Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rolling your own

Editor’s note: If you are just joining us, this post is part of an intermittent series (starts here, most recent installment here), addressed primarily to the self-publishing author, in which I use an old , that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. The notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave.

Once the initial edit of your manuscript is complete, there is nothing left to do but pick a fancy typeface for your title page and send the book off to the printer, right? That seems to be what a lot of authors believe, and there are plenty of so-called publishing companies on the Web who stand ready to separate those gullible authors from their money. Please don’t be gullible.

I guess the first notion to disabuse you of is that you can print a proper book from your Word manuscript file. You cannot. Don’t even think about it. Word is the wrong tool for the job, and your manuscript file is not ready to print in any case. Aaron Shepard can show you how, with great diligence and months of study, you can produce something acceptable using Word; but the end result will bear little resemblance to the edited manuscript file you begin with and will still represent a compromise, as even Aaron acknowledges. Doing finished composition in Word is like repairing a fine Swiss watch with a baseball bat. Even Microsoft doesn’t use Word to typeset its manuals.

The large point here (oxymoron alert: a point, in mathematics, is dimensionless) is that no matter how brilliant your manuscript, you need to present it in a visually appealing way to attract the largest possible audience. An amateurish appearance is a short stave that will seriously affect the potential sales of your book. Distributors, reviewers, and booksellers will reject out of hand a book that looks amateurish the moment they open it. The gatekeepers to the book distribution channels, in other words, expect to see a professionally designed and produced book, even if they understand that you are a self-publishing author. In fact, the reason self-publishing authors have such a hard time getting past these gatekeepers is precisely that, as a group, they publish so many amateurish books. You want your own to be the shining exception that stands out from the group.

Can you design and produce your own book to professional standards? Yes, absolutely. If you have visual sense and a willingness to study and learn about book design, if you have or are willing to obtain appropriate page layout software, if you are willing to seek and accept criticism as you go along and make suggested improvements, you can do it. Book design is an arcane art, but it is not a secret art. Those of us who do it learned how; you can learn how, as well. The more important question is this: Is book design something you are interested in becoming good at or are you just trying to save a few bucks to get your book out? If your answer is the latter, then you are being penny wise and pound foolish; and you will come to rue your choice.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Speed reading vs. typography

I learn something new every day, or I hope I do, at least. Today, between sessions of pruning shrubbery (much left to go on that account), I learned something about typography that set me on my ear. Now I’ve been setting type, one way or another, since about 1958, maybe a few years before that, now that I think about it. In 1960, when I was the copy chief on my junior high school newspaper, the whole staff participated in a regional conference for school papers that was sponsored by one of the city newspapers in Cleveland (I do not recall which one).

At that conference, one of the tips I picked up in a breakout session had to do with deciding where to break a headline or subhead. It is a tip I have practiced consistently all these many years, but today I learned that for a large class of readers it is actually counterproductive.

Last week, I mentioned that some people “read with their ears” and some people “read with their eyes.” What I learned today leads me to hypothesize that the latter group accounts for all those times in my life when I’ve encountered blank stares, from people I know are intelligent and well read, upon suggesting that factors like font choice or the way type is arranged on a page might have something to do with the effectiveness of the text.

Over on a Usenet newsgroup I frequent, comp.fonts, someone asked about “sense lining.” This turns out to be a name applied to what I learned in 1960 about breaking headlines, although I had not encountered the term before today.

Someone posted a link to an old PowerPoint presentation that mentions the technique in the context of designing PowerPoint slides, and I chimed in with a more elaborate description of the practice I have long used:
This is a standard technique that has been used for a very long time in composing headlines and subheads. Over the years I've done a fair amount of speech writing and speech editing, and I've always used this technique to help speakers with their phrasing (think in terms of a TelePrompter, although my clients have always been either paper- or PowerPoint-bound). I've also always used it in PowerPoint (and tried to teach others to do so, as well) and in any kind of typesetting where it was applicable (both in ragged text and, where possible, in justified text).

Here are the basic concepts, as I practice them (and I think these are pretty consistent with traditional practices of others):
  1. The world is divided into two relevant classes: people who read with their eyes and people who read with their ears. What is here called sense lining is for the benefit of those who read with their ears (as well as for those who read out loud and for their audiences, of course). The technique has no real value for those who read with their eyes. Speed readers, in other words, won't care about your efforts. Subvocalizers will notice and will be appreciative.

  2. Where possible, keep whole clauses together.

  3. If you have to break a clause, keep the subject together and the predicate together.

  4. If you have to break a subject or predicate, keep whole phrases together (noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases).

  5. If you have to break a phrase, keep modifiers (articles, adjectives, adverbs) with their targets.

  6. If you have to break a pair or a series, break before the conjunction.

  7. For book and magazine composition, general composition standards still apply. That is, you don't want a series of successive lines beginning with the same word or ending with the same word (unless it's a parallel list). So sense lining is definitely a secondary consideration.
This drew a response from someone who took exception, saying that such a choppy presentation slows him down and impedes readability.

We exchanged a few posts in which I asked him to characterize the way he reads and he responded that no, he does not subvocalize (that is, he reads with his eyes, not his ears); and he has always read very fast and with good comprehension. He also likes a long measure better than a short measure.

What did I learn today? I learned that there is a correlation (strength to be determined) between the ability to read fast and an insensitivity to typographic design considerations.

This is interesting in a number of ways. For one thing, it provides an opportunity in online delivery of text to give readers a choice of rendering styles. This takes extra work for the publisher or designer, and I do not suppose it is going to become a common practice soon. But it might qualify as a best practice for critical applications. For another, it means that, not surprisingly, my own editing style and typographic practices are consistent with each other in a deeper way than I had thought about. By the same token, someone who is uncomfortable with one will be uncomfortable with the other. This neatly and cleanly excludes a huge part of my potential market, something I am not thrilled about, but I accept it. What I find more troubling is that I might design a book for a client that will be found unappealing by a significant segment of the potential readership.

