© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 31, 2008

This is just fun

It's also an example of great editing. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You're going to like this.

Maybe they're Not The Rockefellers, but Rene's posts are absolutely rich. If you've never been to her blog, don't waste any more time. Use the link and head on over to her "big bowl of quirky with a side of sass." You're going to be glad you did. I guarantee it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

If you know the words . . .

The following sentence has a problem:

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

Years ago, I had a friend that used to play guitar and sing at coffee houses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. One night he got up on stage, sat on a stool at the microphone, and said, "I've been busy all week and didn't get a chance to prepare anything for tonight. So we're just going to have 10 minutes of silence." Then he just sat there with his guitar cradled in his arms. There were a few laughs scattered throughout the audience at first, and they began to accumulate the longer he sat there. Then he broke up the room when he said. "That's okay. If you know the words, sing along."

Over the last couple of years, I've been working sporadically on composing a blues opera based on the execution of John the Baptist. Now let me stop right here and say I'm no musician. I took piano lessons for a few years when I was a kid but quit because I wasn't any good. When my own kids were small we bought a piano so they could take piano lessons. (They're all good musicians. My oldest son and my daughter are fantastic pianists and can play just about any instrument you hand them, and my second son plays bass in a band.) So I played around on the piano and taught myself a few songs so that people didn't laugh any more when I sat down at the keyboard.

My first wife got the piano when we divorced, and it wasn't until years later that S and I splurged and got a piano of our own. She had never played and wanted to, so we both signed up for lessons. And that's how I got into composing a blues opera. I had a fantastic teacher who believed in letting me set my own curriculum. He also made what I wrote but couldn't play sound fantastic when he played it.

There is a point to all of this. One of the hardest things for a non musician and novice composer to do is hear the natural interplay of music and words. So one of the mistakes I kept making was throwing away strong emphasis on weak syllables, or in scoring, I wouldn't hear the incomplete measure at the start of a score. That means I would write the music starting with the downbeat rather than holding the down beat for two preliminary beats. Or I'd have the wrong time signature. For instance I'd think I was writing in 4/4, but when my teacher would look at and play the piece, it would be obvious to him I was using 5/4, and so he'd help me figure out how to correctly count the beats and re score the music. My ear got better, but I still have problems with that. And even though I would play the melody line with the proper emphasis in my head, someone else who is a musician would look at the score and play it a different way.

So what's all this have to do with the sentence at the beginning? Here's another one with the same issue.

It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.

I studied rhetoric in graduate school with Ed Corbet, and he used to say one of the most common mistakes writers make is not reading their writing out loud. That's because, like music, language has natural rhythms. And when a writer disrupts the flow of those rhythms, that writer creates places where a reader is going to stumble. When I missed the upbeat at the start of a score, I created a place where a performer is going to stumble or at least miss the correct emphasis. And that's very much similar to what's happened in the two problem sentences, each of which was written by a different writer. If you read the first sentence out loud --

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

you should be able to hear the violated rhythm. Now move the phrase at the end to the beginning:

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen is advised.

The "is advised" is awkward and stilted, but at least the sentence flows more naturally. It doesn't cause a reader to stumble, and the writer gets a bonus after making the change. It's easier to see the need to think about changing "is advised" to, perhaps, something like

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen should be used. (or "is best" or is required)

Now try doing the same thing to the second problematic sentence.
It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.
When you know the words, you can sing along; when you hear the beat, you can play the song.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another sign of the time

Maybe it's because I don't get my nails done. But there's something about this sign I saw outside a nail salon in one of our neighborhood strip malls (or as they're called now, outdoor malls) that seems to make it fall short of the desired advertising effect:

"The cleanest salon in town"

Is that really a problem?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I stole this

I stole this from Phil's Phun. It's priceless. Don't miss the final image. (If Phil wants me to give it back, I will.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

It's not uncommon in my profession to become frustrated with . . .

I just spent the day taking commas out of where they don't belong in people's sentences and putting them in where they do. I'd much rather be reading and writing poetry. That's my true passion. It's been over four years since my first book of poems was published, and I'm not very close to having a second collection ready to go. Of course, I make more money editing and writing non creative pieces for my clients. That's the first frustration.

