Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

December 28, 2010

Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style

Arthur Plotnik Spunk and Bite
“I can see dead writing” confesses Arthur Plotnik, and his mission is to teach people to make their writing come alive. To this end he advocates some controversial techniques (dialogue tags! obscure vocabulary! taken from the thesaurus!), but always with sensible advice about how to make them effective. He also goes after a few good, old-fashioned writing flaws, and I found his chapter on eliminating danglers (“Slathered with cream cheese, she brought over the bagels”) very useful.

The chapter on semicolons has a very good example of how the choice of punctuation affects the reader’s experience. Referring to President Kennedy’s famous “Ask not” line, Plotnik discusses how the pause between “Ask not what your country can do for you” and “Ask what you can do for your country” can be punctuated: comma, dash, period, colon, or semicolon? He says:

My own judgment would be based on these considerations:
  • The comma seems too hurried, too trivializing, as if one were saying: “Ask not for the large pizza, ask for the small one.”
  • The dash is too abrupt. With a dash, one expects an indirection, like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask how you can get heartburn relief.”
  • A period (full stop) allows time to anticipate the locution and to think, “Yeah, yeah, I get it.”
  • And a colon warns of some tedious enumeration: “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do about poverty; ask what you can do about the environment; ask what you can . . .”
For more great writing advice from Arthur Plotnik, see Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (review), and his new edition of The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words (review).

Reviewed from a copy borrowed from the library.

November 22, 2010

The art of the sentence

During the Memory Festival that took place last week at the Roundhouse in Yaletown, I attended a workshop taught by Stephen Osborne, columnist and publisher of Geist Magazine, on “The Art of the Sentence,” because I thought if I could get better at creating and understanding this essential building block it would make me a better writer and editor.

We discussed a number of common sentence faults, which was certainly useful, but the most interesting ideas in the workshop, for me, were:
  1. Long sentences—really long sentences—can be good. For example:
    “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.” —Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That
    We were all taught in elementary school that “a sentence is a complete thought,” and after many years, apparently that’s a lesson worth revisiting. The sentence should keep going until you’ve completed the thought.
  2. The 5-W sentence as the foundation of narrative. The “5-W” sentence contains who, what, when, where, and why. He recommended that you use one of these sentences to begin the story and then whenever the story makes a turn, or when you’re getting stuck and don’t know where to go next. The Geist writer’s toolbox explains that they reject a lot of stories because they contain too much description and not enough story, and I think the 5-W sentence is a way to force you to write narrative instead of description.
  3. He also emphasized writing to satisfy your ear, and that you should read your work aloud to test it.
For more on these and other writing techniques, see the excellent Writer’s Toolbox put out by Geist magazine.

November 10, 2010

Wildcards in MS Word

If you use the Word find and replace feature, it won’t take long before you start to wish for a more powerful way of searching. Using wildcards allows you to do much more flexible and powerful searches, but you need to know the syntax.

For example, I was just editing a manuscript where I wanted to remove the leading zeros from dates and times, such as “September 02, 02:30 p.m.” I began by doing a search for
0[1-9]
meaning a zero followed by a digit from 1 to 9. To do an automated replace, I changed the search string to
0([1-9])
and put
\1
in the replace field, to indicate that I wanted to replace the search string with the first section of the search string in parentheses. This worked on the first date, but then mistakenly found the zeros in “9:03” and “105.” So I added a test to make sure that my zero is not (indicated by “!”) preceded by a colon or a digit. I also put the text before and after the zero in parentheses so that I could replace the search string with everything except the zero. The final search string:
([!:0-9])0([1-9])
And the final replace string:
\1\2

Track changes and find and replace

Find and replace doesn’t behave correctly sometimes when track changes is on. (Some of the characters in the replace string end up in the wrong order.) If I am tracking changes, I will turn off the feature while I do the find and replace, and put a comment on the first piece of changed text explaining what I changed and that it has been done throughout the document.

Some references

October 15, 2010

Terry Pratchett on getting a book written

Once more: with footnotes by Terry Pratchett I love Terry Pratchett (yes, I read them all), but I don’t keep track of when his book are coming out, so every once in a while I have a pleasant surprise when I run across a new title on the shelves of the library or used book store, sometimes even the new book store.
Today I found his short story collection Once More: With Footnotes. Why is reading an author writing about his writing so much fun? Are all great fiction writers even better non-fiction writers?

Just a little way into the book I was struck by something he says in his essay “Paperback Writer”: “And if you think you have a book evolving, now is the time to write the flap copy . . . Getting the heart and soul of a book into fewer than a hundred words helps you focus.”

This reminds me of Blake Snyder’s advice to nail down the “logline,” or short pitch, for your movie script first.

July 3, 2010

Editing for companies in the US: ITIN and exemption from withholding

If you’re a Canadian editor who works for US clients, a client may ask you to for an ITIN. But do you really need one?

Does the client have to withhold taxes? US and non–US source income

Does your client have to withhold tax when they pay you? Only if some of the money you earned is US source income. For the purposes of editing, my understanding is that for nonresident aliens (non–US citizens who live outside the US), US source income is any work that you do while physically in the US. All the work that you do while outside the US is non–US source income.

As long as you’re not a US citizen and you live outside the US, your client should not withhold any of your non–US source income. You might even want to note clearly on every invoice that it is non–US source income.

