Debra Huron—Low literacy adults read, too! How to edit for them (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Debra Huron is a plain language specialist with a degree in journalism, and she spent three years managing the Canadian Public Health Association’s Plain Language Service. She shared with us some adult literacy statistics and gave us tools to create clear communications that will help low-literacy readers understand and high-literacy readers save time. A free PDF of her booklet, Five Ways to Create the Happiest Readers, is available on her website.

Huron began her session by asking us to read through a two-page financial services letter packed with long, complex sentences and bureaucratese. “From an editor’s point of view,” she said, “it’s perfectly grammatical. The sentences are long, but they’re coherent.” Yet the letter was hard to read and buried the call to action. “What I thought when I first read this letter,” said Huron, “was, ‘I need to read this again.’ It requires a high degree of analysis.”

Those of us in the room were likely strong readers, but many Canadians are not. Huron showed us the results of a 2013 survey, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which ranked Canada eleventh in prose and literacy skills, behind the Czech Republic and Estonia. The survey also found that 49 percent of Canadians had low literacy, meaning they read at level 1 or 2 in the OECD’s definition of literacy levels. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “Level 3 is the internationally accepted level of literacy required to cope in a modern society.” Huron cautioned us about using the correct terminology: we talk about low literacy, rather than illiteracy, because most people have some ability to read and write.

Who has low literacy skills? Huron worked with a national literacy organization in Ottawa helping adult learners improve their literacy. These learners may have grown up with violence or substance misuse in the home—not in an environment that valued literacy. Some people in their forties had learning disabilities that schools didn’t routinely test for when they were children.

People with low literacy do not read for pleasure. They read when they have to learn or do something. These adult learners have normal intelligence, so the term “dumbing down” is pejorative. Communicating with them may have to involve other media, including audiovisual material or activities to promote experiential learning. Huron reminded us that we can be literate in some circumstances and not so literate in others. Financial jargon and legalese can be particularly problematic.

Huron offered us four basic plain writing tips that can help you make your communications more clear:

  1. Prefer the active voice.
  2. Avoid frozen verbs (nominalizations). Don’t turn verbs into nouns.
  3. Organize your text into chunks.
  4. Reduce or define jargon.

These suggestions are a great starting point for the uninitiated, but writers and editors with more plain language experience understand that there are qualifications to these tips. Great sources of information for evidence-based plain language practice include Karen Schriver’s work (see my summary of her PLAIN 2013 talk) and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (which I reviewed). These summaries from previous conference sessions about adult readers and plain language may also help:

Carol Fisher Saller—”Subversive” editing: or, what bugs editors and how to fix it (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor and editor of the monthly Chicago Style Q&A, gave the opening keynote at Editing Goes Global. With facetious, deadpan delivery, she took aim at the niggling neuroses that prevent editors, who have a reputation for being technophobic grammar sticklers, from reaching their potential. “Some of my best friends are neurotic,” said Saller. “Who wants to know a bunch of calm and happy people?”

Quoting the New York Times, she said, “Life today is ‘less violent, less cruel, and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.’ When it comes to stress, many of us, the privileged, choose it. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for what’s bugging copy editors,” said Saller, to laughs. Although we’re used to hearing about the debates between prescriptivists and “promiscuous” descriptivists, Saller enjoys defining a third category: assertionists, a term coined byEugene Volohk, describing people who take pride in “witless, raging allegiance” to grammar rules and style. Many copy editors see their jobs as knowing the rules and imposing them, but Saller reminded us that “style rules exist to serve us; we don’t exist to serve them.”

Assertionists who write into the Chicago Style Q&A with style and grammar questions “are tormented by what they see as declining standards,” said Saller. But because most adults stopped learning grammar after they left high school, they may not be aware that some rules are outdated and that some rules were never rules at all. People ask, “When did this rule change?,” as if a single authoritative person or organization were responsible for governing the English language. “Language is wonderfully messy,” said Saller. “Evolution in English is the ultimate in crowdsourcing.”

Many style rules are arbitrary, and understanding a rule is not the same as being able to recite them. Style rules give us an efficient way to be consistent, but sometimes they turn out to be inconvenient. “When rules conflict, you probably have to break a rule—and that’s OK,” said Saller. “Apply the power of knowing when to break a rule to help writers to achieve great writing.”

“It is rarely correct to robotically follow a rule,” she added. “This kind of dependency wastes time, stunts learning, and does little to help the reader.”

