Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Needles to say..."

This morning I thought of another small but excellent example of how "academically oriented" writing classes fail aspiring young writers. As it happens, I'm running late on a piece that's due frightfully soon, and as is sometimes the case when I'm behind, I was temptedfor a momentto skip a step or two in my normally ponderous editing/proofreading process. Understand that I rewrite and reread everything I send out roughly 142 times. It may not seem like it based on some of what ends up on this blog, but I can spend hours on a transition, days on a paragraph. And then go back and do the whole thing over the following week. The typical opinion piece I write, at around 750-1000 words, takes me three or four weeks to put together. That is why, although I've published hundreds of pieces in newspapers, I couldn't actually work for a newspaper. I could never write anything on deadline; my "breaking news" stories wouldn't be ready to run until a month after the fact. It would be like reading a newspaper back in Colonial times.

Anyway, I had just made a series of revisions on the story, and the step I was tempted to skip was this: Instead of printing out the piece in hard copy and making another series of edits (if necessary) using an actual pen, I was tempted to just go back to the top of the piece, do the final read-through on-screen and then, if that checked out OK, email it to my editor. That's when I remembered one of my key admonitions to students: Never send out anything that you've edited solely on-screen. You'll miss stuff. Always. Which is why you must, must, print it out and read it again in hard copy. Then make any necessary changes, put it aside for a day or two, and read it again in hard copy. The final version you read before submission should always be in hard copy. And it's a good thing I followed that advice this time around, because I found two minor typos as well as a section that just hit my ear all wrong.

Throughout my career, I have enjoyed an exceedingly high acceptance rate*, all the more so for someone who's forever banging out essays (unbidden) for uber-competitive newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times or the "Lives" column of the New York Times Magazine. I am certain that one of the reasons for my acceptance rate is that my stuff comes in "clean." It is free of grammatical errors, misspelled names and other typos 99.6% of the time. It's written in a nice, eye-pleasing font that "looks literary" (and/or matches the font the target publication uses). In other words, it already looks, in manuscript form, as crisp, professional and mistake-free as it's going to look on the printed page. Sometimes more so, as magazines and especially newspapers may introduce typos or other errors during the layout phase.

This is the kind of tactical, nitty-gritty procedural tip that is never, repeat never, part of college-level instruction unless the instruction is being done by someone like me. And yet the tips in this category ("tricks of the trade," from my previous post) will pay far greater dividends to would-be writers than yet another protracted excursion into Melville's use of metaphor in Moby Dick. I'm not saying that's the way it ought to be. Editors should care about things like symbolism and metaphor, and an author's facility with same. And they do care
once they know you and trust you. The problem is, if a beginning/unfamiliar writer sends in a manuscript (or even just a cover letter) with a typo in line one and a misspelled name in line five, that may kill the deal right then and there. The editor never gets to the striking metaphor or the part with the wonderful symbolism. The editor stops reading when he reaches the typo.

Apropos of which
comic reliefI once began a query letter to a very important editor with the introductory phrase that appears in the title of this post. Needles to say, the only reason I got the assignment was that she already knew me.

* I.e. just about everything I write sells, eventually.


Cosmic Connie said...

Yay, Steve! I am a big believer in proofing from printouts. It's too easy to get 'screen hypnosis,' which, in my experience, causes one not only to overlook typos but to miss redundancies, inconsistencies, etc. I'm sure it has to do with differences between the way we process information onscreen and on the printed page. For me, something about reading onscreen keeps me fixated on the present moment and kind of fuzzy about what I've just read.

Admittedly I don't proof most of my own blog posts or any of my other online communications that carefully, but I do proof the stuff Ron and I do for our clients. Sometimes I drive Ron a little crazy (short trip :-)) when I end up having to print out a 300-page manuscript numerous times; fortunately we have an industrial-strength laser printer that does duplex printing.

It's good to know that editors who work for publications do still care about the mechanics of writing. Honestly, I was beginning to doubt that this stuff even mattered any more to the majority of publishers *or* readers.

Elizabeth said...

This is a useful piece of advice, Steve.

And yeah, I know that (universal?) fixated and fuzzy state you describe, Connie, while reading on-screen. (What is that, btw?)

