Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


May 16, 2011

A quick fix for the all-caps eyesore

Caps lock: not necessary all the time
Source: an unknown internet hero
If some keyboarder of the old, old school sends you a message in all caps that you have to read even though the SHOUTING is giving you a headache, there’s a quick fix. Copy and paste the text into a Word document and use the “change case” feature to convert it to upper and lower case. Select all the text (Command-A on a Mac), go to Format -> Change Case . . .  and choose Sentence case. The capitalization won’t be perfect, but trust me, it will be a huge improvement. LibreOffice will also do this for you: click on Format -> Text.

Bonus tip

If you need to use this feature often (I sometimes edit manuscripts where all of the headings are in all caps), Shift-F3 (or Function-Shift-F3) toggles through the casing modes.

May 15, 2011

Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens

One of the fundamental features of science is the furtherance of knowledge. Poor writing is an impediment to this. A good illustration of this point is a paper by Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty published in 1944 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which established that DNA was the substance that transmitted genetic information. Although it paved the way for James Watson and Francis Crick’s milestone paper in 1953 in Nature (171: 737–738) establishing the structure of DNA, it was not widely read or appreciated. Author Randy Moore has argued that the way it was written was the main reason for this (Journal of College Science Teaching 1994 November: 114–121). In comparison with Watson and Crick’s paper, it is (as Moore wrote) hesitant, extremely dense, verbose, highly detailed, abstract, impersonal and dull. We’ve all heard of Watson and Crick. Who has heard of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty?
—Matthew Stevens, Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. 46

I always took it for granted that academic papers had to be hard to read. (The reason usually cited is that the authors have to pack an enormous amount of information into the shortest space possible.) The introduction could conceivably be a work of art, but the methods and materials section with its centrifuging at 20,000 g and resuspending, that pretty much has to be a slog, right? Well, after seeing Stevens’s examples of how text can be improved by using the appropriate voice, putting steps in logical order, disentangling parallelism and rearranging sentences (to put subject and verb at the front of a long sentence, for example), I have new hope.

Subtleties of Scientific Style is a fairly short (85 pages), very readable book that doesn’t try to be a comprehensive style guide. Instead, Stevens assumes that his readers know the basics of editing, and he focuses on specific considerations for science writing. He starts with a discussion of substantive editing, and describes how to do a truly thorough editing job (involving seven passes). He then goes on to address various common errors in usage and content, and describes ways to improve expression and visual presentation. Finally, the appendices contain useful notes on Unicode and special characters.

If you’ve done any academic editing, you’re sure to recognize a lot of the problems he discusses: one of my favourites is the discussion of the word “respectively.” I too have had my brain twisted by authors who connected two lists of different length with “respectively.” (“Plants A and B were yellow and green, respectively”: OK. “Plants A, B, and C were yellow and green, respectively”: not OK.) I’ll be going back to this book again to refresh my memory and pick up new points.

Where to get it

The publisher is ScienceScape Editing, Thornleigh, Australia, but their website doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The book is available for download in PDF, and I believe it is the author’s intention to make the electronic copy available for free. Reviewed from the free PDF.

Screenwriters can teach you a lot about fiction editing

I’m not a big movie watcher. When people ask me “Have you seen—,” the answer is usually “no.” Why then the interest in screenwriting? Because I am fascinated by stories, and good screenwriters know how to tell a story. (They also write a pretty good how-to book.) Here are some books on the subject, as well as an introductory note or two on writing screenplays. Thanks to Melva McLean for information about screenplay structure, scriptwriting software, where to find scripts online, and the screenwriting gurus (but any errors are mine!).

The screenplay format

Don’t mess with the format: twelve-point Courier on standard letter-sized paper. Character names and scene headings are in all caps, dialogue and action in upper and lower case.

Screenplay style guide

The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley.

Screenplay writing software

Celtx is a commonly used tool. It handles the formatting for you and saves you a lot of typing. A “movie” project will store the script, the novel, and the schedule, and integrates the screenplay with the schedule so that you can see which locations and characters are needed on which days. Best of all, there are a number of sample projects loaded, including the Wonderful Wizard of Oz screenplay and novel. Besides the movie project, there are a number of other project types, including novel and comic book.

I hear Final Draft is good too. Demo version available.

Sample scripts

Unlike novels, which tend to be guarded by their copyright holder, screenplays are often made available online. Fill your boots. I just hope you like monospaced fonts.
Simply Scripts

How to structure a screenplay

This is where the gold is. How long should a screenplay be? What makes a satisfying story arc? Where does the climax go? How soon should the inciting incident come? Following the right structure in developing your story is essential to creating a satisfying experience for the viewer.

Of the authors I list below, Blake Snyder is the one who provides the most step-by-step formula for putting together a movie. Just to give you an idea, here’s a rough outline of a script, mostly based on Snyder’s beat sheet:

  • Length: about 90–120 pages. The rule of thumb is that one page of script comes out to about a minute of screen time.
  • Three acts: Act 1 introduces the situation; Act 2 complicates the situation; Act 3 resolves the situation.
  • Inciting incident (page 12 in a 110-page script): If it’s a murder mystery, a corpse has to be found. If it’s a love story, the lovers have to meet. In a hero’s journey story, the hero is presented with the call to action.
  • The transition into Act 2: The hero accepts the call, or something else happens to turn the plot in a new direction.
  • Fun and games, first half of Act 2: Action that results from the premise of the story. Most of the stuff that’s in the trailer comes from this part of the movie.
  • Second half of Act 2: Complications build until the crisis.
  • Transition into Act 3: Hero confronts their demons and turns the situation around using tools and lessons from earlier in the story.
  • Act 3: Climax and resolution.
See “Three Acts or What?” for a nice comparison of the Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and hero’s journey story structures.

Books about screenwriting

  • Save the Cat by Blake SnyderSave the Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need—Blake Snyder. He has a nice list of genres and screenwriting devices (like the title “save the cat” trick), always with examples, and then discusses in detail his plan on how to set up the three-act structure that he believes is essential to delivering a satisfying experience. I certainly notice the structure he describes jumping out at me in movies like Avatar and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A very fun book.
  • Story by Robert McKeeStory: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of ScreenwritingRobert McKee. Excellent book. McKee is another script guru who consults and runs workshops. He’s also got a good list of screenwriting resources on his website.
  • The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting—Syd Field. Interesting, not as fun as Blake Snyder’s book, but it covers some different points, including more on the nuts and bolts of selling scripts.
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William GoldmanAdventures in the Screen Trade—William Goldman. Very entertaining. An analysis of the workings of the movie industry, from what makes a star (it’s someone who will bring people in to see the movie open) to the role of producers (he hasn’t the foggiest, although he knows they’re essential). There’s also plenty of concrete advice on screenwriting: how to write beginnings, how to write endings, how to protect the star—and how to protect your soul.
  • The Great Movies—Roger Ebert. He goes through about 100 movies that he thinks are important and talks about why they’re good and what they mean to him.