Happily, good typographic practice for books is a compromise that meets the needs of both speed readers and subvocalizers. Justified type, which is what books mostly consist of, does not lend itself to sense lining, and the other subtleties that appeal to people who read with their ears are simply outside the notice of the other group.

Friday, May 26, 2006

There's no crying in baseball

I encourage authors to become writers.

Here is the distinction:
  • An author is someone with authority. That is, you are an author if you have something you wish to convey to readers, whether it is a story you have invented, an experience you feel is instructive, an opinion you want to express, or knowledge you want to preserve. You are the subject-matter expert.

  • A writer is someone who expresses ideas, perhaps someone else’s ideas, in words. Writing is about the craft of expression more than about the content, whereas authorship is about the content more than the craft.
Authors can learn to be writers. Doing so requires gaining proficiency in the craft, of course; and that takes time and practice. But before you can even begin down that path, you must first internalize the necessary attitude.

I will consider you a professional writer, regardless of how well you sling words, when you can honestly say you accept these three principles:
  • It’s all about the reader.

    Your writing will improve significantly when you look at it not as a vehicle for expressing your ideas but as a vehicle for the reader to gain insight into those ideas. As a writer you have to form a partnership with the reader. You have to think about how the reader might interpret your words. Is there ambiguity in what you have written? Is the ambiguity intentional or unintentional? Did you say what you meant, and did you say it clearly? Those are nontrivial questions, but if you ask them as you work, your writing will improve.

  • The perfect manuscript does not exist. Not if it is longer than a single, short poem, anyway.

    The goal of the editing process is to improve the manuscript, not to perfect it. While many editors are, in terms of personality, perfectionists, the realists among us understand that being a perfectionist is not the same thing as producing perfect work.

    Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
    To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.
    —Alexander Pope
    An Essay on Criticism
    If I make a thousand improvements in the first hundred pages of your manuscript and you discover, on rereading, that there were two errors I did not catch, please exercise some divinity. We should be working as a team to catch and correct as many errors as we can, fully understanding that our hummanness will always be there to trip us up.

    My clients generally react to the sea of red I send them by thanking me for catching so many errors and strengthening the book. Every now and then, someone reacts angrily because I missed something; they lose sight of the fact that before I edited the manuscript it had five hundred times as many errors. (They calm down when I have a chance to get a word in edgewise.)

    My larger point, though, is that, like any other editor, I am going to catch quite a high percentage of your errors and leave a small percentage uncorrected. The fewer errors in your original manuscript, the smaller the number of residual errors when I am done. If, as in the above example, I make a thousand changes in a hundred pages (not uncommon) and miss half a percent, that leaves five errors per hundred pages for you to find. If you do a good job checking over the manuscript before you send it to me and I make a thousand changes in a thousand pages, though, that leaves five errors per thousand pages, an average of only one error every two hundred pages for you to find—not perfect, but pretty darn good.

  • Your children are not yourself.

    A healthy attitude toward the humanness of the people whose work you depend on is one important part of being a professional writer. Another big part of professionalism is separating your words from your self. Yes, writing certainly involves pulling from within and splaying bits of your self on the page. But once those bits, in the form of words, are on the page, they are just symbols to manipulate; they are no longer part of you.

    The editing process is all about the words on the page. If your ego is so invested in those words that you feel every editorial change as a knife to your heart, you need to adjust your attitude. Your words are your children; they are not yourself. You need to let them make their own way in the world.

    Sure, professional writers have spirited discussions with editors in which they defend their choices, their words, their commas; but both parties in the discussion understand that the goal is to serve the reader and the argument is about the best way to do that. There’s no crying in baseball.

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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A fool for a client

In Last Friday’s post, I used an old conceit, that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. If you are just catching up, the notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave. On Friday I discussed the initial question I ask when an author comes to me with a manuscript: Is there, in fact, a market for a work of this type? If not, why do you want to spend your money with me?

Today I want to talk about another stave in the barrel—editing your manuscript.

It’s hard out there for an author. Authors wander into my virtual parlor for one reason or another, vaguely understanding their manuscripts need editing, probably because someone, somewhere, told them so, but not knowing why, not knowing what editing entails, and not knowing how to select an editor.

Why does your manuscript need to be edited at all?
Because everyone needs an editor. Authors editing their own work are like attorneys representing themselves in lawsuits: An attorney who does that is said to have an ass for counsel and a fool for a client. As an author you are too close to the words you have written. You need someone who looks afresh at your manuscript, someone who represents the reader in your audience, someone who does not already know what it is you want to say and who can look at your words and wonder what on earth you are rattling on about. You already know what you meant to write and are unlikely to realize that you did not write that.

What does editing entail? Editing consists of several distinct activities, not all of which apply to every manuscript. If you are a writer—that is, if you are self-conscious and careful about your use of language—the editing process is a consultation with a peer about ways to improve the text, often in small ways. If you are an author who is not a writer—that is, if your focus is on your knowledge of your subject and not on the use of language—the editing process can be a brutal and total rewrite of everything you have sweated over for the last five years. The editor’s job is to help you convey your thoughts to the reader in the clearest and most direct way possible. This may involve radical surgery to rearrange large blocks of text, eliminate irrelevant excursions, tighten up paragraphs, rewrite sentences (maybe every sentence), and delete, delete, delete unneeded modifiers.

The editor also has a responsibility to warn you about potential liabilities. Most editors are not lawyers, but we are supposed to have a good enough lay understanding of the law to know when you are skating close to the edge in terms of libel, copyright infringement, or plagiarism and to steer you away from that edge.

A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, to find a better example, to rethink a conclusion, to confront your own prejudices.

In the end, the editing process should result in a better manuscript, a taller stave for the barrel than it started out.

How do you select an editor? Pretty much the same way you select a pair of shoes. Is the fit comfortable? Do you like the style? Is the quality good enough? Can you afford the price?