Beyond knowing the rules and when to break them, editors must also stay on top of technology. “Editors who live in the past also do harm,” said Saller, adding, “Hating technology is a cliché. Technology is not making you stupid or lonely or hyper (although I will grant that it can make you homicidal).” But if you are representing yourself as a professional editor, your primary tools have to be up to standard. “Eventually, if you don’t refresh your skills and equipment, you’ll begin to lose work.” Never stop educating yourself, Saller suggested. You can find free resources online to learn almost anything—including how to make the most out of social media. “If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in that ocean, know that active participation is optional. You can learn plenty just by lurking.”

“There’s no downside to arming yourself with knowledge and skill,” said Saller. “You will become generous, flexible, powerful, confident and—who knows?—maybe even serene.”

Hiring other freelancers: expanding your business with colleagues (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Veteran editor Laura Poole led a lively panel discussion about working with freelance editors. The other panellists were Carol Fisher Saller, who gave us an insider’s perspective from the University of Chicago Press, and Janet MacMillan, a long-time member of both the Editors’ Association of Canada and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK.

Poole now regularly subcontracts work to an associate that she mentored, but she’s also found another source of subcontracting revenue simply by having an incorporated business. One of her clients enacted a new policy of not working with sole proprietors, which cut out a large chunk of their regular freelancers. These freelancers now invoice through Poole’s company, adding a markup to their totals to pay Poole for her services.

The books division at the University of Chicago Press publishes up to 300 books a year and has an in-house staff of fifteen editors, and 40 percent of the copy editing is done by freelancers. Saller told us that the press almost never approaches freelancers who haven’t contacted them first. They get plenty of resumes in the mail all the time and have many on file.

MacMillan said that she doesn’t like to use the term “subcontract” and prefers to think of other editors as associates or collaborators. She’ll reach out to other editors when she’s working on large projects or if she knows they have special expertise that she lacks.

MacMillan never charges a referral fee, saying “I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with it. A nice thank you would be enough.” She expects that people to whom she’s referred work will also pass along work to her at some point. In contrast, Poole will request (or pay, if she’s on the receiving end of a referral) a 10 percent fee for referring work to her colleagues. What she tells clients is that she’ll train the subcontractors on their style. “You show that you’re putting skin in the game and working to maintain your reputation,” she said. This fee applies only to the first project involving that particular editor–client pair, and on subsequent projects, they can work out their own payment terms.

To find out about other freelancers, MacMillan relies on her network and looks at how people present themselves on their websites or their profiles in the Online Directory of Editors. She’ll also recommend editors she’s mentored formally or informally. “I would never refer work to someone whose work I didn’t know or that I didn’t know personally,” she said.

Poole draws on her network of editorial trainees and sometimes runs focused searches on LinkedIn to find the right person for the job. She keeps track of people’s specializations so that she’ll have someone to recommend if a client is looking for that expertise.

What about training? “We do train in-house entry-level editors,” said Saller. “We don’t train freelancers. We can tell almost instantly if someone is a likely candidate. We require experience with other university presses, and we can tell from their cover letter and resume if they have good communication skills.” The University of Chicago Press will train freelancers on its process and may ask editors to edit a trial chapter, which the press will pay for.

MacMillan will work with a colleague through the first or second project and will always provide feedback, particularly if the project didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. “ If I didn’t tell them where they went wrong, I wouldn’t be fair to them,” she said. “Quite frankly, we’re all off sometimes. It’s best to remain humble and remember that.”

Likewise, Poole is invested in helping her associate editor further her career and regularly gives her pointers. “If you hire freelancers, give them feedback,” she said. Rather than simply never hiring someone again, critical but constructive feedback means that you care and want the editor to get better. “You have to separate business and friendship,” said Poole. “Let’s talk business and not take it personally.”

“We also learn from more junior editors by how they react to feedback,” added MacMillan. “They’ll say, ‘I did it this way because…’ and sometimes that ‘because’ will make you think. The learning experience goes both ways.”

Sometimes the problems may have been that you, as the hiring editor, didn’t clearly communicate expectations or standards. Lee d’Anjou, in the audience, suggested always using written contracts to define the project scope and expectations. EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards may also help you define the tasks you’re hoping your subcontractor will do.

The University of Chicago Press highly values editors who work independently. “We do appreciate when people ask questions,” said Saller, “like asking if something needs to be done.” But occasionally some freelancers ask too much, too often. Knowing when to ask and when to do is part of editorial judgment that comes with experience.

Editors looking for subcontract work should be careful about how they approach other editors. Being presumptuous or demanding—for example, saying “Can I see your client list?” or “Will you send me work?”—will make editors bristle. Poole especially dislikes people who write, “I’d be happy to take your overflow work.” “I don’t have overflow work,” she said. “If I can’t take the work, I don’t do it. A better approach would be to say, ‘Can I support you to expand your business?’”

