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.

December 10, 2010

Some typography links

I just ran across some interesting typography links:Picture courtesy of Jim Hood

November 28, 2010

New Neal Stephenson material: The Mongoliad

Neal Stephenson Greg Bear Mongoliad
Neal Stephenson’s most recent project is live. The Mongoliad is a serial novel with some collaborative capabilities, available through iPad and iPhone apps and other e-readers, as well as the good old web. Some of the material is free and some of it is only available to paying users.

I’ve just signed up to get six months’ access for six dollars. I rarely pay for online content, but Neal Stephenson is probably my favourite author so I can’t pass up a chance to read his writing. Still, I have my doubts; I wonder if this project may be missing the point, at least as far as I’m concerned. I don’t really care that the swordfighting is realistic. I don’t care about illustrations or maps. And I’m not sure about the multiple contributors format. What I read for is the author’s unique perspective and sensibility. Will the format of the Mongoliad allow for writing like the following passage?

It occurred to the Judge, before he even read this document, that he could take it to an art dealer on Nanjing Road and sell it for a year’s wages. Dr. X, assuming it was really he who had brushed these characters, was the most impressive living calligrapher whose work Judge Fang had ever seen. His hand betrayed a rigorous Confucian grounding—many decades more study than Judge Fang could ever aspire to—but upon this foundation the Doctor had developed a distinctive style, highly expressive without being sloppy. It was the hand of an elder who understood the importance of gravity above all else, and who, having first established his dignity, conveyed most of his message through nuances. Beyond that, the structure of the inscription was exactly right, a perfect balance of large characters and small, hung on the page just so, as if inviting analysis by legions of future graduate students.

Judge Fang knew that Dr. X controlled legions of criminals ranging from spankable delinquents up to international crime lords; that half of the Coastal Republic officials in Shanghai were in his pocket; that within the limited boundaries of the Celestial Kingdom, he was a figure of considerable importance, probably a blue-button Mandarin of the third or fourth rank; that his business connections ran to most of the continents and phyles of the wide world and that he had accumulated tremendous wealth. All of these things paled in comparison with the demonstration of power represented by this scroll. I can pick up a brush at any time, Dr. X was saying, and toss off a work of art that can hang on the wall beside the finest calligraphy of the Ming Dynasty.

By sending the Judge this scroll, Dr. X was laying claim to all of the heritage that Judge Fang most revered. It was like getting a letter from the Master himself. The Doctor was, in effect, pulling rank. And even though Dr. X nominally belonged to a different phyle—the Celestial Kingdom—and, here in the Coastal Republic, was nothing more than a criminal, Judge Fang could not disregard this message from him, written in this way, without abjuring everything he most respected—those principles on which he had rebuilt his own life after his career as a hoodlum in Lower Manhattan had brought him to a dead end. It was like a summons sent down through the ages from his own ancestors.

—Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

The best magazine articles ever

I just ran across this collection of the top 25 best magazine articles ever. I’ve already read the ones by Hunter S. Thompson, Neal Stephenson, David Foster Wallace, and Jon Krakauer, and they were all great, so I’ll be checking out the other ones as well.

November 27, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold e-books available free

Lois McMaster Bujold Cryoburn
I’m a great fan of the Miles Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a series I keep on the shelf and read over and over again. I see that there are two pieces of news about the series: the new book, Cryoburn, is out and Baen Books has released a CD containing e-books of the series and various other short stories and essays. The books included on the CD are complete except for Memory, my favourite.

Edit September 5, 2013: The CD with the free e-books was withdrawn some time ago, and when I check now, there don’t seem to be any Lois Bujold books available anymore in the Baen Free Library, although the free library is still there.

November 24, 2010

Editing narrative

The Editors’ Association of Canada, BC Branch, will be putting on a workshop with Geist editor Mary Schendlinger on “Editing Narrative.”

Place and time:
Feb 12, 2011 from 10–4 at SFU Harbour Centre

Cost of the workshop is $160–$180 ($100–$120 for EAC members). Early registration ends January 28.

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 13, 2010

Helvetica

Helvetica poster
I just watched the documentary Helvetica the other day. Loved it. I’m now looking for examples of Helvetica wherever I go.

