Editing Software Doesn’t Work

Some writers recommend editing software, some even sing its praises. But I’m telling you that it doesn’t work and it probably won’t work for a long while. People don’t always believe me when I say this because, well, I’m an editor and that’s what I’d say to protect my job. So I won’t even bother explaining why it doesn’t work. Instead, I’m going to recommend that you test it instead.

Here’s how you do it. Step 1: Pick up a reliable grammar and style handbook like The Little, Brown Handbook (which you should be using instead of the software, by the way). Then pick out a series of bad sentences from the handbook. Don’t pick variations on the same problem; I mean go through the book and put together a longish piece of text where each sentence has one clear and unique error. Now input that paragraph into the software. You’ll see that it misses all or most of the errors.

Step 2 is the reverse. Take a good passage of text from a great writer (e.g., Hemingway) and plunk it into the software. Now marvel at how many alleged mistakes the great writer made—according to the software—and all the useless recommendations it makes for improving Hemingway’s prose.

So, you see, I’m not appealing to my authority here. I’m not explaining why it’s useless and why you shouldn’t use it. I’m telling you how to test it and see for yourself.

Errors in Writers’ Handbooks

The last place you want errors is in reference books, especially writing handbooks. But it happens, and you should be aware of it.

I noticed this error in the Fourth Canadian Edition of the Gregg Reference Manual. The preferred spelling entries on page xxxiv for words ending in –or or –our listed under the Gage Canadian Dictionary are incorrect. Standard Canadian English always uses –our (e.g., in honour, colour, favourite). A quick look at the Gage itself will confirm this: the first entry for all these words is the –our spelling. I don’t know if the error remains in more recent editions, but it’s still in the fourth edition, so Canadian writers (and especially editors of Canadian English) beware.

I was a little more surprised by the error in my brand new copy of The Canadian Oxford Guide to Writing. It’s the second edition too. A quick-reference block (p. 614) on perfect tenses reads like this (corrections in square brackets):

PRESENT PERFECT I shall have gone. [No, future perfect]

PAST PERFECT I have gone. [No, present perfect]

FUTURE PERFECT I had gone. [No, past perfect]

This is an ugly mistake, but the surrounding text is correct.

Now, I haven’t read the whole Oxford book either, so I don’t know if there are more errors. And the book looks like such a lovely and thorough piece of work. But it sure is an ugly mistake. It’s the sort of thing a copyeditor is supposed to fix—and one probably would have, if publishing houses hired them anymore.

A note on the difference between “personal attacks” and “ad hominem”

One of the stock rules of comment-enabled blogs, on-line newspapers and on-line forum decorum is the prohibition against personal attacks. It’s easy to police too. Any fool can moderate name calling: “you’re a bigot,” “you’re an arsehole,” or the ever popular command to go fellate yourself is easy enough to flag. But the root of all evil in forum—indeed the poison in the soul of internet discourse—is not bad words or telling people off. It’s arguing by imputing motivations, otherwise known as ad hominem argument.

Often the two ideas are taken to be interchangeable, but they’re not. Attacking someone by name-calling or shooting at them with all caps is not ad hominem. Ad hominem occurs when you reduce someone’s argument to undisclosed motives—motives that you’ve inputted to the person. “You’re only saying that because you’re a…/you believe…/you’re [insert emotional state, e.g., envious]” are the less subtle forms of this common strategy.

More subtle variations are no less ad hominem for it—nor are they any less destructive. “It’s pretty obvious that you don’t like so-and-so,” for example, is a subtle way to introduce an ad hominem argument. You’re saying, in effect, that the person is only criticizing so-and-so because he doesn’t like him, which is a way of evading the substance of the argument. Whether the person making the argument likes the person being criticised is immaterial.

A special variation of the last kind is that employed by all self-professed “positive” people who “don’t like all the negativity out there.” They’ll call anyone that disagrees with them a naysayer, and they’ll proclaim how they don’t listen to or otherwise suffer “negative energy.”

A subtler strategy still is to claim one’s opponent has a different motivation than the one he claims to have—not a bad one, necessarily, but one that’s easier to dispute. This type of ad hominem is a form of misdirection. It works too: so much so that some academics turn it into an all-purpose strategy for confronting any kind of opposition. Someone criticises your interpretation of history? No problem. Claim the critic has been flogging his own personal hobbyhorse for years. The ad hominem will be some variation on, “As for Smith’s criticism, he pushes his unpopular theory any chance he gets” or “Smith doesn’t like any theory that seems to support a [insert –ism] view of things.”

Arguing by motivations is also very seductive. For one, motivation is the backbone of a character. It’s also how we operate socially. Understanding someone motivation for asking a question, for example, determines how we answer it. Our perceptions of others determine how we interpret what they say. We interpret the same medical advice in different ways, for example, depending on whether we believe the physician is crooked or not.

Not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious, however. Socrates often makes what appear to be ad hominem arguments against his interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues. Yet the kind of arguments he makes show his opponents are speaking against their own stated convictions. That’s the key difference. He doesn’t impute motives to them. He elicits contradictory statements to expose his interlocutors’ own internal inconsistencies.

Good, Bad, and Ugly Science Writing: Got any Examples?