Both Poole and MacMillan said that they’re always transparent with their clients about whether they’ve used subcontractors.

I was disappointed to discover that the University of Chicago Press doesn’t credit its editors, neither in-house nor freelance. Last year, what turned out to be a dream client approached me because she’d seen my name on a publication for a similar organization. I’ve written about credit lines before: they cost the publisher nothing but can be extremely meaningful to the editors, designers, and indexers who work on a project and can use it as part of their portfolio.

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For more on subcontracting, see my summary of a related panel discussion we held at an EAC-BC branch meeting.

Laura Laing—Spice up your storytelling with statistics (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Statistics can be intimidating for some people, said Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups and Math for Writers, but they can also be a great way to tell a story. Laing gave us some tips on how to use statistics effectively and accurately in our writing.

Statistics is the science of collecting and analyzing data, and they can further—or change—your story. Misused stats, however, can mislead readers, so writers and editors need to be aware of where to find and how to use reliable data.

First, look at the sample that your source has used. If you want to generalize the results to a larger population, the sample must be random, and it must be large enough. Laing offered us this rule of thumb: “Most of the time, about 1,000 responses is a large enough sample, unless they’re broken into subgroups. A reliable local sample can be as small as 350 or 450 respondents.”

Collecting the data is not your job. ‘It’s the scientist’s job,” said Laing. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in the whole world.” Analyzing the data may involve descriptive statistics or inferential statistics. Descriptive statistics summarize the data into percentages, averages, or certain types of graphs but doesn’t involve inferences. “They’re a way of clearing things up for the reader, to make things simpler to understand.” Inferential statistics involves drawing conclusions based on the data, and probabilities are usually involved in some way. Like data collection, data interpretation should be left to the scientists. Be aware that “our brains are hard-wired to look for causation,” said Laing. “Be careful about drawing conclusions that may be unfounded.” Correlation does not imply causation.

Graphs can be an efficient way to convey information, but make sure you’re using the right type of graph (for example, pie charts only if the components make up a whole and add to 100%) and that your scales are appropriate. “When we look at graphs, our brain will see the images before we look at the numbers,” said Laing. Different scales on a graph can deceive the eye.

Where do you find reliable statistics? Surveys and polls conducted by reputable companies, big media organizations, universities, research organizations, and government agencies generally have standardized ways to go about research and so generally have trustworthy information. Mapping Scientific Excellence is a good resource if you’re looking for research institutions in particular areas of study.

Some red flags that your source may not be reliable:

  • research sponsored or conducted by candidates, special interest groups and companies with an obvious interest in the outcome
  • researchers who won’t reveal their methodologies
  • research that hasn’t been peer reviewed
  • research more than five years old
  • research refuted by other, highly regarded researchers in the field.

“I’m not a fan of the ‘make sure you have both sides of the debate’ argument because one side may just be dumb,” said Laing. Be careful, too, of what Laing calls the “focus group of one syndrome.” “Anecdotes can add colour,” said Laing, “but they can’t be used to demonstrate causation or even correlation.”

When you write with numbers, give them context and put them into perspective—for example, report a growth or decline, or use a number to show the scope of a problem. Use statistics only if they will mean something to your audience, and consider putting numbers in charts or graphs to make a bigger impression on readers.

Rather than cramming all of the stats in a story together, spread them out by describing or giving context to each number. If you can, let your sources give the numbers in a quote, which is more interesting than citing a number yourself.

Don’t be afraid of rounding, but let your readers know what you’ve done by using words like “approximately,” “about,” or “a little more (or less) than.” For very large or very small numbers, which our brains don’t handle well, use metaphors to make them more tangible, but make sure the metaphor fits the story, and avoid using clichés (e.g., length of x football fields).

Adrienne Montgomerie & Cheryl Stephens—How and what to edit in visuals accompanying text (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

According to Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, a proficient editor should know how to “ensure that all tables, photos, multimedia, and other visual elements are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning” (Standard C5). But clear and effective how, and by what standard? Veteran editor Adrienne Montgomerie and plain language champion Cheryl Stephens took us through their thoughts on the topic.

Visual are only going to get more important, because research shows that we learn faster and retain more when we see an image, compared with text. Visuals can explain and convey concepts and relationships that would take a long time to explain—for example, cutaway diagrams can effectively convey internal structure. “Text was a fad,” said Montgomerie, only half-joking. “It had a good life, but now we have the means to communicate in other ways.” Visuals are processed in a different part of the brain than text, which is only one of eight ways people communicate and learn. In plain language communications, said Stephens, we should aim to use visuals more than text, although neither should stand alone.