Different editors have different styles. Some prefer to mark up a paper manuscript in ink and send it back to you for inputting the corrections. Some—I’m one—prefer to work in an electronic file and hardly ever print out a page. Others prefer some combination of electronic and paper editing. Some editors are exceedingly deferential to the author and make only the most minimal changes, those absolutely necessary for clarity. Others—I’m one—slash and burn at will, taking no prisoners. Most fall somewhere between those extremes. And a good editor adapts the style of work to the nature of the manuscript, of course.

Some editors see a manuscript as a one-dimensional string of words and let other people, further down the publishing chain, worry about tagging the words according to their functions. Others see a manuscript as having both a text dimension and a structure dimension. As an author, you can start Microsoft Word and just begin typing. You do not need to pay attention to paragraph styles, a feature of Word that lets you label different paragraphs according to their function in the document. As an editor, though, I know that a chapter title or a subhead or a numbered list is going to be typeset in a style that is different from the regular body text. So I tag every paragraph in a manuscript to help ensure correct typesetting later. It does not matter what visual form those different styles take in the manuscript; what is important is that they are all labeled consistently.

Some editors—like some readers—read with their eyes; others read with their ears. The difference is apparent when you examine texts closely for grammatically optional elements. Editors who read with their eyes are assiduous in eliminating what they see as unnecessary repetition. Editors who read with their ears are just as assiduous in putting all that unnecessary repetition back in. A few paragraphs back, I wrote, “A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, to find a better example, to rethink a conclusion, to confront your own prejudices.” An editor who reads with eyes instead of ears would change it to read, “A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, find a better example, rethink a conclusion, and confront your own prejudices.” Deciding which you prefer can help you select an editor.

It is not up to you, as the author, to dictate how the editor should work; it is incumbent upon you, instead, to find an editor who is a comfortable fit and whose style you can accommodate to.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Curmudgeons eat, too

All work and no food makes Dick a grumpy editor. I am delighted to report a distinct lack of grumpiness, though, after a few days of R&R on the mid-coast of Maine with my wife. We had a bit of a false start, following restaurant recommendations from non-foodies; but once we got our bearings, we did fine.

One of our goals, in an unfamiliar place, is to discover the local cuisine. This is not always possible, of course. As anyone who has traveled the Interstate highways in Pennsylvania can attest, you will—sadly—get a better meal at any national chain restaurant than you will at the most convincingly quaint home cookin’ establishment touting its Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.

But this is about Maine, thankfully, not Pennsylvania. Thus I report:

Thursday evening, on the inn-sitter’s recommendation, in Lewiston, we went to a large, local Italian restaurant, DaVinci’s. It’s inside the old Bates Mill and the decor is suitably funky. Food was mediocre or worse. I do not recommended it for foodies, but it is okay for families looking for pizza. Actually, the Caesar salad was interesting in an idiosyncratic sort of way; and our entrées weren’t bad; but the complimentary sides of pasta (one with a red sauce, one with something they called Alfredo sauce but that bore no resemblance to Alfredo sauce) were awful.

Friday, I did better for lunch (on my own, as my wife was eating awful conference food at the hospital where she was speaking). Nothing But the Blues is a small, informal bistro not too far from Bates College. The place was inoffensive and clean, set up mostly for takeout, but they served real silverware for dining in. Menu was interesting and varied, with several vegetarian choices. If you are in Lewiston at lunchtime or are looking for a light, informal dinner, you could do a lot worse.

Friday for dinner, the conference organizers took us to a local institution, a well run, family-owned, mostly-fried-seafood place, the Village Inn. If you are looking for a place to take the family and fried seafood appeals to you, it will do. If you want something other than fried seafood, go elsewhere.

Saturday our actual vacation began. We puttered around all morning and did not get on the road until after eleven. Then we drove in circles for a while until we found the route we were looking for (shorter on the map, longer in real life) to get over to Bath, where we decided to have lunch. We bypassed a pleasant, upscale place, Bistro Bistro, that seemed to be doing a good business with the ladies-who-lunch crowd and had an interesting menu that would have been at home in any upscale neighborhood in the world but that didn’t seem very Maine-y. Up the street was J.R. Maxwell & Co. This was the first time we felt we were eating real Maine food. I had a tasty lobster roll of modest size. The coleslaw and baked beans it came with were both obviously homemade and several cuts above the ordinary. My wife had a quiche that she did not offer to share. For a large, busy, somewhat tourist-focused place, I’d rate it good to excellent and a good value, too.

Across the street and up the block is a wonderful kitchen store, Now You’re Cooking, where we spent close to an hour and some dollars. This was one of several kitchen stores I’ve seen in Maine that put better known establishments, like Sur Le Table, to shame. Apparently the natives spend those long winters cooking.

After a visit to The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath—a place particularly worth visiting if you happen to be writing a historical novel that involves the age of the great sailing ships, which I am not but you might be—we got back on the road and headed down to Brunswick.

We drove around a bit, then hung out at a café for a while to check email and reconnoiter local restaurants. We ended up at Star Fish Grill, and we’re delighted we did. Despite the unfortunate fact that the restaurant shares a building with a pest control company, the place is superb. Décor, ambiance, service, and especially the food are all great. It’s a chef-owned restaurant that features a lot of Maine-raised and Maine-caught food. Dishes are imaginative and delicious without being pretentious or weird. And the localness was in evidence; this did not feel like a transplanted Boston or Manhattan restaurant. It was definitely a four-star experience and would be worth driving to from anywhere in southern Maine.

We shared an appetizer, locally made chorizo in a sherry and tomato sauce, that was sublime. I had sea scallops, local and the largest I have ever seen, in a sauce of flambeed brandy, shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and cream. My wife took advantage of an offer on the menu for a light meal: a dinner salad with a half-portion of a meat entrée. She had a pork tenderloin schnitzel over a salad consisting of braised greens in a balsamic reduction. We had two desserts, a lemon tart to end all lemon tarts and a chocolate-raspberry crème brulée. With drinks, appetizer, desserts, and tip we got out of there for less than ninety dollars. We walked in, without trouble, around 6:30. My guess is that a reservation would be in order during the summer, though. The place was full when we left.

