Thursday, May 25, 2006

The opposable thumbsucker*

Fifty years ago, schoolbooks taught us that what uniquely distinguishes Homo sapiens as a species is our ability to use tools. This was a stand-in for an assertion that our species is the only one with the capacity for cultural transmission. Today we know better, of course: other species use tools; other species transmit culture. So we’re not alone.

Nonetheless, if other species can both use tools and transmit culture, I think humans, authors in particular, ought to be able to do both, too. Writing is cultural transmission. The English language is a tool. Microsoft Word is a tool. Your email program is a tool. Do the one while using the others. You have a big, highly evolved brain and I know you can both write and operate a handful of tools at the same time. You’re smart that way. I just know it.

So let’s talk about those tools, one at a time. All of these affect the cost of editing and producing your book; and the more you know about using them, the better for your bottom line and the more water the barrel holds.

Grammar isn’t what you think it is. Grammar is not a set of rules about ending sentences with prepositions and never saying ain’t. Grammar is a description of the internal rules the brain uses to generate meaningful utterances in a language. Grammar books—the good ones, anyway—capture those rules in a way that helps us write better, but grammar books are not as important to the writer and editor as a good ear for the language as she is spoke. We start learning grammar before we start to speak, as we hear people talking around us. We learn more as our parents gently correct and reinforce our first attempts. But we largely solidify our own speech patterns in the schoolyard, by the time we are twelve or so. Here, though, is where many authors get into trouble. There are differences between the grammar of the language spoken at a private school in a university town and the grammar of the language spoken in an isolated rural town or that spoken in a neighborhood of recent immigrants or that spoken in a neighborhood of inner-city blacks. All of these grammars are valid, from a linguist’s point of view—internally consistent, capable of expressing complex thought and emotion, suitable for communication within the group that uses them—but they have different connotations in society, at least to the extent that they mark speakers in terms of membership in different social groups.

Most authors, unless they are consciously writing in a specific dialect for a specific audience, prefer to use an artificial dialect that we think of as standard English. It’s artificial because people do not speak, in real life, the same way we expect to see text rendered on the page. This standard English, though, for historic reasons, is a lot closer to the dialect of that private school in a university town than it is to the dialect of a small town in Alabama. This creates a problem for the author from a small town in Alabama (or from an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn or from South Central LA or from a million other places) because the grammar in the author’s head, while it is perfectly valid from the linguist’s point of view, is quite a bit different from the grammar the author wants to put on the page.

A lot of authors are self-conscious about their language and so they over-correct, which creates a worse mess than if they just write in their own native dialect. In any case, as an author you have a choice: You can study the art of writing, which includes learning about grammar and rhetoric, or you can just let your words spew forth and leave it to your editor to tidy things up. The first path takes longer, but at the end you’ll have mastered new tools. The second path is shorter, but any sane editor will charge you more for your having created more work.

Microsoft Word is an ungainly bird of a program, but it is the program most authors use to capture their thoughts and the one most editors work in. I am not going to argue that it is well designed, user-friendly, or reliable. (As William Steig’s title character in The Amazing Bone is wont to say, “I didn’t make the world.”) My point is just that it is a tool you ought to learn to use more proficiently than you do now. How do I know you are not already proficient in your use of Word? I don’t know that for sure, but the odds are strongly in my favor.

I’ll limit this discussion to using Word to prepare a manuscript to send off to an editor. Herewith some specific suggestions:
  1. Learn about paragraph styles. Look up at the toolbar in the Word window. Find the white box with the word Normal in it. That is the paragraph style. You can define any number of new styles in addition to the standard ones Word provides. You can look up how to do this in the help system. For every paragraph in your manuscript, you can assign a style that says what function the paragraph serves. Is it body text? Is it a chapter number? Is it a subhead? Assign the right style to it. Do not spend time formatting text to be bigger or bolder or indented. Instead, define a style and assign that style, consistently, to every paragraph that serves an analogous function in the book.

  2. Never press the space bar twice in a row. If you want to show a paragraph indent, define a paragraph style that already has an indent. If you want to center a line, define a style that is centered. The computer is not a typewriter. You do not need to use multiple spaces to position text on the line. Doing so just makes extra work for the editor. Similarly, learn to type a single space between sentences. Miss Grundy was wrong. Get over it.

  3. Never press Enter twice in a row. If you want extra space before or after a heading, define the space in the heading style. If you want to start each chapter on a new page, specify that when you define the style for the chapter number.
That’s a start. If all manuscripts came to me with those three rules implemented, I would be much less of a curmudgeon than I am. No, wait. That’s not true; I’d find something else to complain about.

Email. It’s the new pink. There are three ways people generally experience their email.
  • People who started with email several years ago and are generally comfortable with computers use what is called an email client. This is a program that runs on your computer and that is set up to manage your email efficiently. A lot of people use Outlook Express, for example, because it comes with Windows. It’s a lousy program for a lot of reasons, but it remains popular. As long as you are using it and I don’t have to, I have no complaints. Mozilla Thunderbird (the successor to Netscape Mail) is another popular choice. There are others, and if you already use one, you don’t need my advice.

  • A lot of people access their email through webmail. That just means that they go to a special Web page with their regular Web browser, where they can manage and read mail. Yahoo! Mail is usually accessed through a webmail interface. Webmail interfaces tend to be much clunkier than email clients. First, your mail resides on a server somewhere and you never have a copy of it on your own computer. If something happens to the server, you are out of luck. Second, simple actions like attaching a file or quoting the message you are replying to require extra steps and extra time. Third, it is hard to get webmail systems to handle large attachments. Fourth, some kinds of messages can be garbled because of technical limitations.

  • But there is a special circle of Hell reserved for people who use AOL Mail. AOL combines all of the shortcomings of webmail with several shortcomings that are unique to AOL. All you need to know is that I charge extra when a client has AOL and cannot or will not switch to either webmail or an email client for communicating with me. Fie!
If you do not already use a proper mail client, start now. Go to and download Thunderbird. Install it on your computer. If you have an account with a normal ISP (anyone but AOL), you can set up your main email account quite easily. If all you have is AOL, I will be glad to give you an account in my own domain for the purpose of corresponding with me while I work on your book.

* See Word Spy.

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