Work, as we all know, expands to fill the available time. That's the second frustration. It shouldn't have taken me all day to push commas around. I should have had plenty of time to do something creative. Unfortunately, I always do my best creative work when I have the least time to do it.

And now for the third frustration--it's the way some writers I work with use the language. Consider this sentence I came across yesterday while I was editing an article about chemotherapy:

"It’s not uncommon to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head."

Why did the writer need so many layers in that sentence? The reader has to peel away two layers of negatives at the head of the sentence to get to the meaning. And the "not" in the beginning sets up a head on collision with the not at the end. Because the phrase at the end seems as if it could be parallel with the opening of the sentence (which it really isn't), the reader has a hard time knowing what's being negated at the end. The fact that what's being negated is an unspoken assumption -- that chemotherapy only causes the hair on top the head to fall out -- only compounds the confusion. Making the sentence work isn't that hard. All the writer needed to do was be direct:

It’s common to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head.

But it isn't all frustration for me today. I just got an email from a colleague who does the same kind of work I do, only she does it in an office with other people around. In the email she said: "The fog here on the 24th floor is pretty impressive right now." That created all kinds of wonderful images. I knew she meant outside the windows of the 24th floor (it's been raining in Atlanta -- wonder of wonders). But I like what went through my mind when I took her sentence at face value.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Horses and words

I don't know anything about showing horses, and I've only ridden maybe twice, maybe three times in my life. But I found a fascinating blog this morning that I think is worth the visit. It's called Behind the Bit, and it's written by Stacey Kimmel-Smith.

I like reading people who use the language well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More about location

Emphasis isn't the only reason to be concerned about where something goes in a sentence. Here's an example that illustrates how important location is. It comes from an article I was editing yesterday.

"Remember to drink plenty of water each day, to eat foods high in fiber, and to exercise to prevent constipation."

Technically there's nothing wrong with the sentence -- except the meaning is not clear. Are all three items in the series -- drinking water, eating, and exercising -- related to preventing constipation? Or is it just exercise that prevents it? The sentence could be read either way, and a reader most likely isn't going to stop to work it out. So even if two out of every three readers understand the sentence correctly, the writer is still going to leave one third of the audience in the dark. This problem can be avoided by moving "to prevent constipation" ahead of the series rather than at the end of it.

"To prevent constipation, you need to drink plenty of water each day, eat foods high in fiber, and exercise."

(The "remember to" didn't really add anything to the meaning of the sentence.) Now, preventing constipation has provided context for all three actions in the series, something that's best accomplished at the beginning of a sentence. If the context is left until the end, a reader needs to go back and apply it to what he or she has just read. The effect is like tripping over a crack in the sidewalk.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Phun Place

If you haven't been to Phils Phun yet, you should go. Then anytime you need a respite, you'll thank yourself for doing so.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Got fleas?

S and I saw this sign over the weekend:

"Humane Society Flea Market"


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Location, Location, Location

Just a quick observation about the end of a sentence. The end of a sentence is its most emphatic part. So what you want to put at the end is what you want the reader to come away remembering. Here's a sentence the way it was originally written from an article I recently edited.

"Still, some doctors advise avoiding sex in the last few weeks of pregnancy as a general safety precaution."

What is the most important thing for the reader to focus on? It's not the fact that there's a general safety precaution. It's when sex should be avoided. Moving the final phrase earlier in the sentence, puts the emphasis where it belongs.

"Still, as a general safety precaution, some doctors advise avoiding sex in the last few weeks of pregnancy."

Now the reader has a much better chance of remembering the advice.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008 -- Poverty

Forty percent of the homeless population in the United States is made up of families -- parents and children -- who need all the same things the rest of us do -- food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Over the past several months, On Call, which is an online magazine published by the Boston Globe for allied health professionals, has been running a series of articles on agencies in Massachusetts that are working to address the health needs of the members of this underclass. They are well worth the look.

The current article by Susan Wessling describes the work being done by nurses who work with the Mercy Medical Center's Health Care for the Homeless program in Springfield, Massachusetts. The program provides "on-site care at 46 locations—shelters, soup kitchens, job placement sites, transitional programs—and on the street. Services—which include assessment, intervention, episodic care, referrals, follow-up appointments, and education—are delivered in three counties (Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire) across 1,800 square miles."

