Book review: Plain Language and Ethical Action

Clear communication advocates are used to telling prospective clients about the practical benefits—the savings in time, money, and effort—of plain language. But many plain language practitioners (and I’m among them) are motivated by more than the efficiency and expediency of a clear message. To us, demanding clarity and plain language is an overtly political act meant to redress power imbalances. Russell Willerton, who teaches in the technical communication program at Boise State University, gives ethical context to these interactions in his new book, Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2015).

This book, Willerton explains in the preface, “is the first to focus on the ethical impacts of plain language: plain language gives citizens and consumers better access to their rights, and it combats the information apartheid that convoluted, overly complicated documents generate.” (p. xiii) He introduces what he calls the BUROC framework, used to identify

  • Bureaucratic,
  • Unfamiliar,
  • Rights Oriented, and
  • Critical

situations that call for plain language as an ethical imperative. Whereas other technical communication textbooks “provide extensive analysis of ethical scenarios that are drastic and dramatic, such as stealing intellectual property, fabricating or misrepresenting data, or whistleblowing” (p. xv), which don’t happen very often, Plain Language and Ethical Action focuses on more common situations that nevertheless raise important ethical issues. For example,

Plain-language laws and policies extend citizens’ freedoms: plain language bolsters the authority of law and respect for the justice system. The public’s right to understand the law coincides with the responsibility to follow the law. (p. 19)

Designed to be a resource in technical communication courses, each chapter ends with questions and exercises that reinforce the chapter’s concepts.

Willerton casts a wide net and approaches the topic of ethics and plain language from several directions, first introducing his BUROC model and summarizing quantitative and qualitative results from a survey he conducted with plain language practitioners around the world. These experts reviewed and commented on the BUROC framework and shared their perspectives on the relationship between plain language and ethics. Plain-language consultant Frances Gordon expressed a view similar to my own, saying, “I think that plain language without ethics is pointless. I believe that an ethical view is what differentiates plain language from related disciplines” (p. 61)

What makes a plain language communication ethical? Willerton provides an overview of ethics in the technical and professional communication literature, drawing heavily from philosopher Martin Buber’s writings about dialogic ethics. Buber contrasts I–It relationships, in which the communicator talks down to the other party, with I–You relationships, which involves respecting the other party and engaging in a meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas. Ethical plain language is based on an I–You paradigm, and the two sides, despite their differences, work to meet at what Buber calls the narrow ridge, where communication can truly take place. Writes Willerton:

Through dialogic ethics and the ideal of the I–You relationship, the importance of clarity becomes paramount. The dialogic approach requires rhetors to view the audience not merely as important, but as essential to their own being. (p. 52)

Because plain language resources rarely get this theoretical, I read this chapter with great interest. At the core of ethical plain language, Willerton argues, is the dialogue between the communicator and the user, which lets the former be sensitive to the needs and limitations of the latter. The concepts he unearths in his review of technical communication literature share parallels with Howard Giles’s communication accommodation theory, which says that two parties hoping to communicate will adjust their speech patterns and mannerisms to minimize the differences between them. Under-accommodation can mean that the message won’t get through, whereas over-accommodation can be perceived as condescending. Striking the right balance of accommodation can be an iterative process involving continual feedback between the sender of the message and its recipient.

Willerton shows how these theories apply in practical terms for five initiatives:

“Each of these groups challenges the power differential that separates experts from nonexperts,” writes Willerton, “empowering consumers to act.” (p, 173)

The book also features in-depth profiles of six projects or organizations—many of them previous winners of the Center for Plain Language’s annual ClearMark Awards—that have applied ethical plain language practices to fulfill their mandates. These deeper dives include

  • Healthwise, a health information company in based in Boise, Idaho;
  • Civic Design, motivated by the butterfly ballot fiasco in the 2000 US elections to help county elections officials produce clear election materials;
  • the multi-year restyling of the Federal Court Rules;
  • CommonTerms, a volunteer-led effort in Sweden to simplify the terms and conditions that come with software;
  • Health Literacy Missouri, which provides health literacy training; and
  • Kleimann Communication Group, which produced mortgage documents that complied with the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).

These deep dives give us a fascinating inside look into creative operations, small and large, that take plain language seriously. As a plain-language practitioner, I’m always looking for success stories to promote the cause of clear communication, and Willerton’s case studies are a treasure trove. They also show that the plain language community, though growing, is still small, and that the familiar names within these profiles are part of a collegial, supportive group of advocates working internationally to further the same cause.

Plain Language and Ethical Action is a refreshing synthesis of the informal conversations we’ve been having about what makes plain language a movement rather than simply a process or technique. I don’t hesitate to recommend this book to clear communication proponents, although I don’t think I’ll be using the BUROC framework in my own work. To me, the framework implies that situations in which plain language should be used are exceptions, but I prefer to think of them as the rule. Like universal precautions in healthcare to prevent infectious disease, plain language should be the default, with rare exceptions (for example, if you want to use abstruseness for literary effect, or if you are among specialists of equal expertise and jargon makes communication more efficient). I would also have loved to see Willerton take a risk and depart from the standard expectations of an academic monograph. (For one, I didn’t find the book’s subtitle particularly plain!) These minor quibbles aside, I’m grateful that Willerton has, with this book, given plain language practitioners the start of what I think will be an engaging and important conversation.

Book review: The Sense of Style

We humans have been speaking for a lot longer than we’ve been writing, which is why the former comes to us so much more naturally. When we write, explains Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the physical and temporal distance between us and our audience means it’s impossible to monitor their body language and adjust how we’re communicating to keep them engaged. That distance also makes it easy for us to lose sight of our audience entirely.

