Tuesday, January 18, 2011

After computers: the art of second-guessing

The idea of book-as-baby is a common trope, and it applies not only to books but to any piece of writing that is going to be read by someone other than you. You labour to bring forth the object, and then send it out into the world.

In order to prepare a child for the world, you do your best to second-guess the hazards she might encounter. You nourish her, vaccinate her and educate her. Does the parallel with writing still hold? Why yes. It does.

My earliest forays into publication, back in the early 1980s when newspapers and books were still edited wholly by literate human beings and not largely by American grammar-checking programs, involved the then literary editor of The Age (not the current one) parcelling up volumes of poetry in fours and fives and asking me to write 500-word reviews covering all of them. This as you can imagine was no easy task, though it provided valuable early training in the art of saying something useful in a tiny space. (Which may be why I love to bang on at such length en blog. It's because I can.)

This was fine until I realised that as often as not, on publication, the final paragraph had simply disappeared. Which was another valuable lesson in the fact that in the production of newspapers, the measurement of column inches takes precedence over meaning -- as it must; space, like money, is measurable and finite, and doesn't magically expand just because one feels the need to calibrate one's nuances more finely. (As with money, again.)

And some sub-editors, I discovered, will simply physically trim the edges off your copy as though it were cookie dough, sorry, biscuit dough. I developed a strategy of writing penultimate paragraphs that would, if called upon, serve as final ones, for the times when the 500 words I had been asked for and provided happened not to fit into the space around the advertising -- for which the books pages were, then as now, desperate in order to justify their existence to a stern and pragmatic management, and the sub found it easiest simply to lop off the last little bit. It felt - no, don't go there.

I was reminded of this last night when I wrote a sentence I quite liked, comparing Don Dunstan's pink shorts to Cinderella's glass slipper, 'unwearable by all but one.'

The spell-checker promptly 'corrected' unwearable to unbearable.

I constantly see things in print, and I bet you do too, that appear to make no sense until it dawns on me that Word has 'corrected' something and no human eye and hand have intervened to correct it back. And everyone even remotely connected with writing and publishing knows that sometimes literals creep in, or amendments somehow fail to be taken in, or corrections are somehow not corrected back. I had a vivid mental picture of readers sitting down with the book and puzzling over the notion that the Pink Shorts were unbearable to all but one.

(Which has its own strange charm, as notions go, but which we know not to be true.)

And so I have changed the sentence to something less satisfactory but stronger proof against the processes, as they now are, of publishing. The child is now safe from the measles, but one sheds a parental tear over the pinprick of broken skin.


  1. Isn't there something of a problem when the inadequacies & shortcomings of a popular piece of software are dictating authorial decisions? And what about situations where word choice is crucial: how do poets cope?

    Kerryn, I gather from your post that you made the change because the publisher is blindly using MS Word spellcheck during the editorial process. Don't they use proper typesetting software?


  2. No, no, I didn't mean to suggest that at all. I have no idea what my own specific publisher is using -- though that, of course, is one reason why I want to take precautions against all sorts of technological and/or human-error glitch possibilities. Manuscripts often go through a number of hands, starting with my own, and of course I'm just as likely to miss mechanical things (or any other kinds of things) as anybody else. If that's the impression the post gives, I had better clarify it, I think. Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. Also,

    "Isn't there something of a problem when the inadequacies & shortcomings of a popular piece of software are dictating authorial decisions?"

    No more of a problem than there has always been when the inadequacies and shortcomings of the designer, or on the other hand the better judgement of the editor or sub-editor, or vice versa, or the amount of advertising that got sold that week, are dictating authorial decisions. I know from years of teaching Creative Writing how strong the unspoken, indeed unprocessed, conviction can be that the author's words are somehow sacred, but they're not, they're really not. I mean, apparently Keats once wrote 'My ear is open like a greedy shark to catch the tunings of a voice divine' and nobody tried to stop him.

    On the other hand, I parted ways with the Adelaide Review after seven years when its brand-new interim editor asked, erm, told me that my tourism column (the whole point of which up to that moment had been its local-Adelaide/SA day trip content) for the next issue had to be about the joys of Melbourne in winter, because they'd already sold the advertising space around it. You have to draw the line somewhere. Give me meddling software any day.

  4. I can hardly wait to read any book which compares Don Dunstan's pink shorts to Cinderella's slipper. At the time, such things could be whispered, but not spoken.