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, particularly if you’ve done some programming and know of the existence of regular expressions. 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, for example “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

November 8, 2010

Upcoming event: 2010 Memory Festival

The 2010 Memory Festival will be held at the Roundhouse in Vancouver, November 10–19. There will be exhibitions, talks, performances and workshops. I’m planning to attend “The Art of the Sentence” with Stephen Osborne, the publisher of Geist.

October 15, 2010

Vancouver Antiquarian Book Fair

Yes, I’m writing this as the event is in progress. I forgot about it, even though I was given a beautiful letterpress-printed card advertising the event at the Alcuin Society’s booth at Word on the Street a few weeks ago. But look what I found when I tried to find the date of the event online: the Alcuin Society’s blog.

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.

I read it all

Every so often, I think of a story from Stephen King’s book On Writing. At one point in the book, he talks about his former drinking problem. If I remember rightly, he mentions a friend of his, who had gone to see a counsellor about his drinking.

“Well, how much do you drink?” asked the counsellor. The man stared at him.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “I drink it all.”

Well, apparently Mr. King also, in his addicted years, drank it all. And sometimes, when I’m tracking down the thirteenth book by an author I’ve come to love, or I’m systematically reading five years’ worth of blog archives, I think, “What are you talking about? I read them all.”

September 1, 2010

Spider Robinson to be the new writer in residence at the Vancouver Library this fall

Today at the library, I saw a notice that Spider Robinson is going to be the writer in residence at the Vancouver Public Library this fall. I’m excited because I’ve been reading him for decades. I particularly like Mindkiller and the Callahan’s Place and Lady Sally series.

He’s doing a reading on September 9 at the central library, and will be doing a podcast workshop on writing and editing science fiction at some point. See the library’s Writer in Residence page for more information.

July 3, 2010

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

There seems to be some confusion about whether editors in Canada who work for US clients need an ITIN (individual taxpayer identification number). I had to sort this out recently for a US client, and I’d like to share what I learned.

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 their pay 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. For the sake of your client’s accounting department, you should make it very clear on every invoice how much of the bill 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% 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 number 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. There are companies who offer to help you with the application, but it may be just as easy to do it yourself. The application for an ITIN is IRS form W-7.

The only tricky thing is getting the photocopy of your identification properly 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). The cost of the consular services is around US$50.

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—I 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 day, when I was working for the Ministry of Forests, I accidentally sent a personal email to the entire Columbia Forest District distribution list. My friend’s email address contained the word “columbia” and the system’s autocomplete kicked in and made this something I didn’t intend. I clicked “ok” without checking what I was agreeing to, and voilà! I watched in horror as a long list of sent-mail notifications for complete strangers scrolled down my screen.

I galloped down the hall to the system administrator’s office. “Kelly!” I gasped, “Is there any way to get an email back?”

Well no, there isn’t. Once you send your message out into the wide world, you can’t get it back. However, some of the people at Google have decided to take a crack at this problem, and one of the developers has created an experimental feature called “Undo Send.” You may have noticed that 99% of the times that you send something that shouldn’t have been sent, you realize it within seconds (which is part of the reason it’s so infuriating). With the undo send feature enabled, you’ll see a “cancel” option for a few seconds after you hit “send.” If you do nothing, the message goes out as usual. But if you have a last-second change of heart and cancel, the message will appear back in its editing textbox, where you choose whether to edit and re-send it or discard the message altogether.

You can find this feature among the Google Labs features by clicking on the green flask icon or going to “Settings -> Labs.” Once you’ve turned the feature on you can choose a 5-, 10-, or 20-second delay in the configuration options under “Settings -> General.”

As for the time I spammed the Columbia Forest District, there was a happy ending. My administrator friend explained calmly—I don't think I was the first jittering person he’d explained this to—that in fact, the MoF system wasn’t true internet email but rather a proprietary intranet system, and it was possible to recall a message as long as the receiver hadn’t opened it yet. To my relief, I got back almost all of my mis-sent messages.

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 2008: Under “Save As...” choose the “PDF” option.
  • Using an older version of Word on a Mac: on Mac Os X, printing to PDF should be built in. Choose “Print” and then look for a PDF option in your list of printers.
  • Using an older version of Word on Windows: look for a free PDF creation tool or here, or save as a Word file and then use OpenOffice to save it as a PDF.
  • Not using Word at all: I recommend OpenOffice Writer. OpenOffice 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 OpenOffice in the first place, or just use it to create a PDF.