But if we aspire to what literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner called classic style, we can make our writing as effortless to read as holding a conversation. “The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world,” says Pinker. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” (pp. 28–29)

Keeping this metaphor in mind can help you steer clear of the hallmarks of stuffy prose: the self-conscious hedging, the tedious signposting, the metadiscourse, as well as nominalizations (Pinker borrows Helen Sword’s term, “zombie nouns”) and excessive use of passive voice. Yet, it also highlights why some of those devices can be useful. The passive, for example, can help steer your reader’s attention toward the receiver of an action, if that’s where you’d like her to look, and a nominalization can be an economical way to refer to a topic you’ve just introduced. As Pinker says:

The advice to bring zombie nouns back to life as verbs and to convert passives into actives is ubiquitous in style guides and plain language laws… But it’s good advice only when a writer or editor understands why it’s being offered. No English construction could have survived in the language for a millennium and a half unless it had continued to serve some purpose, and that includes passives and nominalizations. They may be overused, and often they are badly used, but that does not mean they should not be used at all. (p. 55)

Pinker encourages writers (and editors, by extension) to be discerning and to think critically about communicative effect, which is what sets The Sense of Style apart from other writing guides. It is not just a list of dos and don’ts, although the final chapter, “Telling right from wrong,” does cover which so-called rules you can safely ignore (perhaps grammatical rules that careful writers and speakers regularly break are not rules at all) and which you should probably heed. The motivation for following these rules, though, should not be the self-righteousness of being correct but the desire to be as clear as possible without irritating your readers—some of whom may have been taught to live by the sticklers’ and pedants’ old-school rules. Another of this book’s distinguishing features is that it grounds its advice on evidence, not just an intuitive sense of what reads well—as useful as that intuition may be for strong writers and editors. Pinker offers us psycholinguistic insight into why separating a subject from its predicate makes a sentence harder to read and why negative statements take longer to process than positive ones. It seems the common trait of stylistic infelicities is that they all slow a reader down.

The source of a lot of bad writing, says Pinker, is what he calls the curse of knowledge: forgetting that our readers don’t know exactly what we do. When we fail to give enough background or properly define a term, we risk confusing the reader. Similarly, if, when moving from one sentence to the next, we don’t show how the two are related semantically, we can leave the reader stranded. The strongest writers, says Pinker, are those that have mastered connectives: coordinators and subordinators (what we’ve traditionally called conjunctions), as well as phrases like “in contrast,” and “on the other hand.”

Pinker’s terminology may differ a bit from what many of us learned in school, and for good reason. When we were taught that “Adam’s” in “Adam’s apple” is an adjective, we conflated grammatical category (genitive noun) with grammatical function (determiner). It’s not that “ice” in “ice cream” has magically turned from noun to adjective but that nouns may function as modifiers. To great effect, Pinker uses the “sentence as tree” metaphor, using tree diagrams, ubiquitous in linguistics, to show how a sentence can be parsed. English, he explains, is a right-branching language: we expect new information to be added on as we move from the beginning of a sentence to the end. Too many left branches, as in a noun string, where we have to store a bunch of modifiers before we get to the thing being modified, gobbles up our working memory. We don’t have to create tree diagrams to write effective sentences, but they are another tool in our toolkit that we can reach for to help us untangle unwieldy prose.

Pinker covers an enormous swath of territory in this eminently sensible guide, from diction to syntax to paragraph structure and beyond, and I can’t even begin to do it justice in this short review. Editors will find The Sense of Style illuminating, hilarious, and (for all but the most pedantic sticklers) affirming. Pinker’s guidance resonates with my own approach to editing (although, counter to his advice, I’ll stay away from using “which” in a restrictive sense—for now), and it’s a refreshing change from the prescriptivist writing guides that don’t account for language change or register. I delighted in reading about such topics as how punctuation restores some of the prosody of spoken language—intonation, emphasis, pauses—and how the demise of “whom” and the subjunctive mood has been exaggerated. (The book, incidentally, also has a great index, which extends its life from an effervescent read to what will undoubtedly be a much-consulted reference.)

“Credible guidance on writing must itself be well written,” says Pinker in the prologue, “and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.” (p. 1) This book is no exception. The prose in The Sense of Style is ambrosia, and I guzzled it greedily.

Book review: Supercommunicator: Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand

supercommunicator_1Frank J. Pietrucha is a communications specialist whose company, Definitive Communications, specializes in making highly technical topics accessible and meaningful to different audiences. It counts among its clients the International Intellectual Property Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Pietrucha’s book, Supercommunicator, was published by AMACOM, the book-publishing division of the American Management Association, and I was curious to see whether his advice to managers would jibe with the clear communication principles that plain language specialists are familiar with.

It does, for the most part, and Pietrucha is clear about the motivation for his book: “Every day great ideas fall by the wayside because they weren’t properly explained. To be successful in an increasingly competitive marketplace, you need to articulate a clear and easy-to-understand message to all relevant parties. Financiers, management, stockholders, board members, regulators, clients, analysts, and employees all demand clarity from you—and these days, business people don’t have the interest or patience to wade through ineffective communications.” (p. 5)

Pietrucha practises what he preaches, offering readers short, digestible chunks of information and advice in a conversational tone. The 230 pages of text are divided into nine parts—including “How digital technology is changing communication,” “Know thy audience,” and “Simplicity and clarity”—each with one to six brief chapters, so the book is a quick, unintimidating read. There’s a lot to like in this book:

It looks at more than one way to deliver a message

Pietrucha tackles not only written communication but also offers advice about how to give effective presentations. The goal of communicating in whatever form, he says, is not simply to give your audience information but to bring them meaning. Those of us who work in editing or in plain language likely focus a disproportionate amount of our energy on achieving comprehension and could learn a thing or two about how best to achieve persuasion; Supercommunicator deftly bridges that divide with solid tips about how to get your audience to care, by using storytelling, examples, and analogies to anchor the new information to their own experiences.

Throughout the book Pietrucha also highlights the importance of getting comfortable with digital media, which can offer new ways of reaching people, from videos that enhance a text to interactive infographics and data visualizations. He supports his advice with research from authoritative sources, including developmental molecular biologist John Medina, who, in establishing that “vision is our most dominant sense,” (p. 193) argues for the primacy of images over text, as well as Finnish researchers Kristian Kiili and Harri Ketamo, who have found that “Most game-based learning today is being done without significant pedagogical input… Players aren’t usually allowed to actively test their hypotheses and discovery new knowledge with what’s currently available.” (p. 224)

The latter example shows the importance of tempering enthusiasm about new communication technologies with sound judgment. Pietrucha writes, “Caught up in the gee-whiz excitement about digital tools, many of us forgot that good communication means bringing insight to an audience, not glitz. The widespread availability of graphics programs has opened a Pandora’s Box of visual stimuli, but much of what’s in there has been meaningless adornment.” (p. 205)

In short, become familiar with what technology can offer, but use it with care.