When using visuals, figure out the motivation behind them and the intended audience and message, because different media and styles—photographs, line illustrations, graphs, etc.—have different purposes. Visuals should not be afterthoughts: work closely with designers from the outset and throughout the developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages to ensure that together, the text and visuals communicate clearly. Make sure, too, that the typography is appropriate and readable.

Graphics should emphasize and complement your main point. They draw attention, so to readers will interpret what they illustrate as important. For informational documents, such as textbooks, don’t use a visual for decoration just because you have it. Graphics should help you understand text or be understood on its own.

Be conscious of the psychological effect of colour, which signifies that something is important. More generally, be aware of the symbolism or connotations of not only colours (for example, red meaning stop and green meaning go) but also icons, which should be unambiguous in their meaning. Icons can be misleading if they run counter to culturally accepted meanings. Use familiar approaches if you can, and if you can’t, justify your choices.

Titles and captions should make a claim that your visual proves, so make sure the image accurately reflects the data. Keep the target audience’s level of knowledge in mind when including and captioning an image. A captioned image should ideally stand on its own. Montgomerie has posted a checklist of what to look for when editing captions, She and Stephens suggest using an active verb in the caption.

Finally, Montgomerie repeated what is one of my own mantras: always proof in the final medium.

Montgomerie and Stephens recommend consulting Editing by Design by Jan White for more information about the effects of different ways to combine images and text. If you’re interested in learning more about charts, read my summary of Laurel Hyatt’s presentation (“The chart clinic”) at the 2013 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. For more in-depth information about data visualization, a good place to start is Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, which I reviewed a few years ago.

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UPDATE (June 17, 2015): Adrienne Montgomerie has posted her own summary and comprehensive checklists for the substance, style, and quality of visual elements.

Harry von Bommel—Earning “bread and butter” money in the Canada 150 project (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

In 2017, Canada will celebrate 150 years since confederation. In anticipation of this milestone, prolific author and personal historian Harry van Bommel founded the Canada 150 project, “the largest history-gathering project ever” to help Canadians record their memoirs and community histories for future generations. Also called Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histoires, the project consists of a website that serves as a central portal through which Canadians can leave their legacy and also read the histories of others, made freely available through a Creative Commons licence.

Van Bommel encourages people to submit

  • personal stories
  • family stories and genealogies
  • neighbourhood and group histories (of a faith community, arts organization, sports league, etc.)
  • corporate histories

Many groups have already begun collecting stories, including the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario and the Canadian Science and Technology Museum.

Short stories, with or without photos, can be in English or French. Beginning in 2016, you’ll also be able to upload self-published or one-of-a-kind ebooks and scanned collections of letters, diaries, journals, photos, films, and scrapbooks. Van Bommel urges people to provide full captions and descriptions if they can, though van Bommel acknowledges that “a lot of that stuff will be lost.” Boomers and younger Canadians don’t have as much written history, because much of their communication was done by phone. Already-published books, films, songs, plays, websites, and multimedia can be submitted to Library and Archives Canada to be included in the Canada 150 series.

One of the books already in the collection is Finding My Voice, written by Donald Smith, with the help of Jane Field. Smith had severe cerebral palsy, and when his mother died when he was 40, his sister moved him from Prince Edward Island to Toronto to live with her. Using a special device and just his thumb, Smith wrote his story, which revealed how he truly felt about his disability, his mother, and his move to Toronto, which he previously had never been able to express. Through Canada 150 we’ll learn a lot about ourselves and other Canadians, and van Bommel hopes that the project will “enhance Canadian unity through a sense of national pride.”

When van Bommel launched Canada 150 in 1997, he anticipated that the project would generate business for writers, editors, documentarians, and videographers. Although some people will want to tell their stories on their own, others will need professional help. The key is to spread the word about the project and get people excited about telling their stories. “The hardest thing is to convince people their story is worth telling,” said van Bommel. “Many people couldn’t care less about someone else’s story but are fascinated by their own as long as someone else is interested in hearing it.” If you’d enjoy this kind personal history work, find opportunities to encourage people to talk about themselves. “If you have a dog, you will be stopped in your neighbourhood at some point,” said van Bommel. “Those are the people who will tell you stories. Your immediate response should be, ‘You should record that.’”

“You will become quite a pest,” he added, to laughter.

Clients will take you more seriously if you have posted your own story. Your contribution will also serve as a sample to show them what you’d be able to do for them.