On Sunday, we set off in the right direction and did some wandering up and down what the locals call fingers (a glance at a map shows why). We ended up in Wiscasset in time to do some antiquing (I bought a slew of old books) and to have lunch at Red’s Eats, where we stood in line for the better part of an hour. I understand why it’s a place that must be experienced. It’s a bit reminiscent of standing in line for pizza at Pepe’s in New Haven. Everyone should do it once, but neither a pizza nor a lobster roll, when you think about it, is really a food worth standing in line for. Nonetheless, the immense lobster roll was everything it promised to be; the crab cakes were tasty; and any place that has iced coffee on the menu is okay in my book.

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing non-food-related touristy things and found ourselves in Rockland at dinner time. We scouted Main Street, ending up at a phenomenal little wine bar/bistro called In Good Company. The owner-chef is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who owned restaurants in major cities before moving home to Rockland, where she also owns a wine store. We were astounded to learn that the woman who waited on us was not the owner (she certainly had a proprietary attitude about ensuring that everything was running smoothly) and that the chef was the regular Sunday stand-in for the owner, who does the cooking five nights a week. The owner believes in making a fair profit at reasonable prices. The hors d’oeuvres we had (a large bowl of nicely spiced mixed nuts and a baked whole garlic) were three dollars apiece. The entrées were quite reasonable (a large piece of beautifully rare beef tenderloin with an elegant cremini butter sauce, served with a vegetable hash, was sixteen dollars; a local microbrew porter was three dollars). All in all, the place was an unpretentious but elegant delight that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Tomorrow, business as usual.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

We interrupt this pontification

…to note the momentary appearance of an almost-clear sky this morning, for the first time in what feels like forty days and forty nights. I am going to take advantage whilst I can and get back to business when the predicted rain resumes.

In the meantime, if you are stuck indoors, feel free to comment on any current post. Just click the word “comments” below the post and follow the bouncing ball. Moderation is turned on to prevent an invasion by commercial comment bots; comments by humans generally pass through unscathed.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Gardening, garage software, and garage books

Before the great migration to the cities in the last part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, when the vast majority of Americans lived on subsistence farms, which is to say they farmed to feed their families rather than to feed the teeming multitudes, gardening was the subject of many a bestseller. When I was attempting to raise vegetables for a living myself, one of my farming partners picked up an old book somewhere (I do not recall the title) that had been written as an earnest instruction for school-age children on the art and science of gardening.

The book presented—and illustrated—an apt metaphor for the successful garden that we can as well apply to the successful book: The capacity of a barrel is defined by the height of its shortest stave. In the gardening book, the staves represented such concepts as water, light, fertility, and the young gardener’s effort in the application of a hoe. In book publishing, as in many other kinds of business ventures, the staves represent the various aspects of feasibility analysis, product design and development, marketing, and distribution. Sales—the level of water in the barrel—can only rise to the height of the shortest stave.

I mentioned in my previous post the problem of self-published books gathering dust in garages. Many of these are fine books that just happen to be among the ninety-nine percent of all new titles that fail to sell well. But to the extent that it is possible to ask why a particular book is gathering dust, it is well [intentionally archaic construction, just because this is a blog and I like to trot out archaic constructions once in a while and you cannot stop me] to look for the short stave.

The stave I want to discuss today is market feasibility analysis: If we make a book that is perfect in all respects except that there is no market for it, will a reporter for The New York Times hear it fall in the forest (or notice it moldering in the garage, for that matter)?

The first job I had with the title technical writer (a function I had been fulfilling for many years under other titles) was for a garage software company. The owner–engineer had rented a vacant garage (from its size and layout, I suspect it had been a body shop) to house his business. Like everyone else who starts a garage software company, Rick was an absolutely brilliant programmer who had had an idea for a system he found interesting and wanted to spend his time developing. He found a backer, somehow, and plowed the investor’s money into his own salary, computer hardware, and salaries for a few part-time employees, of whom I was the third.

As the months went by, Rick brought in sophisticated sales people with real industry knowledge; he responded to their critiques of his system to make it more user-friendly; he did everything he could to make a success of the business. But what he could not do was create demand for a product that nobody else saw the need for, no matter how brilliantly it was designed. Six months after I started, the backer pulled the plug and the company ran down the bathtub drain.

This was in the early 1990s and was a foreshadowing of the dot-boom and dot-bust to come. That cycle began with thousands of brilliant programmers with clever ideas getting funds and developing software that nobody wanted or that nobody wanted to pay for. I was lucky. My last salaried tech writing job was for a company that started from a different premise. The founder was a management consultant who, in his broad experience working with executives of many large corporations, had sussed out a felt need for software to solve a particularly vexing problem. In other words, he began with a known market demand. Then he set out to start and staff a company that could effectively develop the needed software for the already extant market. That company took a shot to the knees but survived the dot-bust and is alive and kicking today (even without my help). Why? Because the need was real and the company came into being to fill that need.

What does all this have to do with books? Everything. Even if you (as a century-old publishing company or as a first-time self-publishing author) do everything else right—from writing beautifully to producing an exquisitely made book to investing adequately in marketing—a tactical guide to winning at Pong is not going to have a big market. Not all that many people still play Pong. A new frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film is probably a few years too late. A warning not to invest in Enron that might have been timely a few years ago is not going to find a big audience today.

Has everyone in your family told you that your paean to your late, lamented cocker spaniel is the most wonderful thing they have ever read? Cool beans! Has anyone who does not have to be at your house next Thanksgiving told you the same thing? If not, you might consider private publication and distribution via Christmas stocking.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Do it yourself? Not so much.

