the author is there or not, if the grammar and orthography of the work are correct, and if the language used is good or not. Editors follow style or criteria rules and guidelines generally imposed by the publisher, although if you are self-editing you can create yours to keep consistency while writing. Then, comes the hard task of checking things systematically, for which you create a checklist or task-list to avoid tricks and treacheries of the eye and the mind and make sure that everything you should have checked is, indeed, checked.

The structure of the book follows this sort of order.    

The book is clearly written, without any pomposity or technical jargon. A priori, I thought this would be a dry book, but I found it to be not only useful and practical, but an enjoyable light reading as well.

The chapter I find most interesting and useful is chapter 9 (The Editor's Tools), which not only provides us with a commented bibliography and a list of online resources, but also an example of check-list. I also enjoyed Dunham's comments on the relationship with editors and authors in chapter 9, which are great to level your head when correcting somebody else's work or peer-reviewing, something that I tend to forget because I get exasperated by some people's "crappola". And also his comments on the use of Wikipedia for references.

Some of his comments on common grammatical and orthographical mistakes are spot on and very easy to understand, therefore, very useful. I also like some of the explanations Dunham gives about confusing (fusing) words. I noticed that, while he explains the rule on how to use brackets, just to put an example, he says it in a way in which brackets are used and incorporated into the explanation without the need of any example. Cool, even tubular :)

The examples Dunham uses come from different mediums (newspapers, Government reports, novels and monographs, among others) and show, not only that there are too many crappy texts out there, but also that a good editor can morph an ugly text into something correct, intelligible and even elegant. On that regard, chapters 9 (Samples of Editing) and 10 (The ones that got away) are especially entertaining and self-explanatory. Yes, editing is the make-up artistry of the written  language -- It turns anything average into a beautiful looking thing.

I am a fan of spell-checkers. My sight is very poor and, sometimes, I cannot see obvious mistakes, those that make me cringe, until I have them underlined in red by my spell-checker. I find great that a professional editor reminds us that this is not a sin, or something just for foreigners.  

The end-noting system is great, very academic, and it is perfectly linked back and forward in the Kindle edition.

The book examines and includes all types of editing. You will find similar challenges and methodical approach to editing any type of text. However, editing for a newspaper, for an academic journal or the Government are intrinsically different as they target different readers, and they do so in different ways regarding language used and length and depth of the text. You cannot expect the general reader to understand technical stuff, but you expect academics working on a given discipline to deal easily with that stuff without the need of dumbing down their writing. So, I would have liked a chapter devoted to the challenges that different publications and texts demand from the editor, and the way editors face them. 
Some of the explanations about punctuation were just sketched and not clear enough or not well explained, for example, the use of Em and En dashes.

Although the book is well organised and I like the structure, a few things were off, to me. I would have placed chapter 9 after chapter 10, included some of the subjects mentioned in the appendix in chapter 10 and enlarge them, and offer a separate bibliography and resources section. Besides, the bibliography mentioned is a bit old. Even though the books are classics, or manuals that any editor should have, there must be most updated improved editions, and  why not including other specialised books dealing with specific matters?  

I found odd that the some articles mentioned in the endnotes have no pages mentioned. They come from newspapers and other periodical publications, I guess. I was taught, that even when the news comes from a newspaper, you provide the reader with the page where the article is found. That is for academic writing, of course. There must be a reason why pages are not mentioned with those articles. Were they retrieved online? Is there any rule about this that professional editors follow?

Now, how much quoting is too much? Well... too many quotes is always too much. Elements of Style and Words into Type are mentioned ad nauseam, so I ended wondering, if these books are so great, why bothering writing anything else?  Dunham is a professional experienced editor, so I wanted to hear his voice loud and distinctly clear, even if he shares the same opinions and approaches his work in very similar ways other editors do. In fact, Dunham shines when he does so, when he is his own self, and speaks from his own experience without paraphrasing or quoting anybody.

Most of the grammar elements and common mistakes he discuses in his book are great, but we can find that sort of information in any basic grammar book, like Practical English Usage or a Practical English Grammar, just to mention two examples of exhaustive reliable books coming from Oxford University. However, I missed a chapter on footnoting or endnoting; too many writers and academics do not use notes properly, they do not know where to place them, or what sort of information to include in them. The same can be said of creating indexes, a bibliography, glossary or your own style sheet. Said differently, how would an editor approach endnotes, footnotes, bibliography, indexes and glossaries in a given text? How to edit those? 

I found the reading good and entertaining, and, as a first good approach to editing, a great book with plenty of useful items of advice. I was expecting an ABC of editing, but for that you have to go elsewhere.

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (2005)

, 18 May 2015

This is one of those books that everybody should have at home, whether a native English speaker or a foreign student.