Supercommunicator advocates for an understanding of, and compassion for, your audience

Plain language folks know that audience is paramount, and Pietrucha is unequivocal about the importance learning as much as you can about what your audience does and doesn’t know when planning your communications:

Research is essential to understand your audience’s level of cultural awareness. The Internet has made the world a smaller place by making it easier for people to connect. This is great—but it also means we need to consider that not everyone who will view our web pages or see our videos will comprehend certain references. There are cultural traits we need to think about if our audience comes from a different part of the country or different country altogether. In the digital age, communicators need to be more sensitive to the fact that their audiences may approach their content from a completely different viewpoint. (pp. 72–73)

The onus, emphasizes Pietrucha throughout the book, is on the sender, not the receiver, to ensure the message gets through.

The book gives guidelines, not rules

As much as our jobs would be easier if we adhered to a black-and-white set of rules, effective communicators need to be flexible and exercise judgement. Writes Pietrucha:

Ideally, most of my suggestions would be embraced by a world ready to communicate complicated content more effectively. But in actuality, some organizations cling to the formality and stilted ways of yesteryears. Your judgment is necessary to determine the applicability of content in this book to your situation. It may be worthwhile for you to be a maverick and forge a new communication style for your company—yet, if you go too far it could mean professional trouble. (p. 6)

In some academic circles, for example, you may have to stick with third-person pronouns and the passive voice to have your communications taken seriously. Fortunately, even in academia the tide may be turning, according to Pietrucha:

Penn State University Professor Joe Schall did an informal survey of forty journals pulled from his university’s technical library to see if the authors of serious academic articles dared tread into the less formal territory of first person. He checked a range of less-than-blockbuster journals such as European Journal of Mineralogy, Spray Technology and Marketing, and Water Resources Journal and came up with some surprising results. He discovered that in thirty-two of the forty journals he surveyed, the authors “made liberal use of ‘I’ and ‘we’.” Schall concludes that the principle of third-person-only is either outdated or is in flux. (pp. 153–154)

Other “rules,” such as using short words and short sentences, can make for monotonous reading if unthinkingly applied. Judiciously bending or breaking those rules adds colour to communications and helps keeps audiences engaged.

The author is eminently quotable

For me, reading this book was a bit like being at a pep rally. Although most of the information wasn’t new to me, I still found myself nodding in agreement and busily transcribing passage after passage for quoting. Sometimes, in crafting an argument, you just need a pithy quote from a supportive source, and I’ll have Supercommunicator in my back pocket for just those occasions. I won’t overwhelm you with the 3,900 words I took down, but here are a few I’ll probably find some forum repeat:

Nothing kills good ideas like poorly written text. You could have found the cure for cancer or an alternative power source, but if you can’t articulate your concept clearly and intelligibly, you’re going to have a much harder time getting people to believe your claim. (p. 102)

In our rush to get more information quickly, we have less tolerance for roadblocks that prevent us from getting to the meat of the matter. “Don’t slow me down with big vocabulary words,” or “Don’t use jargon that only geeks can understand,” is the prevalent feeling among today’s digital citizens. (p. 102)

Elaborate words are ineffective if your audience is thinking more about your vocabulary than what you have to say. (p. 112)

Jargon makes people feel excluded. Communicating the complicated is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. (p. 112–113)


Supercommunicator is a quick, affirming read for the plain language specialist, but it could have been much stronger in a few important ways:

Whither the editor?

Pietrucha acknowledges that today’s multimedia communications can be complex affairs that take teams of people—including data visualization specialists, graphic designers, and programmers—to put together. The author even writes:

Make it error free

This is basic communication 101. Errors turn people off. Even if you are a neuroscience genius, you can’t expect your audience to appreciate your thoughts if they’re presented with error-filled content. Errors can destroy your credibility, no matter how smart you are. Use your spell and grammar check programs, but look out for other problems your personal computer may not catch. Work with a colleague to help you clean up your act. (p. 117)

As an editor, I’m always attuned to opportunities to promote the profession, and, consciously or not, Pietrucha missed a big one here. Why “work with a colleague” when professional language specialists can help you polish your text to high standards? Communications teams should always include an editor.

How do you know your communications work?

Although Supercommunicator devotes a section to getting to know your audience, it doesn’t mention user testing and revision as vital components of the clear communication process. It’s misleading to suggest—and naive to believe—that once you’ve done your audience research your communications will automatically be effective.

In a similar vein, learning from your mistakes and refining your communications are implied in the book but not made as explicit as they should be. Becoming an excellent communicator takes practice, and what I think would make this book more useful as a reference is a companion volume that features more before-and-after examples, as well as exercises to hone the communication skills that the book endorses.

Don’t neglect the index!

Nothing kills the potential for a book to become a time-tested reference like a weak index. Whether because of budget, time, or space constraints, this book’s index doesn’t do justice to its contents and will make it harder for a reader to look up specific topics. (Why isn’t there a cross-reference between “infographics” and “graphics”? And why isn’t “respect for audience” double-posted under “audience”?)

No, this book isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have stretched its usefulness and probably increased its readership if it had not only a better index but also more consistently structured chapters. As it stands, the chapters aren’t even organized in a similar way within each major part, which makes it harder for a reader to navigate the book and find the information they need.


Supercommunicator is a great primer or refresher—and I don’t hesitate to recommend it—but a lack of rigour in its organization and shortcomings in its index prevent it from being the indispensable reference it could be. Will it help you become a more effective writer and presenter? Possibly—but certainly not without practice.

Book review: Starting an Indexing Business

You’ve taken indexing courses. Read the indexing chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style and Nancy Mulvaney’s Indexing Books. Bought yourself indexing software.

Now what?