Part of my work involves writing educational assessment reports and I have learned (*if* I have learned it, indeed) about the value of having a hard copy in front of me, to proofread and edit at least once, the hard way.

In one of my more memorable blunders, I wrote,

"It is worth nothing that the child's performance on the IQ test was compromised by his deficits in attention and visual processing."

I meant to say, "It is worth noting..." Needles to say, it escaped my attention on the computer screen.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie: I think the height of the editorial bar depend a lot on whether one is dealing mostly with book editors or magazine editors. In my experience, magazine editors are far more demanding. For one thing, book editors understand (if they don't entirely accept) that you're dealing with a cumbersome, 100,000-word project in which some (if not much) of the writing was done via cut-and-paste from master files, and revisions were often made on the fly. They don't expect perfection to result from that process. Also, I generally find that, while book editors may be very literate people in their own intellectual lives, they tend not to expect (or even want) the books they edit to be as intellectually challenging. ("Intellectually challenging" usually does not equal "best-seller.") And I think--again, just in general--that laxity spills over into their expectations of the manuscript.

OTOH, many magazine editors--especially those who work for the more prestigious publications--expect the writer to display both technical and cognitive mastery of his/her subject. They think a great deal of themselves and their publications, and they don't think it's a lot to expect for a writer to sustain flawlessness over a few thousand words. This can sometimes result in an almost-academic level of snobbery and elitism. As a (much-quoted) example, there was an editor for New York magazine who would make the first cut among proposals by instantly trashing any query letters that arrived from a zip code that didn't begin "100..." His theory was that any writer who didn't actually live, physically, in Manhattan could not possibly meet his magazine's standards in terms of intellectual agility and that certain "New York je ne sais quoi."

Anonymous said...


It's Goaty.

I once worked at a company run by a Canadian guy who would go ballistic every time a document with misspellings or grammatical errors hit his desk. The offending author was subject to excoriating humiliation during international webcasts, conference calls and meetings.

The President's 2nd-in-command was a man (weasel, actually) best described as "a man Will Rogers never met". One afternoon The Weasel went on vacation, but left his unguarded laptop logged-in and unsecured on a conference table. I spent over an hour adding all sorts of common spelling mistakes to his computer's spell-checker dictionary. A cat could have tap danced its way across the keyboard and the spell checker would not have flagged any errors.

I really enjoyed watching The Weasel get berated over the next few months for his error-prone reports. Why he continued to trust the spell checker even after it consistently let him down is beyond me.

My only problem was I could not let anyone in on my practical joke until I had left the company.

The lesson is simple: print it out and check it with a fresh set of eyes because the nerdy guy from Accounting just might hate your guts.

Steve Salerno said...

Goaty, you are an evil, twisted man. But don't we already know that from your remarks in defense of unchecked capitalism? ;)

I am kidding. I don't mean to set off another culture war here.

Thanks for weighing in. And who am I to talk? I'm now informed that I can't even spell "Dickinson" (as in Emily) properly.

Anonymous said...

Steve, where did you get the idea that writing is necessarily about selling, or even should be? Writing is a marvelous tool for analysis, meditation and self-expression, as well as comparing notes on same. As someone suggested earlier, we in the academic realm (that you're so quick to dismiss with your own brand of self-important smugness) use writing as a means of furthering our analysis and understanding of life. The very process of tilting writing towards commercial purposes corrupts the purity of that exploration by attaching artificial and frankly lowbrow constraints to it. That is what I think you fail to consider in all this bemoaning of how college "fails" its students. If writing specifically for the goal of mainstream publication entails dumbing down the pursuit of knowledge, then I'm quite comfortable with the way things are done right now, thank you.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, those are fair points. But again, I don't think it's me who's being "self-important" here. I know for a fact that a substantial number of students would like--make that love--to see their work in print, in a mainstream setting. It would validate them in a way that no amount of classroom feedback possibly could. Which--again-again--raises my question: Who are we serving here, first and foremost? The philomathic academic types who are in love with learning for its own sake? Or the students who hope to have their writing play a meaningful role in their life post-college?