Let me start by saying that I am not descended from a long line of home handymen. My dad changed lightbulbs, plunged blocked toilets, and killed spiders. Anything more complicated involved paying someone else. But I always enjoyed watching the workmen who came to our home when I was a kid, and I absorbed quite a bit, at least in terms of respect for people who work with their hands.

As a youngster (there’s a word you don’t see much nowadays), I picked up some skills here and there on weekend volunteer projects and, of necessity, as an impecunious apartment dweller in New York. Then, in 1975, my wife and I and another couple bought a farmhouse that was built in 1875 and needed work.

In the course of repairing, restoring, and remodeling that house over the eighteen years I lived there, I learned to draw a fine distinction between the tasks I could do well myself and those I should hire a professional to tackle. I did a lot—and because I had carefully watched skilled craftsmen when I was younger, had read authoritative guides on how to proceed, and had practiced, as the instructions always say, in a concealed corner, I did it well (if not quickly)—but I also could see the areas where learning as I went along was not going to be sufficient to ensure a satisfactory job.

The same principle applies to self-publishing your book. Too many authors think self-publishing means you have to do everything yourself, and the results of this self-delusion are gathering dust in garages all over the country.

As in any other field of human endeavor (sports come to mind), the professionals make it look easy. We forget, when we watch Tiger Woods crush a golfball, the many thousands of hours Woods has spent plying his trade. The surgical training model—watch one; do one; teach one—does not work here. You cannot watch Woods once and then go out and do what he does. (You cannot watch ER once and then perform heart surgery, either.)

The problem arises because we all got passing grades in English and believe that therefore we are qualified as writers. The fact that the livelihood of public school teachers, college faculty, and the institutions that employ them depend on giving everyone a passing grade in English, whether they deserve it or not, somehow escapes our attention when we reflect on our own language skills. Trust me on this: Most people cannot reliably produce well formed English sentences, let alone string such sentences together into a series of cogent paragraphs.

Nonetheless, the world is full of authors—people who have authority, knowledge or thoughts or insights worth sharing. It’s just that they’re not writers. So, right from the get-go, chances are good that self-publishing authors need help with the writing, whether they know it or not.

After the writing is done, the publishing process can begin. But that is a multi-step process of some complexity—the subject of future blog entries. Here, I just want to say that every corner you cut affects the quality of the finished product, and it is the quality of the finished product, together with the energy and skill used to market it, that determines its ultimate success. Can you execute all the steps yourself, well enough to turn out a good book? Yes. Many people have demonstrated that. Is it easy? No. Is there a middle ground? You betcha. Draw that line for yourself between the things you can confidently do yourself and the things you need a pro to help you with.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Building fences

This is not a political blog. I have my views, and the astute reader can draw appropriate inferences; but I’m trying to stay professional here.

I was just listening to the news and heard an interview with Arizona’s governor, discussing the speech President Bush made last night. The governor said, among other things, that she is pleased with the idea of devoting resources to building miles of high-tech fencing along the border.

So who actually builds fences? Government agencies do not send their own civil service employees out into the field to operate equipment and wield tools. That is not how government works. No, they bid the job out to contractors. But what is a contractor? It is a company that has a small core of full-time salespeople, managers, and engineers and then hires workers when it succeeds in landing a contract. So the federal government is going to put out a request for quotations and select the low bidder from among qualified contractors. And the winning bidder is going to open a hiring office for workers to do hard labor in the desert. And who are those workers going to be? If you have ever spent time anywhere from Texas to California, I think you know the answer to that question. I wonder if INS is going to raid the worksite and check documents while the fence is being built.

The irony is at least a little amusing, whether or not you agree with the proposed plan.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Is the bad news good news?

The publishing mailing lists over the last few days have had several doom-and-gloom posts about a report released by Bowker (the people who bring you Books in Print). In each case—maybe this is just me reading something into the posts that isn’t there—I get the feeling the person posting the link is passing on bad news to the publishing community.

But I wonder. Does the drop represent bad news in the sense of declining book buying and declining readership? Or does it represent good news in the sense of small publishers getting smarter about what titles to invest in? Could this just be the publishing equivalent of the dot-bomb, an industry shakeout in which people regain their common sense and drop the properties that had no prospects of success in the first place?

It would be interesting to see a statistic that somehow captured the change in profit in the various publishing segments Bowker tracks, rather than the change in number of titles.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The obligatory Mother's Day post

My mother lived on her own terms and died on her own terms. But this post is not about my mother or about me or about our relationship. It is not about how morose Mother’s Day (and why is that a singular possessive, anyway?) is for people who have lost their mothers. As far as that goes, my mother still lives in my head (my father, sinking into dementia, is beginning to fade, though).

No, today I just feel like telling a story in which my mother figures somewhat tangentially. It’s a story about how we use language to create barriers of prejudice and how we have to get past language—an odd concept for someone like me who lives by the word—to overcome those barriers.

My mother, descended from German–Austrian–Hungarian Jews and a second-generation atheist, preferred the social company of Jews but was thoroughly at ease with people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds when circumstances put her in contact with them. In contrast, my father, son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a revolving-door Reform Jew himself, felt free to express his stereotype-based prejudices against those people (whatever group happened to be under discussion). Dementia hasn’t changed that about him, actually.

My mother died a couple of years ago. Her health had deteriorated to the point that she needed dialysis to stay alive, and she refused to begin dialysis, understanding she would die shortly. Hospice, a movement begun by Catholics, was called in. The Hospice workers who attended my mother’s last few days were black women, presumably of some Protestant denomination.

After the funeral, the Rabbi who officiated came to my parents’ home, in Shaker Heights, to conduct a private memorial ceremony for the family and whoever had come by at that time to offer condolences. (The ceremony is traditional and has a name that I don’t recall.) So here’s the cast of characters: The Rabbi; my father; a few elderly friends of my parents; my sister and brother-in-law; my niece—so far, all people who either read Hebrew or know the prayers by heart—my sons (not raised in the Jewish faith); my wife (second generation Unitarian); the two Hospice nurses; and me.