For most would-be indexers hoping to start their own freelancing business (as many of us are now aware), the actual indexing work isn’t the biggest challenge. Getting that work, not to mention managing the financial and administrative details of self-employment, is the tough part, and it’s one that gets very little attention in most indexing reference books. Starting an Indexing Business, edited by Enid Zafran and Joan Shapiro, is a rare exception, offering people who are launching—or considering—a career as a freelance indexer some insider wisdom about running their own business.

The fourth edition of Starting an Indexing Business was published in 2009, but it was recently released as an ebook. With chapters about moonlighting as an indexer while holding down a full-time job by Melanie Krueger, the business of being in business, by Pilar Wyman, and liability and exposure issues for indexers, by Enid Zafran, this book tries to answer a lot of questions that a freelancer just starting out might have. It’s a quick read, and it’s packed with tips from indexing veterans who have spent years in the trenches. Seeing the issues from different indexers’ perspectives is helpful, and the diversity of contributors shows that, despite having similar traits that make us good at what we do, different indexers take different approaches to running their business. Particularly interesting is the debate about whether to invest in disability insurance, with Wyman advocating for it and Zafran saying she didn’t see the need.

Zafran’s chapter about liability has a lot to offer, spurring the reader to think about how best to protect their business and to assert their copyright to make sure they get paid. A sample letter of agreement for indexing services also appears as an appendix to the book, and it serves as a helpful tool for freelancers to communicate clearly with a new client and start off their working relationship on the right foot.

Although the book has plenty of solid advice for new indexers, much of it will be old hat to people who have had a few projects under their belt. Being five years old, it also needs an update. I suspect that cold calling and mailing out brochures to prospective clients, as marketing strategies recommended by a few of the contributors, have largely given way to email enquiries and websites. I would also hope that a fax machine is no longer a must-have in the home office. Workflow and file transfer technologies have also evolved dramatically since the book’s publication, and ebooks and self-publishing have exploded. Further, the book is geared toward a primarily American audience, with references to health insurance and U.S. taxes that wouldn’t apply to Canadian indexers.

New freelancers may find Starting an Indexing Business helpful, although I wouldn’t call it a must-read. For those with a few years’ experience already, there isn’t much in this book that you won’t already know. And beyond the sample letter, I don’t see much in this book that you would refer to time and again, so I’d be inclined to borrow it from the library, if you can. If you do want to add this title to your collection, I’d suggest waiting for an updated edition, so that the advice better reflects current practices and technology.

Book review: The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects

Jim Coutu is an arbitrator who works with freelance job sites; essentially he’s a judge in what he calls “project divorce court.” When a project goes sour, it’s his job to pore over correspondence between the client and freelancer, interpreting often vague contracts to figure out who ultimately gets the money. In other words, he’s an expert in what can go wrong in a project, and he’s written an ebook, The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects, to shed light on common problems and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.

This book fills a critical void: whereas freelancers have banded together to form communities online, whether for stress relief through humour or for advocacy, there aren’t that many resources out there for people on the other side of that relationship. Clients are left to feel out their first projects on their own, and, without guidance, many of them are liable to make mistakes—some of which may start out as minor but can snowball to the point of jeopardizing a project.

Coutu’s background is in software, but his book covers all kinds of outsourcing, from web and graphic design to writing and virtual assistance (although neither editing nor indexing are mentioned). Helpfully, he gives specific tips and examples for each of these areas, as well as more general advice about

  • writing a solid project description so that bidding freelancers will know what you’re looking for
  • assessing the quality of a freelancer
  • paying by the hour versus paying by the project
  • looking out for potential copyright issues
  • keeping projects on schedule
  • working across different cultures and time zones

Coutu offers advice about how best to use the freelance sites’ features to protect yourself. For example, some of these sites will take screen shots of the freelancer’s desktop as they work as proof that they’re billing only for work on your project; the sites will also allow you to hold money in escrow and store a record of all of your correspondence with a freelancer so that an arbitrator can easily review the contract (and any changes to it). Although Coutu advocates care and rigour on the employer’s part, what I appreciate most about the book is that he never describes the client–freelancer relationship as an adversarial one. In fact, one of the first suggestions he gives is to “set the freelancer up for success. Make sure that they have everything that they need before you accept their bid, including specific requirements of what you want completed.” Your aim when using a freelance job site isn’t to get away with paying the least; rather, “the goal for both parties should be to get the work done at a fair price. The employer is happy that the work got done for a fair price, the freelancer is happy that they are paid a fair wage.” He also urges wary employers to consider the freelancers’ perspective: “Remember, the worker is also taking a risk working with an unknown employer who may take their work and not pay them.”

Coutu gives sample arbitration scenarios to show how the process would assess and resolve different kinds of disputes. Not surprisingly, problems in projects often result from poor communication, and Coutu emphasizes that both parties share a responsibility of ensuring that they have a common understanding of the contract. “Ambiguous wording issues are the fault of the employer,” he writes, and if you’re not getting what you need, it’s up to you to communicate clearly what the issues are. “Unfortunately,” Coutu writes, “I have seen many cases where poor feedback and poor feedback alone has caused a project to fail.” When a freelancer doesn’t meet expectations, advises Coutu, “Even if you absolutely hate what has been delivered, resist the temptation to reply with an emotional response. Always be professional.” He adds, “Emotional responses lead to arguments, not discussions.”

Also commendable is Coutu’s attention to copyright issues. He tells employers to be vigilant about running images used in a design through a reverse image search and text through Copyscape or Google to make sure there’s no infringement or plagiarism. He also notes that “freelancers who come from countries where copyrights are not enforced are simply not aware of the issues.”

Although Coutu makes his living as an arbitrator, he advises employers to use arbitration as a last resort, encouraging self-mediation as a first step. “As an arbitrator, I am keenly aware that the arbitration process is difficult for all parties. Even if you have a rock solid case that clearly documents abuses by the other party, arbitration is going to cost time that would be better spent on other endeavors.”

Because this book focuses mostly on one-off projects through online freelance job sites, it probably won’t be terribly useful to managing editors and production managers in publishing, whose day-to-day work involves hiring editors, designers, and indexers for a steady stream of projects. It doesn’t, for instance, suggest places other than freelance job sites—such as member directories of professional associations—to look for skilled freelancers, nor does it address the all-important relationship building and need to create a strong network of professionals you know you can trust to work on project after project. These ties are essential to keeping training costs down and ensuring coverage for all of your projects through the publishing cycle.