In an article that appeared in August, On Call writer Janet Cromer and photographer David Stone accompanied a woman who was an inpatient at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program's McInnis House as the facilities were moved to a new location.

And in an April article Janet Cromer wrote an interesting overview of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program's effort to ensure health care for families in the greater Boston area.

On Call's editor Joseph Saling says in an editor's note that the final article in the series will describe the efforts of a street team in Boston that goes out from shelters to find homeless individuals on the street who need care. All three of the above articles are worth viewing. And I'm looking forward to reading the final article in the series.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's quite a site

E.K. Wimmer is the husband of Maria Rose, aka at little things are big as The Kindness Bandit. They are both artists, and together they've created a fascinating Web site called Planet Wimmer. There is lots to see and enjoy there. It's well worth the visit.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And the prize goes to

A few odds and ends this morning.

(1) Found this sentence yesterday in an article I'm editing:
Strattera is the first medication to receive an FDA indication for treatment of ADHD in adults.
I'm certain the source the writer consulted used the word "indication." The problem is the work the writer was doing is meant for a health consumer audience, not a medical or pharmaceutical audience. It's like the writer simply took the information in but didn't have time to digest it before spilling it back out. Had the writer taken the time to think about what the sentence meant in the day to day language of the audience she was writing for, then she would have at least used the word "approval."

But the problem with the sentence is actually more basic than that. The sentence appeared in a section about what medical treatment is used for adults with ADHD. Here's the sentence before the one in question:

If stimulant medications have bothersome side effects or are not effective, your doctor might recommend atomoxetine (Strattera), a non stimulant medication.

The real problem with the FDA sentence is that it doesn't add anything to the reader's understanding. Since the reader is not going to be writing prescriptions, then it doesn't matter that Strattera is the first -- or only -- medication approved for this use. What question the reader probably will have is, "What is a non stimulant medication, and how is it different than the other medications?" And that's because the real question the reader is going to have is, "How will this medication affect me?"

(2) Speaking of digesting....When I was a young (er, relatively young) teacher, I had a freshman composition class and we were studying the use of figurative language. One of the students asked me what a mixed metaphor is. I stumbled through an answer and searched my brain frantically to come up with an example.

That afternoon, I went to an American literature seminar, and the professor, for some reason, wanted to discuss the value of seminars in a graduate program.

One of the women in the seminar, who had actually passed her generals and was working on her dissertation, said:

Oh, I love seminars. To me they're just like this huge, delicious smorgasbord where I can pick and choose and try things on for size.

It took me a week to get rid of the image of her walking down the street wearing a wardrobe made out of mashed potatoes and caviar.

(3) I got an email this morning with the subject line, "I hate to edit the Word mechanic. That being said...". It came from my son :

From a recent post:
"There are two questions you here all the time in certain circles in places like Birmingham: "Who's your mother?"

I fixed it. Now I'll have to have a conversation with him about the use of internal quotation marks.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I didn't list any favorite music in my profile

She's not every one's cup of tea. But people who like her, really like her.

The first time I saw Bjork and learned who she is was the 2000 movie Dancer in the Dark. S and I were one of six couples in the theater. That was all. By the end, when the lights came up, every single person in the theater was crying--most, actually, sobbing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More Words I Like

My first nominee for words I like is "Kindness Bandit." You should drop by and check it out.

When S and I lived in Birmingham, we joined the only Unitarian Universalist church in town. It wasn't S's but it was my first time living in the south, and finding the UU community was like finding a safe place while learning a new culture. Now Birmingham is a good place to live. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a marvelous tribute to the people who struggled and are still struggling for justice and for treating people the way they should be treated. You get a real sense of what happened there throughout the city's history, not just during the fifties and sixties. And there are fabulous (and some not so fabulous) galleries spread throughout the city and multiple arts festivals with some really great artists and juried shows throughout the year.