Rather than sending people to the Canada 150 site, try to sit down with them and show it to them in person to get them engaged. Van Bommel audio-records clients or types up their stories as they tell them, and some of the Boomers who have hired him to record the histories of their parents appreciate that his regular visits keep their aging parents active and engaged. Another strategy that saves you transcription work is to do email interviews. The respondent types up their own responses, and all you have to do is put it together and edit. To give the story structure, start with a table of contents. “A lot of people do stream of consciousness writing, which is lovely, but it’s a hard read,” said van Bommel. Assign a main theme, event, or time period to each chapter.

Van Bommel gives clients complete editorial control, and he acknowledges that thorough fact checking is almost impossible. Major world events can be fact checked, of course, but not so much details that arise out of memories and anecdotes. If someone objects to the content of a story, encourage them to correct what they perceive as errors by writing their own stories. That said, don’t recreate feuds or force people to relive painful memories, advised van Bommel. “Those may seem interesting, but they’re not. What’s most important is what people did to overcome adversity.”

To market yourself, van Bommel suggests adding keywords such as Canada 150, ghostwriter, family history, community history, and storytelling to your website or online profiles. If you expect to be doing a lot of personal history work, van Bommel suggests getting marketing materials like brochures printed, because some people still prefer to get their information through printed documents. Try to find out how you might work collaboratively with your local library and community groups. Van Bommel uses a three-tiered fee scale to accommodate clients of all incomes.

Van Bommel has made an ebook about how to record people’s stories available for free. He sees this work as important for our country’s legacy, and he quoted a Dutch expression (which you may find helpful to use with potential clients): “Those who record exist forever.” He regrets that although Canadians did a lot of this kind of personal storytelling for the country’s centennial, none of it was preserved. There is no contribution too small: “Anything they do is more than what they would have done,” he said.

***

Van Bommel’s project seems perfect for members of the Association of Personal Historians. I’m not a member, but anyone who is may want to make their colleagues aware of Canada 150. I was particularly interested in van Bommel’s talk because I’ve been recording my parents’ personal histories since the beginning of this year and have been doing some micro-volunteering for museums and archives that are crowd-sourcing transcription of items in their collections that can’t be easily sent through optical character recognition (OCR) software. Transcribing old letters and journals has been a fascinating way to engage with history, and I’ve brought the Royal BC Museum’s Transcribe project to van Bommel’s attention in case he wants to do the same with Our Canada, Our Stories / Notre Canada, Nos Histories.

Editing Goes Global session summaries to come

Editing Goes Global, the first (and, in my view, hugely successful) international editors’ conference wrapped up yesterday, and, as I did in previous years, I hope to post summaries of some of the sessions I attended. If the past is any indication, though, I’ll probably have to take a few weeks to get through them all, especially because I’m attending another conference at the end of this week and will have to do a bunch of catch-up when I get back to Vancouver.

Highlights of the conference included meeting colleagues that I’ve thus far known only through Twitter, hearing Carol Fisher Saller’s and Katherine Barber’s side-splitting keynotes, and—what was probably the biggest thrill of all for me—being at the awards banquet when my dear friend (and partner in Microsoft Word tamingGrace Yaginuma won the Tom Fairley Award for her work on A Discerning Eye, written by Carol E. Mayer and published by one of my favourite clients, Figure 1 Publishing.

Many thanks to the conference committee, the National Executive Council, and countless volunteers for putting on such a smashing event. Editors Canada’s 2016 conference will be in my ’hood, and the next international conference will be in Chicago in 2019. See you next year in Vancouver?

Kelly Maxwell—Transcription, captioning, and subtitling (EAC-BC meeting)

Kelly Maxwell gave us a peek into the fascinating world of captioning and subtitling at April’s EAC-BC meeting. Maxwell, along with Carolyn Vetter Hicks, founded Vancouver-based Line 21 Media Services in 1994 to provide captioning, subtitling, and transcription services for movies, television, and digital media.

Not very many people knew what captioning was in the 1980s and ’90s, Maxwell said. But the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, required all televisions distributed in the U.S. to have decoders for closed-captioning built in, and Canada, as a close trading partner, reaped the benefits. Captioning become ubiquitous and is now a CRTC requirement.

Line 21 works with post-production coordinators—those who see a movie or TV show through editing and colour correction. Captioning is often the last thing that has to be done before these coordinators get paid, so the deadlines are tight. Maxwell and her colleagues may receive a script from the client, in which case they load it into their CaptionMaker software and clean it up, or they may have to do their own transcription using Inqscribe, a simple, free transcription program. They aim to transcribe verbatim, and they rely on Google (in the ‘90s, they depended on reference librarians) to fact check and get the correct spelling for everything. Punctuation, too, is very important, and Maxwell uses it to maximize clarity: “People have to understand instantaneously when they see a caption,” she said. “I won’t ever give up the Oxford comma. We’re sticklers for old-fashioned, fairly heavy comma use. It can make a difference to someone understanding on the first pass.” She also edits for reading rate so that people with a range of literacy levels will understand. “Hearing people are the number-one users of captioning,” she said.

