July 2008

Great advice from Zadie Smith via Jonah Lehrer: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith is talking about writing novels and says that “the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

While those of us writing shorter pieces under some form of deadline can’t put pieces away for years – or days – we can still use a few tricks to create some distance from our own sentences so we can try to read them as if someone else wrote them. In brief, anything that keeps you from silently rereading the draft straight through from beginning to end will help overcome the tendency to think, “It made sense when I wrote it and it still makes sense.”

  • No matter how little time you have to write a draft, break the process down into steps: note taking, drafting, taking a break, editing. The longer the break, the better able you’ll be to come back to the draft with an editor’s eye.
  • Develop a personal editing checklist and edit for just one thing at a time. See this checklist on The Writing Wiki.
  • If you didn’t use an outline to write the draft, create an outline from what you wrote. This will help you see the structure instead of getting lost in the flow.
  • Read your draft aloud, have your computer read your it to you, or have someone else read it to you.
  • Read the paragraphs in random order to break up the flow. Examine each one for logic and sentencing.
  • Read the sentences in reverse order starting at the end of the draft.
  • If you write at a computer, print out a draft and read it on paper.

According to the Associated Press, Merriam-Webster recently decided 100 new words were worthy of inclusion in the latest edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Why so few?

Among the words are pescatarian (a fish-eating vegetarian), infinity pool (an outdoor pool with an edge disappearing into the horizon), dirty bomb, and netroots.

I love these particular words and some of the others cited in the article, but overall the collection seems arbitrary – why these and only these? The explanation included in the article (which I won’t quote since this is an AP story) relies on subjectivity, which is understandable but begs the question of whose experience and resulting subjectivity constitute sufficient authority.

Ah, the pros at Merriam-Webster.

Which brings up the role of dictionaries and to what extent we should be relying on them. If I want to use a common word that hasn’t yet made it into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a word such as, uh, conjobulated, am I wrong? Should English teachers redline such usage if my readers understand it?

Since dictionaries often disagree – will the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford American Dictionary include the same 100 words? – it’s important not to think of any one dictionary as the arbiter of the words you can use. (And of course there are those who think we shouldn’t be adding any new words or new uses of existing words, but I dismiss these folks as eccentric and unimaginative and relegate them to a parenthetical.)

A useful dictionary evolves over time to reflect how we actually use words – though long publishing cycles mean they live most of their lives out of date. And their real value is not in dictating what words we can use, but as a resource for understanding words we encounter but don’t recognize. That is, they can help us understand what we are reading or listening to, and they can help us build a larger working vocabulary.

Writers, however, need to focus on their readers and the words their readers use and understand. Think about it. What’s more important, being right according to some arbitrary standard or communicating effectively? Both you say? Then which dictionary (or grammar book or language watcher) do you believe?

Instead, be an aggressive reader and listener. If you demand that what you encounter makes sense, then you will refine your understanding of how words – old and new – are used, and you can refer to dictionaries as needed. For words not in your dictionary, search them out on the Internet and try sites like Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary and Urban Word of the Day

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that you use any word any way you want. Remember Humpty Dumpty. But feel free to enjoy the full richness of our constantly changing language, as long as you take your readers or listeners into account, so you are communicating clearly and effectively whatever your purpose may be.


Speaking of being conjobulated, it’s clear that what’s happening offline is happening online as well, as indicated by a growing number of articles about the problems of information overload and multitasking. I’ve collected a few on The Writing Wiki.

This from an article on The New Atlantis:

“In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, ‘Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.’”

There’s some serious irony in this quote from “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” by Matt Richtel:

“The E-Mail Addict feature in Gmail is more of a blunt instrument. Clicking the ‘Take a break” link turns the screen gray, and a message reads: ‘Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!’”

Get some real work done in fifteen minutes?

And social media just seem to add to the problem. From Betsy Schiffman in a Wired blog post on Web 2.0 Expo Preview: Torture by Information Overload:

“Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink.

“Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.”

It’s clear that it isn’t just how much information there is but also the messy way it’s delivered. Facebook and Twitter pump out so much information, I feel I have to check in regularly if I don’t want to miss something important, but by design they display all posts as equal, so I have to look at everything, try in vain to distinguish what might be of value from all the noise, and then follow several links, by which time I’ve lost any momentum I had on a project.

Attempts to adjust workplace habits with 15-minute breaks from email or even email-free days are feeble and don’t account for emergent activity, or for the entrenched attitude that the constant information flow has high value.

What’s needed is a fundamental reevaluation of how we relate to technology, but if this happens, it will likely be the result of a slow self-correcting evolution spurred by profit and nurtured by technology itself in the form of user channels that separate important and unimportant flows and artificial intelligence that learns from profiles and usage patterns how to distinguish important information for the user.

Or maybe it really is my age, and young people growing up in the midst of the flow will give the lie to research conducted by their elders and be just as productive and just as scholarly as any other generation. After all, it’s hard to miss the irony of baby boomers –the first generation to grow up watching far too much television, who were still smart enough and productive enough to lead another major technology revolution – now being worried about the participation of their kids and grandkids in a far less passive technology.