A privacy hint that has nothing to do with editing

Firefox privacy hint that has nothing to do with editing

Lately, every time I enter something in a textbox on the web, Firefox has been helpfully suggesting autocompletions for me. This was tolerable when it was my email address, but yesterday I was registering for a triathlon and darned if my browser didn’t already know all the answers. First it filled in my full street address and phone number, and when it followed up with my full credit card number, I knew something had to be done.

The concern I have about this is that I sometimes carry my laptop around while it’s running and I’m even logged in. If someone stole it, they could figure out my credit card number by opening Firefox and typing the digits 0 through 9 into a textbox until something that looked like a credit card number showed up in the autocomplete box. A lesser concern is that even if I secured the machine by logging out or locking my screen, if Firefox were storing my credit card number in any way, there would always be the possibility that that information could be extracted. Unlikely, but I’d rather not risk it.

The fix is simple: go to Firefox -> Preferences -> Privacy. Under History, choose “Use custom settings for history.” Uncheck “Remember search and form history.” To flush any form history that’s already stored, go to Tools -> Clear Recent History and then check “Search and form history” and click “Clear.”

June 25, 2010

Editing for companies in the US: Getting paid

If you have US clients who pay by cheque, it may be worth getting a US dollar bank account. I have a no-fee, no-interest US dollar account that I use to deposit my US cheques. The advantage is that I don’t pay the $5.00 service charge that would otherwise apply. As a bonus, the 30-day hold that is put on most foreign cheques might be more likely to be waived.

The 30-day hold policy for foreign cheques explains why people often use other methods to get paid by foreign clients (bank transfer, PayPal, money order). Out of these methods, I’ve only used PayPal, which is easy and convenient. If you have a PayPal account, you can request money from someone via their email address, even if they don’t have a PayPal account. It’s quick and simple, but the transaction fee is significant: 2.9%, and when you use PayPal’s “send an invoice” feature, it seems to be impossible to get the sender to pay the fee.

June 23, 2010

How to configure your Blogger blog to point to your own domain on Dreamhost

I’m using Blogger for this editing blog because it’s about the easiest thing ever, but I wanted to change the domain from “severely-limited-choice.blogspot.com” to “any-name-I-want.vanemden.com.”

The Blogger site had some good documentation, but nothing specific for Dreamhost users, and although Dreamhost has some fantastic help on their site, I didn’t find any help for this right away. I thought I’d just jot down what I did in case it helps anyone else.

On the Dreamhost end

  1. Go to dreamhost.com and click on “Customer Login” in the top right-hand corner of the page. Log in.
  2. You’re now in your settings page. Click on “Manage Domains” in the “Toolbox” section of the page.
  3. Click on the “DNS” link below the domain that you want your blog to appear as a subdomain of: e.g., to set up my blog at “blog.mydomain.com” I click on the DNS link on “mydomain.com.”
  4. Read warning message. Resolve to act with care and not to delete anything frivolously.
  5. In the blank space at “Name,” enter the name of the blog: “blog” if you want the final address to be “blog.mydomain.com.” (You must enter something here so that your blog will have a different name than just “mydomain.com.” If you actually want it to be right there under the base domain name you can do that too, but it’s slightly more complicated.)
  6. Fill in the fields. As explained in 5, for the name field, enter the name of the blog. Under type, choose “CNAME,” and under value, enter “ghs.google.com.”

On the Blogger end

  1. Go to Settings->Publishing. You should see “You’re publishing on blogspot.com.” Click on “Switch to custom domain.”
  2. Choose “Switch to advanced settings.”
  3. Enter the domain you just created in the Dreamhost configuration and save your settings.
Done!

June 16, 2010

Characterization from Justin Cronin

“When somebody steps on the stage for any important amount of time, I try to figure out who they are. One thing that is a barometer for me is that I ask them what they are not telling anybody. That’s my door into who they are. Everybody’s got a secret.”

Interview with Justin Cronin.

Neil Gaiman on horror and comedy

“Writing in this manner helped him come to a conclusion about the fundamental difference between comedy and horror: In comedy, people tend to get what they need, and in horror, people tend to get what they deserve.”

From Prince of Stories: the Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden, & Stephen R. Bissette.