But there are things that aren't so great. The company that S was going to work for moved us, and the realtor was chosen by the relocation company. We only had a few days to be there and find a house and moving down from New Jersey we were impressed by two things. The first was the size house we could buy for the money we had, and the second was how integrated the neighborhoods are -- at least the neighborhoods in the price range we were exploring. So at lunch on the second day, I asked about how race relations had evolved, given Birminham's history. The realtor's response was there really is no problem and things were never the way they were portrayed by the media. She said things were good and there wasn't any tension now. Then she added, "There are issues. But I don't understand what they have to complain about. They own all of downtown." We let the remark go -- I know, we shouldn't have. We did, though, because we needed to find a house and didn't have time to find another realtor. But we moved off the subject of race. Then the realtor saw a friend whom she invited over to the table and introduced us to. The very first question he asked us was what church we belonged too. And the next thing he did was invite us to attend his church when we came back to town.

There are two questions you hear all the time in certain circles in places like Birmingham: "Who's your mother?" ("mama" actually) and "What church do you belong to?" Now that second question gets asked a lot of different ways, and sometimes kids who don't go to church get targeted by their classmates. It's almost like a contest to see which classmate can get the unchurched kid to join his or her church.

Which brings me to the second set of words I like. We joined the UU church and then were invited to a reception for new members hosted by the church board. At one point we were all out on the patio of a beautiful home of an artist who belonged to the congregation, and the president of the board suggested we take turns introducing ourselves and say something about how we came to be a UU. As we took turns, a board member gave her name and talked very briefly about her religious upbringing and her growing away from the church. Then she explained how she had had happened to join the Birmingham UU community:

"I became a UU," she said, "because I got tired of telling people I home churched my kids."

Monday, October 6, 2008

More Today's Quotes

There are lots of reasons to not like Georgia governor Sonny Perdue. For instance, one of his main responses to the drought we are experiencing was to schedule a day of prayer and ask all the church leaders in the state to lead prayers for rain. Or during the recent gas shortage, Mr. Perdue saw no reason not to go to Spain and leave the supply issue and public panic to resolve itself. On the op ed page of this morning's Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the headline "The Great Sonny Perdue Gas Debacle of 2008," Luc P. Noiset, an associate economics professor at Kennesaw State, took the good governor to task for one of the actions he did take during the shortage. While Noiset's criticism was not particularly justified or on target, he did turn a nice phrase, which the editor recognized and used as a call out:

"When naive voters vote for naive government leaders, they get naive government policies and suffer the consequences."

(The editor did leave out the comma, though.) And now, here's another one from Pearls Before Swine:

"A man's laugh should not sound like a weasel dying at the gates of hell."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

They're sneaky little devils

Redundancies are often subtle. Very often they simply carry over from our patterns of speech. But part of a writer's job is to be conscious of how he or she is using words and whether clutter is getting in the way of making the message in the text clear. Here's a redundancy at the very end of an article for new mothers that I was editing yesterday evening:

"Most likely, the women in your life have had those same questions, too."

Now on first reading, that doesn't seem so bad, and it sounds almost right. But it is the end of the article, and the writer wants to leave the reader with a strong impression. Now, read the sentence without the "too."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Today's Quotes

Here are a couple of quotes to get us through the day. The first one's in honor of it being a Saturday in October:

"In Wisconsin, a spread offense means eating bread with margarine instead of butter." (Rob Oller, The Columbus Dispatch)

It will be 52 degrees at game time in Madison.

Now on a more serious note (although some people, including S, would tell you I take few things more seriously than Buckeye Football):

"Which amounts to saying that true union (that is spiritual union, or union in synthesis) differentiates the elements it brings together. This is no paradox, but the law of all experience. Two beings never love one another with a more vivid consciousness of themselves than when each is swallowed up in the other." (Piere Teilhard de Chardin)

Think about it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

This one's worth the visit.

If you haven't seen the blog Lily's Life yet, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Even traitors can be heroes

I like spy novels -- John LeCare, Daniel Silva, Len Deighton, Victor O'Reily. I like their existential essence. I get lost in the shadows of their moral border crossings. And I relish the idea that even in such foggy out lands and dreary back streets of a soft October night where, as Eliot says, the yellow smoke curls about the house and falls asleep, there can still be heroes, albeit weary and uncharacteristic ones.