Too many natives rely on their "nativeness" to write properly and, funny enough, they made many of the mistakes in orthography, spelling and word use described in this book. The book is great for foreigners, who will need to have explained many things that native speakers use by default without even thinking about or thinking why.

Practical English Usage is one of the best books in the market to help you write and speak English properly. You will find most of your doubts about the use of confusing words, orthography, sentence construction and structure, idiomatic preferences, grammar and writing etiquette, among many other things, clearly explained.

Practical English Language shows how a well-thought and structured index can make your consultation of any book and manual an enjoyable activity. Like diving. The book is structured in numbered paragraphs and sub-paragraphs with every entry and sub-entry in the index relating to those numbers (not the page numbers) -- the quickest easiest way to find anything. There is also a detailed table of contents at the beginning, but I rarely use that. The use of red epigraphs is just a hit with me, because it is just how things should make, red and black, black and red, so you have headings and important things popping up and saying hi to your eyes instantly.

The language terminology section is very useful if you have difficulties understanding some of the linguist and grammatical terminology used in the book. I would say that most people with a High School education would find most of those definitions unnecessary. Yet, great for primary school students.

I found the section on common mistakes in English (something that it is specially useful for foreigners), a bit disorganised, and too small to be of any use. There are specific books on this, that I would rather consult. The section has a bunch of common mistakes that primary, secondary, intermediate and advanced learners make. But the list is not structured within each group, so you have to read the whole section to find anything you are looking for. A waste of time, basically. I would rather have these pages removed and devoted to new entries, or just have them expanded and better organised.

The world of Internet and the digital era have changed the way we write, read and communicate at the speed of light. The book is, therefore, outdated regarding digital issues like writing emails, text messaging. tweeting, facebooking, tumblering, blogging or just reviewing online :O. Some of the things noted and stated in those sections sound like written for 90y.o. people who have never had access to the Internet and don't know how to write an email. I would have liked having a longer more detailed section on all Internet writing and more clear directives about email etiquette. There is not much email or online etiquette any time. We are all shrieks now.

This is an Oxford University Press book, always a sign of excellence to me. What is more, there is nothing as good online. You will find endless online forums, blogs and YouTube videos discussing and explaining English grammar and use, but many of them are not accurate, or are confusing or not clear enough, or they contradict each other. How to put it? I would not have spent my money on a hard-copy book if there was something as good online for free. 

I would love getting this book in Kindle format. I hope the OUP is working on it I am waiting. Tick tock tick tock.

Overall, I must-have manual.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) by Christian Rudder (2014)

, 5 May 2015

Dataclysm is a fun popular approach to scientific data analysis and interpretation. This a very enjoyable fascinating reading.

There are many good things about this book: it deals with data  in a passionate and entertaining way,  and makes something a priori not that interesting to people who do not love data, really interesting! The book does so in a very clear and approachable language. Besides, Rudder is an insider who knows what he is talking about first hand so everything he says is worth listening to. After all he is not one of those lorikeets who repeat data analysis and statistics without understanding anything about them or even questioning the results. Rudder comes trough as a lovely chap, inquisitive mind, and passionate about the work he does. Most importantly, he comes through also as an unpretentious guy who wants to connect with the reader. We are connected now, baby.

Perhaps the main take from the book to me is that mathematicians and data analysts are coming down to something that Social Sciences and Humanities wanted them to come to decades ago, and, most importantly, they now have the tools to deal with humongous amounts of real-life real-people's life to do that. By reading the book, it became clear to me the need of interdisciplinary studies between Scientists and Social Scientists because, despite the a-priori bullxeet that the "academic establishment" has perpetuated for many decades, the contrary is  necessary. Dataclysm shows the many possibilities open to data analysis as a specific branch of Science and how data collection and interpretation affects us. It is like Mackos - I am loving it.  

The most interesting parts of the book, at least to me, are chapters 12 (Know your Place) and chapter 14 (Bread crumbs). The first because it shows, even at an embryonary level, that geographical maps are sometimes just lines drawn on a piece a paper, while other factors, beyond the place you live, have way more importance. The Dolly project seems to me the most fascinating thing in the world and I would have loved more details from the expert instead of having to go to  Mr Goo to ask him about it. The later chapter is, by far, the most interesting (to me) because Rudder is an insider and anything and everything he has to say about the collection, storage and use of our data or meta-data is relevant and important and needs to be taken into consideration. I would have loved that chapter way more developed and detailed. Rudder is just very clear about how things are and should be, or perhaps should not be, and I wanted more. Also, I wanted to know his opinion on the use of IP blinders, and the use of browsers like Mozilla or Duckduckgo, which are not that keen on recording our data or sharing it with anybody.

I am a critical reader, not a data muncher, so I tend to question or think about what any non-fiction writer says, as much as my limited knowledge allows me. I was pleased to find that some questions or objections that I found myself making to Rudder's statements while reading, were later presented and discussed. Those very questions are the ones are those that can make any researcher transcend data itself. In a way, Rudder has a Humanities sort of soul, which shines now and then when dealing with his mathematician core. I love the combo. 