In contrast, self-publishers may find a lot of value in this book; some of them may choose to use a freelance job site to find a cover designer, for example, or someone to convert a print book to an EPUB. Unfortunately, The Employer’s Guide isn’t a comprehensive reference for self-publishers, as it doesn’t talk about the role of editors or indexers at all. In fact, in his advice about how to give feedback to a freelance writer, he writes, “If something is awkwardly worded, give examples of what might work better”—a task that a professional editor would certainly be in a strong(er) position to do.

Incidentally, as a self-published book, The Employer’s Guide is clear and easy to read, although, as an advocate for my profession, I have to say that I’d have preferred the book if it had gone through a copy edit and had a linked index. In terms of its content, a managing editor’s manual it is not, but for those who want to explore what the global work force has to offer, this book brims with sage advice that will help maximize your odds of getting what you want while minimizing your risks.

PubPro 2014 attendees can enter a draw to win a copy of The Employer’s Guide.

Editors’ Association of Canada members who have contract disputes with clients can turn to EAC’s mediator for help:

Book review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

If you fireproof your home, you protect it from the ravages of flames and heat, right? I wondered if that was the connotation Don McNair had in mind when he titled his book Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave. Was he implying that editors will muck up your text if you don’t take steps to protect it? Too often authors enter into a relationship with an editor thinking exactly that, and they expect the editing process to be adversarial.

Fortunately, McNair—an editor himself—is quick to emphasize the value of good editing to writers, including (perhaps especially) those thinking of self-publishing. McNair unapologetically writes, “That treasured manuscript of yours came back from publishers and agents several times, right? Well, maybe—just maybe—they knew what they were doing.” (p. xii) Far from claiming that his book is the only thing writers need to get themselves published, McNair acknowledges that his advice is just one piece of the puzzle and suggests writers “have that manuscript edited professionally before sending it out. Have experienced eyes look it over and tell you what the problems are, and perhaps help you solve them.” (p. xii)

Editor-Proof Your Writing focuses primarily on stylistic editing for fiction (a point I don’t think was as clear as it should have been in the book’s cover copy and marketing materials). Structural work—making sure the narrative has a strong arc and that there are no problems with continuity—is not covered, nor is the detailed nitpicking (a term I use affectionately here, of course) of copy editing. Further, McNair’s expertise lies in romance and mystery novels, so writers of less commercial genres, such as literary fiction, may not find his examples as helpful. Still, McNair offers some useful reminders of writing pitfalls that can prevent an otherwise good story from engaging the reader. In particular, his book looks at the sins of what he calls “information dumping,” “author intrusion,” and “foggy writing” (often in the form of verbosity that slows the reader down).

“Information dumping” is a technique that inexperienced writers often use to convey details they think readers will need; in essence, it’s telling rather than showing. McNair writes

Readers do need certain information so they can follow the story. Some fiction writers provide it, in part, by having two people discuss the information in an early scene. Often, this takes place in the heroine’s apartment (or its equivalent). Nothing else usually—or ever—happens in the scene.

This approach is deadly. Readers sometimes feel they’re forced to sit on a couch in this cramped apartment and listen as the heroine and her sidekick discuss these must-have acts, perhaps glancing at the readers occasionally to see if they are picking up what the author is trying to impart… A much better approach is to provide that information as part of some other action or event. (p. 33)

That “glancing at the readers” is an example of author intrusion, when authors, who “should stay invisible,… unwittingly leave clues to their presence,” says McNair. And when that happens, readers “are pulled out of fiction’s magic spell.” (p. 35)

Author intrusion can manifest in several ways—for example, when a writer uses ‑ly adverbs or dialogue tags other than “said” (such as “countered,” “mumbled,” “volunteered,” etc.). The action is interpreted via the author, which plucks the reader out of an immersive experience.

Eliminating these kinds of telltale traces of the author is only part of McNair’s twenty-one-step process to “lift the fog” on writing and make it more engaging. These steps include changing passive voice to active, taking out expletive constructions like “there are,” and eliminating clichés and superficials (his term for some types of metadiscourse, including phrases like, “It goes without saying that…”). He also gives specific suggestions for how to deal with dialogue, and I particularly like this point, which he repeats a couple of times in the book:

Some may say, “But that’s the way people talk!” Perhaps. But dialogue isn’t supposed to be an exact copy of conversations. We don’t include all the “uh’s,” belches, and repetitive chit-chat, do we? The writer’s job is to make conversations sound real in as few words as possible. Present the meaning without the mess. (p. 63)

The main problem with McNair’s steps, though, is that many of them overlap, which means that systematically applying them from beginning to end (as “steps” would imply) would lead to some duplicated work in some places and missed stylistic infelicities in others. For instance, some of his steps are “Eliminate double verbs” (like “sat and watched television”—step 7), “Eliminate double nouns, adjectives, and adverbs” (like “complete and utter”—step 8), “Watch for foggy phrases,” (changing “make a stop” to “stop,” for example—step 9), “Eliminate redundancies” (step 15), and “Get rid of throwaway words” (step 17).” To me, all of these are variations of “Edit for conciseness” (step 18), and some of them are variations of one another.

In contrast, McNair’s final step is to “Stop those wandering eyes,” meaning that writers should take out tired expressions like “her eyes were glued to the TV set.” That metaphor, says McNair, is laughable, and so it will break the reader’s concentration. A fair point, but why is that particular metaphor the focus of its own step—at the same level as “Edit for conciseness”? A better approach might have been to talk about metaphor use in general, explaining the pitfalls of  mixed metaphors and overused metaphors that have lost their meaning. As it stands, this step in McNair’s book comes off as one of his personal bugbears.

Despite its problems, Editor-Proof Your Writing is a quick, easy read, thanks to McNair’s casual and conversational writing style. His advice is sensible and digestible, although it is by no means comprehensive, even for stylistic issues alone, so consider this book a starting point rather than an authoritative reference. Editors who work primarily on non-fiction or literary fiction might not get as much out of this book as editors of commercial fiction.