Second, while I agree that writing is a useful tool for exploration, wouldn't you also agree with me that if an idea is new and brilliant and worth committing to paper--if it presents fresh insights on the world and the human experience--then isn't that idea also worth sharing with, ideally, the widest possible audience? I'll even grant you that the process of writing for millions instead of dozens will, sometimes, entail "dumbing down" the actual writing. I would argue, however, that the trade-off is well worth it if by performing that exercise you can disseminate your thoughts to the widest possible audience. Moby Dick, e.g., is not an exceptionally complex work. Is it? Certainly not on the scale of a Joyce or an Updike or a Pynchon or a Barth. And yet it has wonderfully universal points to make.

What's wrong with thinking and prospering at the same time? See, this is what bugs me--this notion that getting paid for your writing somehow "corrupts" (your word) the whole undertaking; this notion of writing as cognitive masturbation. That should be purged from academia forever.

RevRon's Rants said...

anon 9:40 - I can understand your condescension toward the concept of writing for the world of commercial enterprise, but would remind you that without that nasty and mundane world, your hallowed halls would crumble.

Over the years, I have written extensively, purely as an act of self-exploration and expression, as well as to share my own insights and fallacies. Thoroughly enjoyed the effort, I might add. However, the basic premise of this blog post (which you seem to have overlooked) is that the typical university does not adequately prepare its students to participate in commercially viable written communications.

Having spent time in both academia and the shallow world of professional writing, I have learned that Steve's assertions are on the mark. While it might be deliciously satisfying and intellectually stimulating to engage ion a game of intellectual tennis with one's colleagues and students, not everyone aspires to the same goals, and it would seem disingenuous for academics to refuse to acknowledge or dismiss the significance of that fact.

The attitude you espouse is, in my opinion, akin to that of the "starving artist," who bemoans the fact that the world simply "doesn't get" his or her art, and chooses to remain poor, rather than produce anything that appeals to anyone beyond his (or her) narrow definition of aesthetics. While I certainly allow that an individual is within their rights to focus their efforts upon enterprises they consider to be consistent with their definition of artistic purity, in making such a choice, the artist needs to realize that the world doesn't owe them a living, simply because they possess talent.

A realist recognizes that there is more to life than mental masturbation. And mo matter how aggressively one might deride the "shallowness" of applying one's talents to crass commercial enterprises, it would serve us all well to recognize that such crass commercialism is the single most benevolent patron of pure "art." One need look no further than the movie industry for proof. While it is easy to sneer at the porn industry, it is that tacky industry that drove the incredible surge in sales of home entertainment equipment and movies. Were it not for the public's appetite for porn, the vast majority of creative (non-porn) films would not be made, much less, made widely available to viewers. One is free to eschew the consumption of porn, and even to bemoan its existence. It would be foolish, however, to deny its role in making truly beautiful and inspiring works of cinematic art available to an appreciative audience.

And before going off on a tangent, please recognize that this is not an endorsement of the artistic merits of porn; merely describing how the most high-minded and "noble" exercises in artistic expression are wholly dependent upon the very commercial enterprises you so smugly dismiss. Just a thought...

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: A very good point. Somehow I don't think academics are as scornful of textbooks and the journals that publish their own meditations--a form of "commercial enterprise" without which, as you say, academia would cease to exist.

Anonymous said...

This is Anon 9:40 again. I'm sorry but there is a titanic difference between publishing that serves the cause of the advancement of knowledge, and publishing that serves the cause of prurient interest in Lindsay Lohan's social life or greater understanding of the "West Coast offense."

While I'm at, Steve, you might consider that there's a self-fulfilling/self-explanatory aspect to all this: If you can't appreciate the distinctions to which I refer, that alone helps explain why you're not in academia, and probably shouldn't be.

Steve Salerno said...

And there you have it in a nutshell. I don't think there's anything else I need to add.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the same Anon from above. Steve, when people disagree with you, you become instantly defensive and often dismissive. You go on to stick with whoever happens to support you in a discussion and don't listen to what other people say to you. Maybe if you were less touchy and defensive, you could learn something new. Just a thought...

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon 11:39 - Like it or not, offerings such as Lindsay's social life and Paris' "pirated" sex tapes are what pay for your smug little world. And if you honestly believe that the primary value of academia is in its own perpetuation, you really need to get out more.