Although HD televisions now accommodate a 40-character line, Line 21 continues to caption in 32-character lines. “Captioners like to think of the lowest common denominator,” Maxwell said. They need to consider all of the people who still have older technology. Her company doesn’t do live captioning, which is done by court reporters taking one-hour shifts and is still characterized by a three-line block of all-caps text rolling on the screen. Today the captioning can pop onto the screen and be positioned to show who’s talking. The timing is done by ear but is also timecoded to the frame. Maxwell and her colleagues format captions into readable chunks—for example, whole clauses—to make them comprehensible. Once the captions have all been input, she watches the program the whole way through to make sure nothing has been missed, including descriptions of sound effects or music.

Subtitling is similar to closed captioning, but in this case, “You assume people can hear.” Maxwell first creates a timed transcript in English and relies on the filmmakers to forge relationships with translators they can trust. Knowing the timelines, translators can match up word counts and create a set of subtitles that line up with the original script. Maxwell then swaps in these subtitles for the English ones and, after proofing the video, sends it back to the translators for a final look. How do you proofread in a language you don’t know? “You can actually do a lot of proofing and find a lot of mistakes just by watching the punctuation,” said Maxwell. “You can hear the periods,” she added. “Sometimes they [translators] change or reorder the lines.”

Before the proliferation of digital video, Maxwell told us, they couldn’t do subtitling, which had to be done directly on the film. Today, they have a massive set of tools at their disposal to do their work. “In the early ‘90s,” she said, “there were two kinds of captioning.” In contrast, today “we have 80 different delivery formats,” and each broadcaster has its own requirements for formats and sizes. “People ask me if I’m worried about the ubiquity of the tools,” said Maxwell. “No. Just because I have a pencil doesn’t mean I’m a Picasso.”

As for voice-recognition software, such as YouTube’s automatic captioning feature, Maxwell says it just isn’t sophisticated enough and can produce captions riddled with errors. “You do need a human for captioning, I’m afraid.”

Maxwell prides herself on her company’s focus of providing quality captioning. One of her projects was captioning a four-part choral performance of a mass in Latin. According the to CRTC regulations, all she had to do was add musical notes (♪♫), but she wanted to do better. She bought the score and figured out who was singing what.

In another project, she captioned a speech by the Dalai Lama. “Do you change people’s grammar, change people’s words?” The Dalai Lama probably didn’t say some of the articles or some of the verbs (like to be) that appear in the final captions, Maxwell said, but captioners sometimes will make quiet changes to clarify meaning without changing the intent of the message.

Captioning involves “a lot, a lot, a lot of googling,” she said, “and a lot of random problem solving.” She’s well practiced in the “micro-discernment of phonemes.” Sometimes when she’s unable to tell what someone has said, all it takes is to get someone else to listen to it and say what they hear. Over the years, Maxwell and her team have developed tricks like these to help them help their clients reach as wide an audience as possible.

Writers on editors: an evening of eavesdropping (EAC-BC meeting)

What do writers really think of editors? Journalist and editor Jenny Lee moderated a discussion on that topic with authors Margo Bates and Daniel Francis at last week’s EAC-BC meeting. Bates, self-published author of P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother and The Queen of a Gated Community, is president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Francis is a columnist for Geist magazine and a prolific author of two dozen books, including the Encyclopedia of British Columbia and the Connections Canada social studies textbook.

Francis told us that in the 1980s, he’d had one of his books published by a major Toronto-based publisher, who asked him about his next project. Francis pitched the concept for what became Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture back to 1850. His Toronto publisher turned it down, concerned about appropriation of voice. “I took the idea to friends in Vancouver,” said Francis, “and in some ways it’s my most successful book.” He learned from the experience that he’d rather work with smaller publishers close to home, many of which were run by people he considered friends. He thought his book with the larger publisher would be the ticket, but it was among his worst-selling titles, and he was particularly dismayed that the editor didn’t seem to have paid much attention to his text. “To me, this is a collaborative process, working with an editor,” said Francis. “I’m aware that I’m no genius and that this is not a work of genius,” but his editor “barely even read the thing.” He found the necessary depth in editing when he worked with his friends at smaller presses. “Friends can be frank,” Francis said.