Form W8-BEN: Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding and Reporting (Individuals)

If you have no US source income, your client may still want some documentation for their decision not to withhold income tax on your pay. In this case, you should fill out a W-8BEN. It’s simple: no ITIN required.

Form 8233: Exemption from Withholding

If you do some work while you are physically in the US, it may qualify as US source income, and you might need to fill out an exemption from withholding. Without this form, your client is required to withhold 30 percent of your pay, and you’ll have to file an income tax return to get it back. The form you need is IRS form 8233 “Exemption from Withholding,” in which you explain why the Canada-US tax treaty makes you exempt from withholding.

How to apply for an ITIN in Canada

If you need to fill out an 8233 or if you need to file an income tax return in the US, you’ll need an ITIN (individual taxpayer identification number). There are companies who offer to help you with the application, but it may be just as easy (and so much cheaper) to do it yourself. The application for an ITIN is IRS form W-7.

The difficult part is getting your identification certified. There are some Canadian notaries who are able to certify the document, but even then the document has to go the US consulate for verification. If there’s a US consulate within travelling distance, the easiest thing to do is to make an appointment with them for notarial services. Bring your completed W-7 form and your passport or other identification, and they’ll make a copy of your ID, attach it to the form, and get it certified by the consul. All you have to do is send it in with the form 8233 or the tax return (ITIN applications can only be submitted with one of these forms).

June 26, 2010

Technology for job seekers, part 2: Email for business communication

In “Technology for job seekers, part 1,” I talked about how to send out a nice-looking resumé in digital form. This time I’d like to share a few techniques for saving yourself from silly email mistakes in business communication.

Good email practice for really important messages

For truly important messages such as job applications and mass mail-outs, don’t compose the message in the email client itself. The habit of hitting “send” as soon as you finish typing but before you check for errors and omissions is too ingrained. Instead, write the message in a text editor or word processor, spell-check it, proofread it (if it’s a really important message, print it out and proofread it on paper, and get someone else to read it too), and then copy and paste it into the email client. In fact, if you’re really serious about getting it right, use a checklist to make sure that the email contains the right information, is addressed to all the appropriate people, and has all the necessary attachments.

Moderately important emails

For messages that aren’t of the highest importance—for instance, messages to business associates who will forgive the odd typo but whom you generally want to impress—you might have a lower level of email vigilance. Here’s what I usually do:
  1. Leave the address field blank. An addressed email is like a gun with a bullet in the chamber: one little slip and it’ll go off, whether you’re ready or not.
  2. Attach the attachments first, or as soon as you see yourself writing the words “I am attaching.”
  3. Write the body of the message as usual.
  4. When you hit “send” and find that the message won’t go because there’s nothing in the address field, use this as your reminder to check the message for errors before you fill in the address and send for real.

A useful Gmail feature: undo send

One time, using a work email account, I accidentally sent a personal email to the entire Columbia Forest District. I galloped down the hall to the system administrator’s office. “Is there any way to get an email back?!” Well, lucky me: our internal ministry messaging system wasn’t true email, so I was able to recall my messages. But with true email sent through the internet, you can’t get it back.

What Gmail does is to quietly delay sending your message and offer you the chance to cancel sending by clicking “Undo.” You may have noticed that 99 percent of the times you send something that shouldn’t be sent, you realize it within seconds (part of the reason it’s so infuriating). If you undo, the message appears back in its editing textbox, and you can edit it or throw it away. You can set the send delay from five to thirty seconds in the settings.

Technology for job seekers, part 1: How to send your resumé

I realized during a recent resumé-writing workshop I attended that there are a few simple things that you can do with the tools you’re probably already using to make applying for jobs through email run more smoothly.

In part 1, I’ll talk about why you shouldn’t send your resumé out as a Word document and how to produce a PDF instead. In part 2, I’ll talk about a few nice features in Gmail that can make your business communication go more smoothly.

Send your resumé as a PDF

Send your resumé in PDF form, not as a Word document. Word documents are the wrong format to use for a document that 1) has to be easily accessible to as many people as possible 2) has to look good and 3) should be read-only (not editable).

First, if you send someone a Word document, you’re expecting them to have MS Word installed, and that’s not a good assumption to make. Furthermore, assuming that they do have Word and they fire it up and open your resumé, they’re going to see it in editable form, possibly laid out in draft view, possibly rendering your fonts incorrectly, and perhaps even with squiggly underlines showing all the places where the spelling and grammar checker disagrees with your carefully thought out and well-founded stylistic choices. Or possibly even pointing out a real mistake, god forbid that there should be one. In any case, this is not the first impression you want to make. Finally, the recipient now has the option of printing out your carefully formatted resumé in a way that makes it (and therefore you) look terrible.

So what should you do instead? Save your document as a PDF. PDF, if you’re not familiar with it, is a format created by Adobe. It’s viewable with Adobe Reader, which is free and easily downloadable. Just about anybody who solicits a resumé in digital format from you will be able to view a PDF. When the recipient opens the PDF, it will look exactly the way it did when you created it: same fonts, same font size, same layout. When they print it, it will come out looking good.

How do I make a PDF?

  • Using Word: Under “Save As . . .” choose the “PDF” option.
  • Not using Word: LibreOffice Writer is free and good. LibreOffice is a free tool suite that does most of what MS Office does. It will read Word documents (and write them) and export to PDF. You can either create your resumé in LibreOffice in the first place, or just use it to create a PDF.