What we can all appreciate, however, is that McNair, is a champion for the professional editor. Now that anyone can self-publish, he says, “we’ve killed off the gatekeepers, and now both our great and our garbled manuscripts go freely through those gates into the readers’ hands. If readers find garbage instead of a well-crafted story, they spread the word.” Not only can quality editors prevent this kind of bad publicity, says McNair, but they may also help an author “turn a stream of rejections into a writing career.” (p. 169)

Book review: Quite Literally

Journalist Wynford Hicks first published Quite Literally: Problem Words and How to Use Them in 2004, but the paperback edition became available only in the last year. Focusing on British English, this book is part usage dictionary, part writing and grammar guide, and part vocabulary builder. Hicks begins by acknowledging the divide between prescriptivists and descriptivists when it comes to usage (or “conservatives” and “radicals” as he calls them) and says, “In their extreme form both these positions are ridiculous and unhelpful. They make the problem of problem words worse.” He adds, “Many of these contentious grammatical points are difficult – perhaps impossible – to resolve. My intention in this book is to provide practical advice, but nobody can claim to have written the last word on any of them.”

Hicks’s alphabetical list includes words that are often misspelled (e.g., “accidentally, not accidently”), words that are often confused (e.g., rack versus wrack), and words that are often misused (e.g. “anticipate is often misused as a pompous variant of expect (we don’t anticipate rain). It is also used by careful writers to mean forestall or act in advance or come before.”). Hicks also covers some points about punctuation—the serial comma, for example, and the correct use of square brackets)—as well as writing style, as in this excerpt:


Fowler used the term ‘elegant variation’ for the habit of calling a spade a tool or a horticultural implement to avoid repeating the word spade. It was a fault, he said, committed by ‘second-rate writers, those intent rather on expanding themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly’. What he called the fatal influence was the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence.

It’s as easy now as it was in Fowler’s day (the 1920s) to find examples of this:

IPC took her [Sly Bailey] on in 1989 and by 1994, aged 31, she was appointed to the board of the publishing company, becoming its youngest ever member. The Spurs fan continued to work her way up through the ranks. (Guardian)

Part of Roseanne’s behaviour can be explained by the comic’s natural competitiveness. (John Lahr)

In this case too why not ‘her’ for ‘the comic’s’?…

This kind of variation (David Beckham… the footballer, Zadie Smith, the novelist, Brad Pitt… the actor) is always irritating and occasionally confusing. (pp. 236–37)

As this example shows, throughout the book Hicks draws from published works to show that even seasoned, professional writers misuse words in ways that can misrepresent information or confuse readers. Hicks’s focus on the audience is one of the reasons I like this book: although he teaches you the correct definitions of autarchy (absolute power) and autarky (self-sufficiency), he adds, “the two are confused and neither is necessary – why not use absolute power and self-sufficiency?” (p. 18) Similarly, after explaining why “beg the question” doesn’t mean “raise the question” or “avoid the question,” he advises, “Use beg the question in its traditional sense only if you are confident your readers will understand you.” (p. 186) Context is everything, Hicks aptly conveys. Words like obloquy (disgrace) and otiose  (superfluous) may have their place in literary works, even though they may sound pretentious and confuse readers in news reporting. (And if I were better at retaining information I read, I would have found Hicks’s book an entertaining way to learn new words.)

Throughout the book, Hicks continually acknowledges that usage changes and language evolves—something many grammar guides fail to do. I also like that Hicks points out important differences between American and British usage:


in American refers to looks and means ugly; homely in British refers to character and means friendly, kindly…Use this word with care to avoid confusion and offence. (p. 104)


in Britain to table a proposal is to put it on the agenda (to bring it to the table) whereas in the US it’s to withdraw it from the agenda indefinitely (to take it away from the table).

Quite Literally is an interesting, engaging, often humorous read, but for the professional editor, that’s where its role should end. Because the book tries to cover so many aspects of writing in its 250 pages—style, usage, grammar, spelling—it does a thorough job of none of them, and it shouldn’t be considered an authoritative reference by any working editor, who’d be well advised to invest in an actual usage dictionary. I’ve also never understood why books such as Hicks’s attempt to cover spelling at all (unless it’s for padding); those problem words are either completely misspelled and would come up in a spell check or are just variants (“realise, not realize”) whose use depends on a publication’s house style more than anything else. Still, I would recommend Quite Literally as an easily digestible glimpse into British English usage. Hicks offers readers a good reminder of the value of clarity and succinctness, and even veteran editors will learn from the book.

And what does Hicks say about “literally”?


features in all style and usage guides. Don’t use it when you don’t mean it, they say. ‘He literally exploded with anger’ is absurd. But do use it if you need to make clear that a stale metaphor is, for once, an accurate statement. ‘He literally died laughing’ could be true…

Others seem to think that by putting ‘almost’ in front of ‘literally’ they can make it work:

The people of the rebuilt Oradour lived, almost literally, within this history. (Adam Nossiter)

But how can something be ‘almost literally’ true? Either it is true or it isn’t…

Because literally is so generally misused, some people feel that they have to add an intensifier like ‘quite’ – to say ‘I really mean it’… In turn ‘quite literally’ becomes the standard phrase… And so for people who want to say ‘I really mean it’, a further intensifier is needed. Both examples come from the Guardian:

Lee Westwood has backed himself to win the Sun City Golf Challenge after an abysmal year by his standards. Quite literally, in fact. The Workshop player put a sizeable wager on himself.

In Sicily one Vittorio Greco has gone to his grave. Quite literally, in fact. Vittorio was checking progress on a family tomb when he slipped, struck and died on the spot.

Quite literally, in fact – or literally, literally, literally. Why not give this word a rest? (pp. 131–33)

Book review: Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information

This review appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Bulletin, the Indexing Society of Canada’s newsletter.


I expected to learn a lot from Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information (edited by Diane Rasmussen Neal and published by Walter deGruyter); what I didn’t expect was to enjoy reading it as much as I did. Neal and her team have put together a timely and fascinating collection of texts that explore the challenges of indexing non-text material in an online world. Although geared much more toward academically minded information scientists than to back-of-the-book indexers, this book nevertheless has a lot to offer indexers who work with illustrated books or digital documents with embedded multimedia.