Prior to the Rabbi’s arrival, my wife wandered off to another room to have a conversation with the Hospice nurses. The Rabbi arrived and we gathered in the living room, where we passed around thin prayer booklets for the service. My wife was still actively engaged in her conversation and not focusing on these small preparations. The Rabbi called us to a brief silence before beginning and my wife, still standing with the nurses, some feet from me, finally glanced down at the booklet in her hand, discovering that it was in Hebrew, with Latin-alphabet transliteration on facing pages. The pages, like the Hebrew text, ran right to left; that is, the booklet opened from what we normally call the back. This was a new format for her, and she quickly became lost.

The nurse standing next to her noticed her distress and quickly reached over to point to where she should be reading. She grinned and whispered to my wife, “I’ll help you out, honey. I’ve been to plenty of these.”

My mother would have enjoyed that.

Meanwhile, my wife is off on the opposite coast this week, not near either of her kids or her mother, who is deteriorating in an Alzheimer’s unit and has no idea what today is. On the other hand, my sister-in-law, who was adopted as an infant, is visiting for the first time her biological sister, who just tracked her down. It will be interesting to find out if she meets her birth mother, also suffering from dementia, this Mother’s Day.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

500 billion channels and nothing on

Have you noticed that it’s getting worse?

I’m not talking about television. One of the great improvements in my life that came bundled with my second marriage was living in a house where the tv is in the basement. I am weaned from my bored-divorced-guy-two-bedroom-apartment addiction to television. Now I doubt that the set is on for twenty hours a year.

No, I’m talking about the Web. It is no secret that Google’s success has led to the explosion of the industry and that the search and SEO camps are in an ongoing battle to outsmart each other. But meanwhile, for us users, the utility of search is diminished when so many sites (blogs included) are information-free decoys designed for nothing more than attracting click-through to ads.

This creates a huge that only gets worse as the total number of Web pages continues to mushroom.

Add to that the existing conundrum of how to determine the reliability of what you read—in a book, in a periodical, in a , or on the Web—and all of the projections for the networked future start to look a little tarnished at the margins.

Tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine has a cover article by Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of titled “Scan This Book.” In it he talks about the hyperconnectedness of knowledge that will result from the digitization of the world&rsquo's libraries and the resulting acceleration of human fulfillment and economic advance. vision fulfilled!

Kelly touches on the current skirmish between publishers and Google, and he asserts that content creators will find a way to adapt to this new technological regime (without suggesting how they might make a livelihood in the process). But he does not address the question of quality management at all.

You still need an editor

Actually, you need an ever-increasing number of editors. Since the advent of the machine, but increasing dramatically with the advent of , pretty much anyone has been able to publish any sort of drivel unmediated by the publishing process. In other words, the gate to publishing represented by the cost of moving words from brain to page vanished.

Today anyone can have Web sites and blogs, can publish and books—under a real name or any number false identities—without review or intervention by any other being, human or robotic. Text presented as factual has likely never been checked for accuracy by anyone and may be subject to corruption even if it has been (as in the case of Wikipedia). As a result, the signal-to-noise ratio is approaching zero.

that I am, the idea of beautifully printed and bound books disappearing in favor of totally digital publishing does not particularly appeal to me. I enjoy the feel and smell of a well made book and the look of a beautifully designed page. But whether books do or do not become obsolete, I know I will still have a job. Without editors to evaluate, filter, sort, correct, and clarify, all those trillions of bytes that are or will be available are going to be useless.

I am not going to argue that you should not publish your next book without running your copy by me, because either you already understand that you need an editor or you don’t; if you are narcissistic enough to believe that pearls drop from your lips when you speak, I know I will not be able to convince you otherwise. My argument here is not really with you; it’s with those who think that more searchable text is the same thing as more usable information and that civilization’s advance will accelerate despite the increasing amount of time it takes to find anything useful in the gray glop.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The best so far

I admit I have been procrastinating about the eight manuscripts I have in front of me to edit. My procrastination has taken the form of clicking the Next Blog button at the upper right to explore a random sequence of blogs and discover what this sphere encompasses. (Can a sphere encompass or can only plane figures encompass? Hmmm.) Most of what I have encountered merits an immediate click to the next blog, either because it is written in a language I do not read or because it is written in a form of English I do not choose to read.

However, in these random perusings I have found a few keepers. Some of them are of personal interest to me and may or may not interest anyone else. These two, however, are pertinent in their impertinence and well worth bookmarking if you have read this far:I am not a great fan of anonymity as it is usually implemented on the Internet, but it has its uses. In the case of these two blogs it is an absolute necessity.

Okay, time to get back to procrastinating. Or editing. Whichever comes first.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Prove it yourself!

Kristen King, who blogs as :: inkthinker ::, caught a piece I posted in a publishing mailing list several days ago and asked if she could use it as a guest article on her blog. Flattered, I agreed. Then I pursued the conversation to learn a little about blogging. And that’s how I happened to start the blog you’re reading now.

Meanwhile, Kristen asked for a thirty-day exclusive on the article, which is a guide to checking page proofs, and I was glad to agree to that. I'll repost it on my own blog this time next month.

Thanks, Kristen!

P.S. In the everybody-needs-an-editor department, Kristen made valuable improvements in the article, adding glosses for the technical terms that the lay reader might not know. In other words, Kristen added value, and that is the standard on which you should judge any editor. We—those of us who are any good at this business, anyway—are not just here to pick nits. Our goal is to help you communicate more effectively.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Borrowed words to live by

Last weekend I attended a memorial service for a woman who led a full and interesting life, dying in full possession of her faculties. At the service, her son told of finding a folder among her effects labeled “Words to Live By.” He read two items from the folder. One was the Desiderata we are all familiar with, and I won’t bore you with the story of its writing by Max Ehrmann and its misattribution to an anonymous seventeenth century author.