I’ve been writing style guides for various government departments for a while now. But it just hit me a month ago that I should be writing a style guide for so-called grey literature because there’s obviously a market for it. (No. It will not be called “50 Shades of Grey Literature.”)

What I need is more good, bad, and ugly examples of science writing. I have plenty now, but I don’t have real examples of a lot of things, especially examples from government reports. And who better to ask than writers? I’m sure you’ve come across your fair share of bad science writing.

Here’s my favourite example of ugly, so you have an idea of what I’m after:

The survey revealed that men rode bicycles more often than women.

No, the examples don’t have to be funny—just awkward.

The bad can be found in any medical journal. But I’m still interested in examples.

I probably have enough of the good, but if you have a favourite example of a good explanation of some scientific theory or maybe just a good book, let me know.

I’m also interested in good science writing guides. If you have found one you like, let me know. Most of the ones I’ve found are too basic—more for undergraduates than practising scientists.

Garner on “incentivize”

I never thought it would happen, but I disagree with Bryan Garner. (If you don’t know I’m referring to the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, and you don’t own it, well, you should go buy it because you’re likely living in partial darkness. It’s the best book on usage out there—by far.)

Garner says that incentivize is best avoided in favour of provide an incentive for. I know why he’s inclined to this judgment. The word is overused. It’s a buzzword word—in Garner’s terms, a “vogue word.” It’s also used incorrectly or superfluously to give flaccid thinking an air of profundity. In short, a quick look at its use and you feel compelled to conclude along with Garner that incentivize has everything stacked against it.

Except one thing: it’s a useful and concise word when you’re actually talking about incentives. Try writing and editing economics or policy that discusses incentives and you’ll find that it really comes down to the math. Use Garner’s four-word version four times and you’ve got 12 more words than you would have had if you’d used incentivize. I say the case is closed. Let us welcome incentivize with open arms.

One space or two between sentences? The answer.

Ah, the old “One space or two?” question is alive and well. For various reasons, people still cling to the old rule learned in primary school and undergraduate courses: put two spaces between sentences. Mostly, it’s a hold-over from the days of the typewriter. You can google it for more info on the reasons for avoiding double spacing, especially with electronic documents (if you’ve ever seen a double-spaced Word doc converted to a pdf you’ll know what I mean).

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the whole debate here. My interest is the relevant passages from the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style—the de facto standard of the publishing industry. No one seems to point anyone to the relevant subsections when the question arises—I can’t find a single on-line source that actually cites the passages.

I’ve had to shorten them for reasons of copyright, but the key bits are quoted (emphasis mine):

2. 9 Word spacing—one space or two?

Like most publishers, Chicago advises leaving a single character space, not two spaces, between sentences and after colons used within a sentence…and this recommendation applies to both the manuscript and the published work.

2.11 Spaces, tabs and hard returns within paragraphs

A well-structured electronic document will never include more than one consecutive character space….

6.7 Punctuation and space—one space or two?

In typeset matter, one space, not two, should be used between two sentences—whether the first ends in a period, a question mark, an exclamation point, or a closing quotation mark or parenthesis.

The MLA says much the same thing. I don’t have the latest edition, so there’s no point citing it.

What often throws people off is the convention set down in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition. Some people erroneously report that APA specifies double spaces between sentences. Not true. Here’s what it says:

4.01 ….Spacing twice after punctuation marks at the end of a sentence aids readers of draft manuscripts.

The bolded part is essential. APA only recommends it for drafts. The manual itself is single spaced, so are all APA’s publications.

Of course, this rule invites a number of questions—like what the hell is the point of this rule? Think about it: we can all read and understand APA’s single-spaced publications and their manual, but readers of drafts need double spaces? Why? Does our ability to read drastically alter when we read drafts? Is that extra white space necessary for comprehending something that hasn’t been published yet? Seriously, the convention makes no sense.

So do yourself a favour and stick to single spaces unless explicitly directed otherwise.

Missing the Point on the Sock-Puppet Reviews Controversy

In case you missed it, the indie-verse is up in arms over the recent revelations about certain authors using paid reviews and sock-puppets to praise themselves and trash their competitors. You can read the revelations in various places (e.g., NYT). But the real news is the backlash against these authors and the subsequent calls for calm (Eisler), moral outrage over the moral outrage (Konrath), and, of course, a good old fashioned pooh-poohing of the whole affair based on a misunderstanding (Howse).

My concern here is the response to the outrage—the outrage over the outrage and the pooh-poohing of the outrage. Some of the usual stars in the indie-verse have missed the cause of the outrage because they’ve focused on the righteous tone of it.

So here’s the real problem in a nutshell: Writers aren’t angry at the sock-puppeteers because they’ve behaved unethically. This isn’t about being holier than thou. They’re mad because the unethical behaviour of these authors has undermined the product review system new writers—especially new indie writers—depend on to sell their books.

It’s just that simple. Word of mouth sells books—that’s a fact. And the product review systems are the e-version of word of mouth. Many ethical indies spend an enormous amount of time seeking out legitimate reviews. Now the currency they’ve built up is being devalued by other writers who buy reviews or fake them through sock-puppets.

If you were deeply dependent on and invested in a system that was being actively undermined by some of your peers, wouldn’t you be downright pissed off?