Bates, whose P.S. Don’t Tell Your Mother has sold more than 7,500 copies, became familiar with how much editors can do when she hired them through her work in public relations. For her own writing, Bates knew she could take care of most of the copy editing and proofreading but wanted an objective but understanding professional who would advise her about structure and subject matter. She looked for someone who would tighten up her book and make it saleable. “I’m not that smart a writer that I can go without help,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything without an editor.” In fact, she allocated the largest portion of her publishing budget to editing. After speaking with several candidates, Bates selected an editor who understood the social context of her book and help her “tell the story of prejudice in a humorous way.”

Frances Peck mentioned an article she read about a possible future where self-publishers would have editors’ imprints on their books—in other words, editors’ reputations would lend marketability to a book. “Is that a dream?” she asked. “The sooner, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” Bates said. “There’s a lot of crap out there,” she added, referring to story lines, point of view, grammar, spelling and other dimensions of writing that an editor could help authors improve.

What sets good editors apart from the rest? Francis says that he most appreciates those who have good judgment about when to correct something and when to query. Some strategies for querying suggested by the audience include referring often to the reader (“Will your reader understand?”) and referring to the text as something separate from the author (i.e., using “it says on page 26” rather than “you say on page 26”). Bates said that she really appreciated when her editor expressed genuine enthusiasm for her story. Her editor had told her, “I’m rooting for the characters, and so are your fans.”

Lee asked whether the popular strategy of the sandwich—beginning and ending an editorial letter with compliments, with the potentially ego-deflating critique in the middle—was effective. Francis said, “I hope I’m beyond the need for coddling. I guess you have to know who you’re dealing with, when you’re an editor.” Some editors in the room said that the sandwich is a reliable template for corresponding with someone with whom you haven’t yet established trust. We have to be encouraging as well as critical.

Both Bates and Francis urged editors to stop beating around the bush. Francis said, “You get insulted all the time as a textbook writer. You have to grow a pretty thick skin.” That said, Francis wasn’t a big fan of the book’s process of editing by committee and says it’s one reason he stopped writing textbooks. In addition to producing a coherent text, the textbook’s author and editors had to adhere to strict representation guidelines (e.g., the balance of males to females depicted in photographs had to be exactly 1:1).

Lee asked the two authors how they found their editors. Francis said that his publishers always assign his editors, and “I get the editor that I get.” So far his editors have worked out for him, but if he’d had any profound differences, he’d have approached the publisher about it or, in extreme cases, parted ways with the publisher.

Bates said that for self-published authors, the onus is on them to do their research and look at publications an editor has previously worked on. “There will always be inexperienced writers who don’t see the need for editors,” she said, but at meetings of the Federation of BC Writers and the Canadian Authors Association, she always advocates that authors get an editor. Bates suggested that the Editors’ Association of Canada forge closer ties with writers’ organizations so that we could readily educate authors about what editors do.

Lorna Fadden—Language Detectives II (EAC-BC meeting)

After speaking at well-attended EAC-BC meeting in 2012, forensic linguist Lorna Fadden returned to the stage last week for a highly anticipated follow-up. “I hope I don’t disappoint you,” she said. “You know when a sequel comes out, and it sucks?”

With an opening like that, Fadden had no cause for concern.

Fadden lectures in the department of linguistics at SFU, where she studies sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, as well as First Nations languages. She also runs a consulting practice in forensic discourse analysis, examining language evidence for investigations or trials in criminal and civil cases. These cases may involve hate speech, defamation, bribery, internet luring, plagiarism, and extortion, among other types of language-related crimes. She analyzes both linguistic form—grammatical structure, word choice, and prosodics—and linguistic function—meaning, social context, and pragmatics.

Fadden presented a historical case in which forensic linguistics played a starring role: in 1989, the Exxon Valdez, captained by Joseph Hazelwood, struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and spilled its crude oil cargo, resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters in history. There was wide speculation that Hazelwood was intoxicated at the time, and forensic linguists analyzed his recorded exchanges with the Coast Guard to find evidence that he was impaired.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, Fadden explained, impairing coordination, reflexes, and nerve transmission—basically everything you use when you talk. It also impedes your ability to recall words, as well as your ability to utter words in the correct sequence. Intoxication leads to misarticulation of certain speech segments: r and l sounds can become blended, and s and ts sounds can be palatalized to become sh. Suprasegmental effects of intoxication include slower speech, lower mean pitch, a wider pitch range, vowel lengthening, and the lengthening of consonants in unstressed syllables.

According to the Coast Guard’s recordings, Hazelwood’s speech had all of these characteristics 1 hour before, immediately after, and 1 hour after the Exxon Valdez ran aground but was normal 33 hours before and 9 hours after the accident.