The other was a piece I was unfamiliar with but that fits the putative theme of this blog. Paul read from a yellowed newspaper clipping, and I do not know when or where it was printed, nor when it was written. The author, Paul tells me in an email, was “William DeWitt Hyde, seventh president of Bowdoin College, from 1885–1917, interestingly a graduate of both Harvard and Union Theological before taking his ‘post on the coast.’”

Here it is:

Get Your Grammar Right

“Live in the active voice, not the passive. Think more about what you make happen than about what happens to you.

“Live in the indicative mood, rather than the subjunctive. Be concerned with things as they are, rather than as they might be.

“Live in the present tense, facing the duty at hand without regret for the past or worry over the future.

“Live in the first person, criticizing yourself rather than finding fault with others.

“Live in the singular number, caring more for the approval of your own conscience than for the applause of the crowd.

“And if you want a verb to conjugate, you cannot do better than to take the verb, ‘to love.’”

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A million-dollar idea yours for the taking

By choice and consensus, I’m the grocery shopper in the house. I’ve been doing my own grocery shopping for a long time, through several moves to different parts of the country, and in all those in all those places I’ve observed a phenomenon that I have never seen documented anywhere: In the checkout line, the majority of men have the drill figured out: Have your discount card or keychain card out and ready to scan before you get to the register; have your credit card in your hand and swipe it as soon as the clerk starts scanning your groceries; be ready to sign the credit card slip. This is not rocket science. In most cases, though, a woman will wait until the clerk is ready to start scanning before she fumbles in her purse for her wallet and then fumbles in her wallet for the discount card; then she returns the card to the wallet and the wallet to the purse and waits until the total is rung up before again opening the purse, retrieving the wallet, pulling out a credit card, and beginning the transaction.

I have no idea why this difference in the of men and women has come about, and I do not particularly care. It is not even that big a deal in terms of personal annoyance, as I am merely bemused by it and am rarely in much of a hurry.

But look at it from the store’s point of view. I figure all the fumbling adds an average of twenty or thirty seconds to every checkout transaction. On the one hand, this gives the checkout clerk a few seconds to relax between customers, which is probably good for her health. On the other hand, it is costing the store money. As a result, stores are installing more and more self-service checkout lanes (which I detest); and this cuts the number of human checkout clerks (the reason I detest them). If customers would behave a bit more efficiently, they could help save jobs for clerks, right?

So here is your assignment: Figure out the best, most customer-friendly, most effective way to gently educate women to approach the checkout lane with discount card and credit card in hand, ready to scan or swipe—without annoying the customers. Should it be a sign? Probably not, as people do not generally read signs. A flashing display on the credit card machine or register? Maybe. I don’t know the answer. But if you can figure it out and sell it to supermarket chains on the basis of how much money they will save, you can make a bundle. Send me ten percent when you do.

P.S.: I did not say, above, that all men behave one way and all women behave another way. I was careful to say that in my experience most men behave one way and most women behave the other way. If your observations vary from mine, I would be interested in what part of the country you are in. If you wish to disprove my hypothesis, I would be delighted to read the results of your study after it is published.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Judg[e]ment about acknowledg[e]ment

On a publishing mailing list, a member asked why we Americans prefer judgment over judgement and acknowledgment over acknowledgement (the latter spellings being preferred in Canada and the UK)—especially as spell checkers accept both. As with many such American–British spelling differences, this one traces directly to Noah Webster.

My 1856 edition of his dictionary shows both words with only the single spelling, sans e. By the Second Unabridged, that spelling was shown first and the spelling with e was shown second. However, all subsequent entries using the same word (phrases such as Judgment Book) are shown with only the first spelling. Further, most courts and most publishers held to the strict rule that—even though the lexicographers made it clear that two spellings juxtaposed in that way were equally acceptable, in the days of prescriptivist dictionaries—the first spelling among equals, in terms of physical placement in the dictionary, was always to be used. This was merely a practical convention to eliminate stylistic inconsistency; but it was also self-fulfilling prophecy to the extent that if all editors and publishers stuck to one spelling it would of necessity occur more often in printed work, thus influencing subsequent editions of dictionaries.

Next time you are in a bookstore, browsing some obscure aisle where self-published books occupy some of the shelf space, here's a quick test to get an idea of whether a book has gone through at least some semblance of an editing process: Flip to the front and see if Acknowledgments is spelled correctly. Check to see if there is a Foreword (a word before), too, rather than a Forward or (shudder!) a Foreward.

Friday, May 05, 2006

You hang out your shingle and what happens happens

I am a big fan of the First Amendment—the one in the Bill of Rights, not the band, if there happens to be a band by that name (is there?)—and I am glad to defend your right to express your views even if I don’t share them. So it’s all right with me that self-publishing authors come to me with, um, challenging books. In fact, helping authors with those challenging books can be fun, at least sometimes. And I learn a lot.

Daniel LaLond Jr. spent four years of his life researching and writing The Lying Promise: Testing the Gospel According to Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans,and Erwin W. Lutzer. (ISBN: 0-9768960-0-1) Dan was clear that this lengthy work of apologetics (I had to look that one up, too) is intended to persuade people who already share his fundamental premise that the Bible is the word of God and that he understands that people who do not share that premise will not be moved by his analysis and argument. He knew at the outset that I am in the latter group. Nonetheless, we worked well together. He is a serious author who wrote a serious book attacking what he sees as hypocrisy on the part of some prominent church leaders.

As a copyeditor I helped Dan tighten up his prose; as a typographer, I helped him present his work in an appropriately traditional and serious setting.

Before I was done with that book, Max Palacios approached me with a novel. Poor Max. Max was born in Chile, has lived all over the world during his fascinating life, and speaks five languages. Unfortunately, as he’ll be the first to admit, he does not speak any of them fluently. But Max has a vivid imagination; stories pour out of him. Max has a great memory for details of the cities where he has lived, and he visualizes really interesting characters.