  5. HH, actually it's more a matter of them not fitting anybody but him, but I take your point and there is some discussion of it. I think in wearing the pink shorts at all he was speaking pretty loudly, in his own special way. Despite the feeble rationale about them in his memoirs.

  6. Hi. Longtime lurker, first time commenter. On the general subject of spellchecker generated errors, I once reviewed a book by the venerable literary critic Harold Bloom for a major metropolitan newspaper and by the time my copy made it into print the word 'canon' had mysteriously become 'cannon.'

  7. Oh, this is very cool. Welcome.


    Will link here and at Still Life With Cat.

    Re canon and cannon, yes, that's exactly the kind of thing. I bet those two go back and forth in and out of red pen and squiggly underlining a lot. Cannon is not wholly inappropriate for Harold Bloom, though. One way or another.

    The newspaper 'correction' that really broke my heart was inflicted a few years ago on a review of Rhyll McMaster's first novel that I'd worked hard on. In a spasm of optimism I used the word 'interiority' and was dismayed but not surprised to see it 'corrected' in print to 'inferiority'. It actually still sort of made sense, but that was just dumb luck.

  8. Thank you, Kerryn. That's very nice of you. (Waves back sheepishly.) I sometimes get the impression that subeditors like to make at least one change, even when it's unnecessary, just to let you know that they were there. Though I should add, in the interest of fairness, that there have been occasions (once or twice) when editors have saved me from my own mistakes. As for Bloom, I always thought of him less as a cannon than a gigantic dirigible with a slow leak.

  9. Speelcheck software really shits me. It thinks it knows better than me how to spell a word I've been using for nearly sixty years.

    Gotta agree about the similarity of Don's pink shorts and Cinderella's slipper, but. I met him once. I was at uni with his daughter the first time around (for me). 'Cause I was young and pretty, I think he was trying to seduce me.

    I'm looking forward to your Book.

  10. DI(nr), I think he was trying to seduce everybody. I do so hope the Book does not disappoint.

  11. He could have had me for a wink and a slow nod.

  12. I can't resist to comment.

    1. Items of concern:

    It's sometimes useful to create a one-page style sheet with brief general notes at the bottom of the sheet for the editor, listing a handful of high-priority items which require special attention. It's a pity to change the text because of Word auto-correction functions.

    In most instances a style sheet or a specific set of style notes will 'travel' with the manuscript during its editorial stages (editing and proofreading).

    2. Final proofreading corrections:

    It's sometimes helpful to check with the editor (and there is usually one person appointed to take care of the book during the publishing process) whether it is possible to have a quick look at the corrected second pages (version 2 of the book's pages created by typesetters after author's and editor's corrections at first pages).

    Correction of second pages (second set of proofs) is usually done in-house (by an in-house editor or a freelancer). If access is not permissible, it is sometimes possible to ask the editor to have a quick look at the 'clean and corrected final pages' on screen, at least for selected pages. (Publishers can't always accommodate this because deadlines are tight, they must control production quality of each title, and unnecessary interactions can disrupt internal processes, introducing new errors and causing scheduling delays. But, diligent and efficient authors, those who are responsive to key editorial dates, and are prompt with editorial queries, and who, in addition, know exactly what they are doing, may be able to also run this check together with their editor, if processes permit.)


    1. Newspapers have different production processes, and there's no reason to be too worried about deleted paragraphs and seriously disrupted sentences.

    2. Most editors will turn off auto functions while working on a manuscript. In addition, many publishers have custom-designed electronic templates when preparing manuscripts for typesetters at the editing stage. Book publishing systems are usually designed to anticipate and prevent errors, as much as this is possible.

    I'm sure this will be one of those rare things in publishing: a perfect manuscript, and a hugely knowledgable author.

    Best wishes with the publication process. I'm pretty sure things will run smoothly. I'm really looking forward to seeing the book in print.

    Enjoy the publication process.

    [one shy editor, who, it should be added, has no links with the book's publisher]

  13. Thank you so very much, shy editor. This is just brilliant. The idea of a special set of notes with the manuscript is just wonderful, if you think it would be welcome. I often provide one or two such brief notes with my reviews copy, whenever I think there's an item that's ambiguous or open to misinterpretation, or is a deliberate error within a quotation, or some other such flower masquerading as a weed.