Covering everything from music information retrieval systems to World of Warcraft as a case study for gaming indexing, Neal’s wide-ranging book features voices from all over the world—including Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Universidade Federal Luminense in Brazil, and Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf—but also showcases the strength of Canadian research in the field, with contributions from doctoral students and faculty at the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Western University, where Neal is an assistant professor.

Although I read the chapters about music with interest (Jason Neal, for example, looks at the problematic definition of classical in his probe of genre in music recommender systems), I focused mostly on the content most relevant to book indexers—namely, image indexing. Chris Landbeck’s chapter about editorial cartoons was eye-opening, as he explained that several factors contribute to the complexity of indexing these images:

  1. editorial cartoons are time sensitive;
  2. there is no tradition of describing editorial cartoons for the Electronic Age to draw on;
  3. editorial cartoons do not exist in a vacuum, but in a rich and active world that a reader must be familiar with in order to both perceive the visual part of the cartoon as well the message within it. (p. 61)

This distinction between an image’s “ofness” and “aboutness” is echoed in Kathrin Knautz’s chapter about emotions in multimedia; indexing must take into account that, because “an emotion may arise for various reasons (induction, empathy, contagion),” (p. 359) an emotion depicted may not be the same as the one evoked. Pawel Rygiel extends Landbeck’s thread about the time sensitivity of an image, showing the complications that can arise when indexing photos of architectural objects “whose name, form and function might have changed throughout their history.” (p. 288) The chapter by Renata Maria Abrantes Baracho Porto and Beatriz Valadares Cendón about an image-based retrieval system for engineering drawings was also interesting; I once worked on an art book in which the designer included details of the artwork next to the tombstone data (the title, date, medium, dimensions, and inscriptions for each piece of artwork)—a lovely visual index—and this chapter in Neal’s book made me wonder whether a closer relationship between indexer and designer may yield surprising, useful results for carefully chosen projects.

The book’s biggest weakness, ironically, is its unforgivably anemic index. Only three pages in a 428-page book, the index is virtually useless, with its entry for “indexing” consisting of 108 undifferentiated locators.

Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information offers indexers a lot to ponder, especially in its look at the strengths and weaknesses of social tagging and the question of whether crowdsourcing the task of indexing will ever put us out of a job. For the working book indexer, however, this book is probably overkill. If someone extracted only the information that was relevant to book indexers and edited it into a smaller, more manageable resource, that abridged volume would be a welcome addition to any indexer’s reference shelf.

Book review: Book Production

More than any other role in publishing, production seems to be one in which people learn by doing. Whereas editors and designers have a wealth of  professional development courses and workshops at their disposal, those who shepherd publications through the production process don’t have as many options for structured learning. Some design courses touch on how to liaise with commercial printers, but most of the managing editors and production managers I know started off in either editorial or design and fell into the rather critical role of project management without specific project management training.

The lack of formal training hasn’t been particularly detrimental to those in production, who are generally tapped for those jobs because they’re already super organized and are adept at problem solving. What courses and workshops also offer beyond just their content, though, is a tribal culture, where you can learn from more experienced peers through an oral history of sorts. When that aspect is missing in your career, it can be pretty easy to feel isolated.

Enter Adrian Bullock, a publishing veteran who has written Book Production (published by Routledge), a lucid and comprehensive guide to everything from project management and prepress to printing, binding, and getting stock into the warehouse. Written in crystal clear, plain English, this book offers practical advice about how best to balance the needs of a book’s various stakeholders, recognizing that in the real world, the goal of publication production management is to reach an acceptable compromise between speed, quality, and cost. Eschewing the sentimentality that publishing-related books often carry—about the industry’s contributions to culture, the beauty of books as artifacts, etc.—Bullock’s book is grounded in the best practices of making the business of publishing viable:

The big difference between a publishing project and, say, building a school, is that publishing projects are usually carried out in a highly competitive, commercial environment, where there is an unremitting drive to produce new products and a premium on bringing them to market as speedily and cheaply as possible, working in the knowledge that someone else might get there before you, and produce a better or cheaper project into the bargain.

In this kind of environment time becomes speed, money becomes price, and quality can become relative. Skills, equipment and project logic are all co-ordinated to make the project move faster and cost less than one’s competitors can. (p. 7)

One of the book’s major strengths is the way in which it formalizes project management principles in a publishing context. Bullock emphasizes the need for a well-defined project management cycle that incorporates a clearly articulated plan, implementation, and also a post-mortem phase:

It is precisely because life in production can be so relentlessly hectic and busy, and there is a tendency to move without thinking from one project to another, that reflection plays such a vital part in project management, and why reflection should be formalized to become standard procedure at the end of a project, giving everyone involved a chance to discuss what they think went well, what didn’t go well and how things can be done better the next time. Reflections should take no longer than 20–30 minutes, especially if project team members know that it is standard, and come to the meeting prepared. (p. 76)

Bullock is clear about the many demands of a job in book production. Above all, however, a project manager must be a good communicator:

Communication is a vital tool in managing the project: its value cannot be overstated. Poor quality communication is one of the commonest causes of unsuccessful projects… (p. 21)

Communication starts with the project definition and continues right through to completion. The more that people directly, and indirectly, involved in the project know about it, the better. Telling people – in-house staff, suppliers and other stakeholders, what is expected and what is happening, helps to manage expectations and eliminates last-minute surprises. (p. 22)

A sound project definition notwithstanding, the number of variables in a project mean that something will likely go wrong somewhere. Adrian Bullock offers this level-headed advice:

It’s only when the problem has been solved and the project is moving forward again – and only then – that you can start to work out what went wrong, how it went wrong, whose fault it is, how to prevent it recurring, and the amount of compensation you could reasonably expect, if the supplier is at fault. Remember that the person whose fault it might be could well be the person most able to sort out the problem. (p. 73)

Whereas Book Production‘s first section deals with managing editorial and design, its second half looks at physical production. Bullock gives a fascinating overview of the raw materials that go into a book—how paper is made, what kinds of inks are used for printing and glue for binding, etc.—and offers tips about selecting an appropriate commercial printer. Throughout, he reminds readers to be mindful of environmental issues, from considering recycled paper options to keeping track of the number of book miles that stock has to travel.