At the time, forensic linguistics as a social science was relatively new. Hazelwood’s trial was the first time this kind of evidence was used in court, but because no witnesses could remember seeing Hazelwood drink and the jury may have been uncomfortable with this means of demonstrating drunkenness, he was acquitted.

Fadden then told us about some of her cases, one of which involved a series of menacing and highly critical letters being sent to a large company’s board of directors. These letters were sent anonymously, but the writer claimed to be a member of the company’s front-line staff or a mid-level manager. The language in the letters, accusing the directors of having “zero business acumen” and referring the company’s “value proposition,” as well as referring to “our managers”—unlikely for a low-ranking staff member to do—betrayed the writer’s higher rank. With Fadden’s help, the investigation uncovered that the writer was a high-ranking executive who’d been fired, and he was sent a cease-and-desist letter.

In another case, the mother in a custody dispute received a series of letters, supposedly from her kids, telling her they wanted nothing to do with her. Fadden’s role was to determine whether the children genuinely wrote the letters themselves. One letter, in her 7-year-old’s handwriting, mentioned that the kids did not “fully trust” their mother and agreed that they would spend time with her only on supervised visits. “Kids that age don’t use adverbs like ‘fully,’” said Fadden, and she doesn’t believe that kids have the meta-awareness implied by the letter. Occasionally we write something addressed to one person, knowing it will have a larger audience. In this case, the letters were written in a style that suggested the writer realized that others—lawyers, psychologists, and so on—may read them. Fadden’s analysis, along with a social worker’s assessment and psychologists’ assessments, led to a favourable outcome for the mother, who’d been accused of nefarious things that hadn’t been proven. “You have to be careful asking kids questions, because the questions we ask them often already suggest the answers,” said Fadden. “We rarely ask children information-seeking questions.”

Fadden’s third case was a more complex one: a woman had accused a man of drugging and sexually assaulting her, but eyewitness accounts, video surveillance, and toxicology suggested that her allegation was false. She faced a charge of public mischief, but she claimed she didn’t understand what happened during the police interview. Fadden had to assess whether she was legally competent by comparing her linguistic performance with what we’d expect from a native speaker in the same context. In her doctoral dissertation, Fadden had characterized a series of police interviews of first-time suspects, so she had a robust set of measures as benchmarks.

Cognitive deficiency is correlated with a slow speech rate, but the suspect had a relatively high speech rate, and it didn’t drop significantly from the beginning of the interview to the end (so not much of a fatigue effect). Fadden also looked at her turn latency (how much time elapses between the end of the interviewer’s question and her answer) and her pause ratio (how much she pauses compared with how much she speaks). All of these temporal elements were within normal ranges; nothing suggested that she was incompetent.

A stronger indicator of the suspect’s competence was in the way she manipulated specificity associated with details. Take, for instance, “this talk,” from most generic to most specific:

  • Fadden’s giving a talk on Wednesday (type identifiable, not specific)
  • There’s this talk on forensic linguistics on Wednesday (referential)
  • The talk on forensic linguistics on forensic linguistics will be on Wednesday (uniquely identifiable)
  • This/that talk on forensic linguistics is on Wednesday (familiar)
  • I’ll be at that on Wednesday (activated)
  • It’s on Wednesday (in focus—you don’t even have to name it)

(Fadden made sure we noted the distinction in specificity between “this talk” and “this talk.”) Through 2 hours of interviews, the suspect was adept at adjusting the level of specificity based on context, using generic language to describe what she claimed to have witnessed when she allegedly found herself in an unfamiliar environment but specific language when talking about details that the police officer had told her. Fadden concluded that she had normal cognitive status. The suspect eventually confessed to fabricating the story because she didn’t want her husband to find out she’d willingly slept with another man.

To end the evening Fadden challenged us to an exercise of authorship analysis. She gave us two writing samples from different blogs with similar topics and writing styles. We had to figure out who’d authored a third sample. From a superficial reading, most people in the room guessed that the first blogger was responsible, but Fadden showed that by comparing features like

  • the number of words per sentence,
  • the length of words,
  • the use of adjectives and adverbs,
  • the use of parentheticals,
  • the use of discourse markers,
  • the use of conjoined phrases, and
  • the use of independent clauses,

her analysis showed that the second blogger was the likely author. Authorship analysis is a contentious field now because its effectiveness and accuracy aren’t completely understood, and there’s no standard method for carrying it out. As a result, it’s not admissible in court. But, like a polygraph, authorship analysis may help steer the direction of an investigation.