Well, Max wrote his first novel some years ago, in Spanish. Then he paid a Spanish editor, who really did not do a very good job. Then Max paid a translator, who did an even worse job. Then Max found me. Dreaming Away (ISBN: 0-9753846-1-9) is a page turner of an action-adventure novel that explores the metaphysical connection between dreams and reality in a plot that could have been concocted by the late Jorge Luis Borges.

Meanwhile, Max has started sending me chapters of his next novel to edit. Watch this space, as the saying goes.

Before I was done with Dreaming Away I started work on a book that I was not really sure I would enjoy. Boy, was I wrong! The Beast Bowl (ISBN: 0-9777491-0-X), by Tom Chaikin, is a book I think every schoolteacher, coach, and librarian will love. You know those kids—guys, mostly—who are reluctant readers in middle school and high school? They’re into sports, most likely. But what they are not into is “young adult” fiction—books about relationships between angst-ridden teenagers. Well, The Beast Bowl is a book they will enjoy reading and will get something out of, too. And I have to tell you, adults will enjoy the book just as much as kids will. Chaikin has a great ear for dialog and knows how to spin a yarn. Check out the Web site, too. It’s full of great material, including chapter 1, which you are welcome to read. The book is at the printer now and will be available to ship June 30, 2006.

Of course, not every inquiry I get works out. A month ago or so, I was solicited—no, that’s not the right word—I was approached—no, that’s not quite right, either—let me start over. A woman asked me to quote on typesetting her book, which she had already had edited by someone else. The book was a how-to manual for women who want to start a Web business offering escort services. Yes, that kind of escort services, the two hundred to three hundred dollar an hour kind. The author said she had retired from the business and wanted to share her knowledge with younger entrepreneurs. Not being a prude, I quoted her my usual rates for design and typesetting. Alas, she said she could not afford my rates and would be getting the job done cheaper elsewhere. I am so proud of myself for not drawing the obvious analogy to potential customers of her services going elsewhere for lower prices. So proud. In any case, you have to admit that was a pretty funny reason for not getting the job.

My wife's ex-husband …

… is a nice guy, and he needed a Web site for his business about the same time I was starting my own independent business. So I quoted a price and he gave me the job.

The thing is, he’s in the pallet business. He has a small company in Connecticut that builds shipping pallets. You need one special pallet? He’ll build it. You need 10,000 pallets? He'll build them. Glamorous it ain’t.

And his customers are, for the most part, the purchasing departments of manufacturing companies. Have you ever spent time in a purchasing department of a manufacturing company? I have. Bunch of gray, steel desks with gray, steely, old guys sitting behind them. A wowie-zowie Flash site is not going to impress them. They are looking for price and delivery, not pretty pictures.

So I had to hit just the right balance. The site had to look industrial, maybe a little corny even. I tried to evoke the look of a 1960s-era industrial brochure, and I think I did that pretty well.

Peter tells me that the site brings inquiries regularly and that he has quit advertising in the Yellow Pages as a result. He has saved more than the cost of the site just from that alone. I designed a modest AdWords campaign that is targeted to his exact geographic specifications (it does not pay to ship pallets long distances, obviously); and he’s happy.

My quandary is that even though the site represents a successful design project from a business standpoint, it really is not the sort of thing designers like to put in a portfolio, because it is just as ugly as I intended it to be.

An oldie to get started: the serial comma

[This is an edited version of a post to the techwr-l mailing list on January 28, 2006]

I’ve noticed, over the last few years, that supposedly well-edited books—bestselling nonfiction and fiction from large, old-line trade houses, often in a second or third or later printing, after which there is no excuse for residual errors—have quite a lot of internal inconsistency in comma use in general (not just the use of the Oxford comma*), something I find annoying and mildly distracting as a reader.

What seems to be happening is that modern writers and editors have backed completely away from the notion that comma use should follow a consistent set of formal rules. Instead, they’ve gone back to the earliest historic use of the comma’s precursor, the breath mark, and now use the comma only or at least primarily to indicate rhythm. I honestly don’t know whether this trend is the leading edge of a self-conscious nouvelle vague or if it is just testament to dumbing down of American education through the triumph of Whole Language over traditional teaching methods.

Of course the above observation does not apply to all books. Some writers write for the eye; others write for the ear. In the former group, you’re likely to find fairly consistent, rules-based commas usage. It’s the latter group where authors get uppity with editors about putting commas in odd places so that the prose “sounds right.”

In any case, for technical writing and, indeed, any business writing that falls outside the marketing communications (marcom) umbrella, as well as for most other kinds of nonfiction, keeping the Oxford comma is the safest choice. For marcom, it’s usually better to drop it, whether you are following AP style for a news release or writing a print ad. However, this requires great care in crafting sentences to avoid any potential ambiguity.

When I’m editing fiction, I don’t use the Oxford comma.

* The Oxford comma, sometimes called the Harvard comma or serial comma, is the comma that separates the penultimate item in a series from the following conjunction. The usual argument for it is that it eliminates ambiguity. The usual argument against it is that it is redundant. If you see the comma as a mark indicating that a conjunction has been omitted (red and white and blue) then it looks redundant. If you see it as a pause or as a formal separator, it does not look redundant.

Luddites 'R' Us

I dunno about this whole blogging thing. Old dog. New trick. I guess I’ll try it for a while and see what happens.

Now don’t get me wrong; I may be a Luddite, but I'm comfortable with technology. I started programming computers (in numeric machine language) in 1963. And I write standards-compliant HTML today. Sure, I used to set foundry type in a composing stick. But I’ve also kept up with the latest advances in digital typography.

I’ve been an active Usenet participant for a decade or so. So it’s not like I don't know how to do this. It’s just, well, it’s just going to take some getting used to. But give me a few weeks and I’ll get the hang of it.