With the increased awareness of environmental and green issues, you would want to know how green your printer is in terms of how it manages its impact on the environment. This could be through an accredited environmental management system (EMS), which has been certified to a recognized standard such as ISO 14001. Or it could be that the printer has reduced its emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from printing, uses recycled paper, is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and has policies for waste recycling and energy reduction. (p. 65)

Bullock mentions several other standards and certification programs that production managers should be aware of, many of which can help streamline workflow. For example, ISO 9001 certification means that a printer has excellent quality management systems in place, making it unnecessary, some publishers believe, to proof printer’s proofs; using the International Color Consortium colour management system can eliminate the need for colour correction; and

JDF [Job Definition Format] is an XML-based industry standard, which is being developed by the international consortium CIP4 (the International Co-operation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress Organization). According to the CIP4 website, JDF:

  • ‘is designed to streamline information exchange between different applications and systems
  • is intended to enable the entire industry, including media, design, graphic arts, on-demand and e-commerce companies, to implement and work with individual workflow solutions
  • will allow integration of heterogenous products from diverse vendors to create seamless workflow solutions.’ (p. 98)

This last example shows that although Book Production is focused mainly on traditional print books, it also gives up-to-date information about XML and other digital workflows, as well as print-on-demand and short-run printing technologies. This book is packed with case studies that show the reader what kinds of scenarios can arise in book production and how best to implement the ideas that Bullock has laid out in the text. Those new to book production will appreciate this book’s clarity and thoroughness. Seasoned production managers will find affirmation in having their practices validated and reinforced, and they may even learn about some recent developments that might make their jobs a lot easier.


Rather than give this book away at an upcoming EAC-BC meeting, as I’ve done with the other books I’ve reviewed, I’ll be offering my copy of Book Production as a door prize to participants of the upcoming PubPro 2013 professional development event. Register now!

Book review: Book Was There

As a professor of literature at McGill University, Andrew Piper is, in essence, a professional reader, and he brings this experience to his latest book, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press), in which he offers a very personal meditation on our evolving relationship with reading. In what ways is a physical book more than its content? How have screens and digital technologies changed the way we understand, interact with, and share texts? Writes Piper in the book’s prologue,

This book is not a case for or against books. It is not about old media or new media (or even new new media). Instead, it is an attempt to understand the relationship between books and screens, to identify some of their fundamental differences and to chart the continuities that might run between them. (p. ix)

Their “fundamental differences” dominate the content of the book, since the similarities between books and screens are perhaps more obvious. Piper wonders whether, in the era of ebooks, we have become a culture of skimmers—the slipperiness of digital text and the immediacy of the page turn on e-reading devices mean that we don’t give ourselves the chance to digest what we read. Exacerbating this problem is a glut of content:

We have entered into an exponential relationship to the growth of reading material. Like many parents or educators, I worry that the growing expanse of reading pulls us apart, not just socially, but also personally. The incessant insistence on the functionality of reading—that there must be some “value” to it—only amplifies this problem. When there is so much more to read and when we are always reading for some purpose, we are only ever “catching up.” (p. 129)

The social aspect of reading is key to Piper’s book. Reading in itself is an act of isolation, yet by reading, we develop a common culture that socializes us. We catalyze that socialization by sharing what we read, and Piper notes that whereas sharing a printed book is a meaningful act—not only do you give something up to another reader, but by doing so you also make public your appreciation and endorsement for that book—sharing digital content may not carry the same weight:

If I do not have any collection of digital files in the same way as my books, will I be able to give them away in the same manner? When I pass down my books to my children, I imagine I will be sharing with them as sense of time. Books are meaningful because as material objects they bear time within themselves. (p. 107)

As much as Piper attempts to remain above the fray in the oft-promoted argument that digital reading and ebooks spell the death of print, his text is tinged throughout with nostalgia for print books—or, at least, for their former primacy as the authoritative sources of human knowledge. He argues that each time a new technology replicates a book’s functionality in terms of conveying content, we try to load it with features that replicate other aspects of a printed book, whether it be the ability to hold it in our hands, turn pages, or jot down marginal notes. The relationship between print and digital texts, however, doesn’t have to be antagonistic; their co-existence could have benefits to understanding:

The use of multiple channels—speech, scroll, book—is the best guarantee that a message will be received, that individuals will arrive at a sense of shared meaning. Like the book’s ability to conjoin the different faculties of touch, sight, and sound into a single medium, according to the tradition of the Codex Manesse the book itself is imagined to reside within a more diverse ecology of information. When we think about media death, about the idea of the end of certain technologies, we do well to remember this medieval insistence on the need for redundancy, the importance of communicating the same thing through different channels. (p. 7)

As much as he is a champion of the printed book (downplay that fact as he may), Piper acknowledges that some digital technologies can be used to enhance our understanding of text. I like this example:

Feature Lens, which was developed by the Human–Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, is a program that allows you to view meaningful semantic patterns within large structures of texts. For Tanya Clement, who undertook an analysis of Gertrude Stein’s famously difficulty and repetitive novel The Making of Americans (1925), the interface revealed a range of structural patterns so far unnoticed by readers. (p. 141)

Although Book Was There raises some interesting points, I didn’t find any of what Piper wrote particularly revelatory, and because the text was so personal to him, there were portions to which I just couldn’t relate and that made me feel disengaged from the book. Maybe I’m not well-read enough to appreciate the author’s many literary references, but their liberal use, often in places where I would have found historical or scientific examples more persuasive, made some of his conclusions seem tenuous. He reads a lot into shared terminology between the print and digital worlds—pages and page views, the faces of Facebook and the faces of typefaces, etc.—extracting meaning where I simply see a metaphor to allow users to relate to new technologies. Although I appreciate Piper’s enthusiasm for this topic, I would stop short of recommending this book to anyone looking for objective and rigorous insight into the act and consequences of reading. Instead I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Alberto Manguel will one day decide to update A History of Reading to encompass the digital age.