I also loved al the details about data collection and use, and the games that Rudder and his pals at OkCupid playe, and especially Rudder's trends analysis examples. That is Rudder's forte and it does show! I loved some of his reflections on Google's auto-complete trends analysis, the healthiness of a couple by looking a the chart on dots interconnection on Facebook, or the discussion on racial attitudes in the USA.

The charts are beautifully presented and coloured, so many different styles and ways of organising the data. I am a tables kinda lady. There is nothing that cannot be presented in a table and be understood. And some of those were there. I love squares and red. So the book was visually enthralling.

Dataclysm could have been a better book on so many fronts that it is a pity that is not. Allow me the analogy - I have this distinct impression that, in a way, Rudder self-beheads himself for the sake of an applause in a reality show. That is painful to watch.  

The main downside of the book is the lack of a proper editor and of proper editing. A good editor can make wonders for any book, no matter how brainy you are. A good editor works not only on making the text more readable regarding spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, but also book structure, approach and level of focus, so the book is not only polished, but also makes sense and conveys the author's message better. Unfortunately, the book is not polished and the structure does not make Rudder any favour. Mind you, the use of verbal contractions is not advisable in a published book, unless you are translating or reproducing direct speech, while it is preferred in blogging. The use of long paragraphs with bad punctuation turns a stroll by the beach into a walk through thorny bushes. You get the image.

It is a pity that the author decided or was advised to present us with the current book's structure. I do not have a problem with general non-related chapters presented as such and bunched together in  three parts, because they make sense to me and they are well connected despite their diversity. However, I do have a problem with the general structure of the book, and the endnotes/notes system.

The chapter on sources and data is relegated to the end of the book, before the index. I consider this a big fall because Rudder is asking the reader to believe what he says with some sort of theological trust, while he could have easily earned the reader's trust and respect by just using the "coda" (Italian for tail or epilogue) at the very beginning. Why? Because this chapter explains exactly how he has approached data, and his methodology, what he has done and how he has done it. This is especially relevant in this book, because a good deal of its chapters are re-takes on his own blog posts, so it would have benefited him stating clearly, upfront, at the beginning, that those re-takes used new fresh data and the testing was done again from scratch and were not a copy-and-paste sort of thing. We have to wait to the end of the book to learn that. That is to me, a "going-bananas" sort of decision.

I am a bit anal about footnotes/endnotes while writing and while reading anything coming from academics or people with a high level of education. I also understand that if you want to write a scientific book on data for the general public you cannot do that, just for practical reasons. So, I consider sensible Rudder's restrain at using endnotes. Then, we get to the bottom end of the book, and we find this statement:
"We no longer live in a world where a reader depends on endnotes for “more information”or to seek proof of facts or claims. For example, I imagine any reader interested in Sullivan Ballou will have Googled him long before"
Yes, it is true, even I do that, but it worries me that any person coming from a decent University would say that or do that in a book. We are relying more and more on what the Wikipedia is saying or the Internet (who is the Internet here?) is saying, and not on what scholarly periodicals, books or encyclopaedias, peer-reviewed, properly edited and discussed, say about anything. I would strive to provide "serious" reference material, and add as many footnotes or endnotes or references as necessary.

Confession. I would have forgiven him for this, if then Rudder had not gone bananas again and contradicted himself by providing a "chapter" called "notes", right after the space devoted to the endnotes. Rudder wants to provide us with extra information on certain points mentioned in the book. Well, if that the case, add more footnotes/ endnotes. That is what they are used for, sweetheart! Those "notes" are actually embryo endnotes that Rudder birthed and give in adoption to himself. It sounds ridiculous isn't it?  It is. This is even more painful in the Kindle edition. The link from the note to the text works backwards, and takes you to the part of the text it relates to, but does not allow you to do so forward, because, hello Huston, there is not an endnote to do so properly. 

If this were my book, I would work on fixing this and introducing that information as endnotes in the text, properly. And also to link properly the references forward in the Kindle Edition.  

There it comes the Index, a proper scholar index, one of those beautifully made indexes that are so awesome to have in a book and so expensive to produce in printed books. There for us... Well, useful if you have a hard copy. Otherwise, no, because it is not properly linked in the Kindle edition, and therefore, useless. This is something easily fixable if you want to charge the client full price for any book.

To add to this going-totally-bananas sort of trance, the book, per se, ends when my Kindle showed 65% read. Yes, that is right. The rest is the footnotes, notes, index and info about the author and the publisher. I felt ripped off again.   