Besides... Who are you to claim that "commercialized" publications are less valuable to the human condition than scholarly works? In the final analysis, which has the greatest positive effect upon the populace - a thoroughly documented and vetted thesis, or a well-written novel that lays bare the finer points of human strength and weakness?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 11:53, I really don't know how you can say that when I have expended literally thousands of words--so far--in explaining my feelings on this topic and then dealing with objections on a point-by-point basis. I think that if you look at the overall tenor of my conduct on this blog--with the exception of the initial posts, which are intended to put a certain thought "out there" in strong terms--I am far less defensive and dismissive than most "hosts." Certainly in the blogosphere, where (a) many bloggers censor comments they don't agree with (I rarely do that unless it's an out-and-out personal attack, and only then, usually, if it's also profane), (b) many bloggers don't even bother to address the points that are raised in rebuttal (which to me is a lot more dismissive than answering the objections, even if you answer them strongly), and (c) if bloggers do bother to deal with critics/hecklers, they compose artful put-downs and make sure they themselves have the last word.

If I do any of that--a, b, or c--it's exceedingly rare, and usually a function of being short on time.

This person--the Anon who isn't you, and who hails from academia--is being extremely patronizing, all the more so in that last remark. All I was trying to say in my succinct reply was that the attitude that s/he displays in that last comment (11:39) is the same attitude that's at the heart of my case for why academia fails its students, at least in the writing discipline.

Steve Salerno said...

Let me also add that anyone who implies that I blindly "support the people who agree with me" is doing a very limited/selective reading of this blog. I don't support them purely out of "loyalty," and they don't support me on that basis, either. We agree when we agree. And when we disagree, we are often passionate in making our respective cases. There is nothing monolithic about SHAMblog, except that in the beginning, we were all united by our skepticism of the organized self-help movement. And even there, you'll find a splintering on many sub-issues.

Elizabeth said...

And when we disagree, we are often passionate in making our respective cases.

You don't say! ;)

Elizabeth said...

More seriously, as much as it pains me (cuz I'm trying to live up to that castrating reputation, you know ;), I've gotta say sometin' in Steve's defense.

You (Steve) can be indeed quite tolerant, IMO, as it comes to opposing viewpoints and their expression here, on SHAMblog. Not that's always easy for you, I notice, and you do have your moments -- but it's not easy for anyone, I suppose, to be challenged (or attacked) on his own blog, of all places. Such is the mixed blessing of blogging. There is always a risk of being misunderstood and/or ridiculed any time we open our mouth (not that I would know from personal experience, mind you;). But that's a risk worth taking, from time to time at least. Strictly IMO.

Alright, now let's go back to our previously scheduled arguing.

roger o'keefe said...

Well now, I don't know, Steve. Since the subject has turned once again to the way dissenters are treated on Shamblog, I guess I'd have to say there is room for improvement. That's an old argument coming from me, and I won't belabor it here. Despite your pledge of open-mindedness, I seldom see much give in any of the positions you take. I do agree with you that when you have an issue with someone, I've never seen you climb down into the gutter. I think you almost always devote some effort, actually considerable effort, to making yourself understood, at least at first. Then like a lot of us I suppose you lose patience after awhile. That's when you get snippier.

So summing up, I do agree that you can be a hard-liner in many respects but I don't think you go about it in a hard-line way. If that makes sense?

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: I disagree completely, therefore you're a moron!

(That's joking irony, folks. Sort of in the same realm as my glib use of "castrating" a few posts ago, which didn't go over very well with those of you who look to seize upon every scrap of evidence that I'm really Adolph Hitler, and I'm running this blog from my jungle hideout in Brazil, instead of eastern PA.)

renee said...

In a parallel sort of vein, I would ask that people read Stephen King's speech, delivered when he won the National Book Foundation's award for his contribution to literature several years ago. (It's probably still posted on their website.)
You may remember that his receiving this award was seen as tanatmount to treason by many in the literay world. People were horrified that he was getting recognized by such an august group for his "pop" fiction. Amused me no end.
This pervasive "us or them" mentality when it comes to writing, publishing and "literary" thought gets us no where. And leaves most of us missing out on
new ideas, new schools of thought, new ways to even imagine something.

Steve Salerno said...