Why anybody with the brilliance of Rudder could self-behead himself is something that escapes me. And here it comes the main culprit for the failure of the book - Rudder's struggle to please both the general public and the academia. Mini-Miny-Miny-Mo sort of struggle (my impression). Many of his statements about methodology strive to convey a serious scientific way of work that matters and gets  the approval of his academic peers, because he is really a serious scientist. That struggle also explains why the "coda" and the "notes" were relegated to the end of the book but were not totally disregarded.

A scientist can present his findings and knowledge to the general public being rigorous and respected by their academic peers without trying to please both. Look at Kaiku, and the way he is able to do so with easiness. For that you have to be clear about who is the target of your book, and therefore what you have to sacrifice and what not. Not an easy task, but easier if have a good editor.

There are a few flaws in the a-priori reasoning used. Perhaps things were not explained sufficiently, so I give Rudder the benefit of the doubt, just because he is a gorgeous looking guy. Here some examples of those sort of arguments should be polished and looked at with a frowned forehead, if you know what I mean: 
+ Although most people are not on online networks and sites, most of them are or will be, so the analysis of the data and its result have some sort of universality. And well, Facebook and Google are the kings and everybody is there, not to say the phone and Internet companies, which are also collecting your data. Yes, it is true. However, my mini-me-on-the-shoulder sort of question pops up. Were do we put the gazillion Chinese on Planet Earth who do not use FB or Google or Western sites? What about Middle East Cultures, like, say Yemen, or Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Afghanistan? Do include them by default in the findings and analysis in the book and decide that we are all one?

+ Sometimes I had the impression that Rudder could not distinguish, although I am sure he does, that the USA is not the world, and that the Western World is not the whole world. For example,  are his analysis (which I really loved) about race in the USA pertinent, say, in Bolivia? in South Africa? in Botswana? Rudder probably never intended to imply that, for sure, but the book comes across as if the contrary was true at times. I think part of the epilogue should have been devoted to stating what he is doing and what sort of limits his analysis has. This is, unless he is using data from around the world from China to Bhutan, Uganda to Dafour. Then, I will vanish and disappear out of embarrassment. Of course there are some things that are universal because we are all humans, and we all have a human body, and want to relate: "no man is an island" However the other is there, in those places where life is most deeply affected by the religion you have, your gender, or the part of the world you live in. Way different. 

+ The author recognises that the important thing is not just what the data says about what humans do, but why they do it. Bingo! That got me excited. It was a quickie-sort-of excitement. Not for long, because beyond some truisms, nothing of substance is said or argued or even presented as a reply. That is because the data, to me, has a limit. It can reveal what we do, even that we do say something and do a different one, that hidden secrets of us "on the Internet", but cannot always explain why, or put the intention behind. Psychology, can be very helpful on that regard.

+ What a person searches for often gives you the person himself. Really? Well, sometimes, not always. For example, if I look up Google for skin rash photos I might be giving my me having a skin rash, or me studying dermatology, or making an assessment for High School, or my baby has a rash and I want to find what exactly is, or I have a sort of sickly morbid fascination with photos of skin diseases. You get the picture, searches on Google are never straight forward, or at least not all the time. Now, how do you interpret the intention behind the search?   

Let me ask you some questions. Be honest with yourself. If I made the statements below, would you be surprised or think that a humongous amount of data has to be analysed, charted and studied for your to learn it? Would you be wowed?  
* Men usually prefer younger women, no matter their age.
* At the end of the day, looks aren't that important when you meet a person in real life, more the things you have in common.
* People say they are something but then they are another.
* People tend to hide or not to say things that are not politically correct regarding race, gender and what is not.
* Men-women connect better when they do not sea each other's photo.
* People vote for somebody and lie about at the exit of the polls booth, especially if the candidate is not popular.
* Asian Americans talk more about Korean pop or Korean films than white people, while the music that South American mention is Salsa or Bachata not as much as country music.
* With the Internet we all have a voice now and a larger audience.
* The better interconnected in the family a couple is, the more chances has of their relationship to succeed.
* And so on.

Yes, that is right. A series of truisms, common sense evaluations presented through flashy mathematically crafted charts, and complex data analysis. Isn't this a bit of a waste of the author's talent (to me undeniable) and time?

"The era of data is here; we are now recorded"
Is that so new? Have you ever visited a historical archive? Yes, of course it is not the same, but I can envision Sumerian bookkeepers might have felt at the top of the world as Rudder does know, mind the volume of data, the detail and the people recorded of course. Yet, everything is relative. We have been recording our data and our data has been used for ages, literally, just a bit differently. Yes, Rudder possibly did not intend to imply this either, but we do not know. The flash is sometimes too bright to let us see properly.

The cover of the book is dreadful. Go and get a decent designer Rudder! And another editor, did I mention that? 

I would have not written such a long review if there wasn't something intrinsically good and thought-provoking in Rudder's book, so take it as it is. I still recommend the reading and I think it is really entertaining.