This is an excellent point, Renee, giving focus and some sort of tangible anchor to the discussion. The only footnote I would add is that the discussion may be "us vs. them," or even "me vs. them," but the reality is pretty much...them. That's why it's not just a casual, armchair amusement to me. It's like some years back when the political process was controlled entirely by the GOP; it was hard to have a playful, purely philosophical debate when half of the debaters felt neutered (oops, there's that word again) or disenfranchised.

And I have to say, this whole argument about whether or not I expect to be paid for my services is a red herring, and, I think, a deliberate one. Of course I expect to be paid! What does that have to do with the hundreds of thousands of writing students who are not getting the balanced instruction I'm calling for here?

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but it's extra-pertinent here: If you have any interest in writing, you owe it to yourself to read King's book, On Writing. And if you're an academic and you're skeptical, give it a chance. I think it'll surprise you.

renee said...

I LOVE that book! And gave it to my 17-year-old son who, God help him, wants "to write." (He loved it, too.)

Elizabeth said...

Roger, goodness gracious, we agree on something... And well said, btw.

Elizabeth said...

C'mon, Steve, we know that you are not Adolf (Hitler).

But (and I think you are going to be uncomfortable with me saying it) that "glib" remark of yours was, well, unusual, to say the least. I do get irony, as you may have noticed over the months I've spent posting here, and I understand you have belatedly qualified it as "playful" when questioned about it, but it's not how it came across. Not to me, and not to at least a couple of other people reading it. (And you must know it, I suspect, you are usually not tone-deaf.) Your subsequent snipe at me in the discussion on the reality of thoughts and feelings, which followed immediately, somehow also did not validate the "playfulness" of that remark.

For the record, no hard feelings, just clearing the air for the sake of, well, clearing the air. (And that's all I'm going to say on the subject, btw. Post it if you want or not, I don't care either way.)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve and I have had our share of differences of opinion here (and more heatedly in private). Frankly, I think he puts up with more crap than I would. When someone comes in, dripping with arrogance, and starts casting aspersions on others' character and intelligence, or ascribes petty motives to individuals with whom they disagree (and without sufficient evidence to support their accusations), I figure they're really just here to add to their collection of cyber bitch-slaps. And I think it's Steve's duty to try and give his readers what they need (A duty in which he has on occasion been somewhat remiss, to my way of thinking). :-)

Anonymous said...

'I figure they're really just here to add to their collection of cyber bitch-slaps. And I think it's Steve's duty to try and give his readers what they need (A duty in which he has on occasion been somewhat remiss, to my way of thinking). :-)'


We can always count on you to pontificate from your position of lofty moral superiority and to condescend to us lesser mortals.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who drips with arrogance most of all?

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon 4:-4 - Got a mouse in your pocket. or is the "we" merely a rhetorical attempt to imply that you represent a chorus of opinions? :-)

Anyway, assuming you are one of the original anonymi, I thank you for reinforcing the point I was making. And arrogant?? I was actually being kind.

literary lioness said...

Funny, I am using Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot for my next class. I still think it is his best novel by far. There are professors coming around to Stephen King and I have also taught Anne Tyler. Edith Wharton had the same problem as Stephen King, because she was commercially successful.

literary lioness said...

I forgot to mention the other side of the coin with writing, academics versus non. T.S. Eliot had a hard time due to his Ph.D There are many who dismiss academic writers. I don't let anyone know I teach or have advance degrees. I keep my writing life separate from my academic, since there is a lot of bias against academics too. Many believe advance schooling stifles the creative process.

Steve Salerno said...

Lioness, yes, I was remiss in failing to mention the prejudice that flows the other way, for there is surely no shortage of skepticism of PhDs and other academics "out there." I guess the fairest way to put it is that there are many tensions that exist between academia and the outside world.

Your remark about not mentioning your PhD reminded me of the incredulity that one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, sometimes encountered among the literati when they heard that he was an insurance executive.

We all have our stereotypes, and they're hard to conquer.

Eric Rasmusen said...

I'm an economics professor. Good writing matters for us in professional journals too for the same reason. If you turn off your decisionmaking reader (an anonymous referee, in this case) with your writing, he isn't going to take your ideas seriously (or go to the work of trying to figure them out for you). If you're a big name, you can be a worse writer, because you get past the initial skepticism.