It’s been thirty-five years since I got my first permanent job as an editor. My daughter (Marian), my husband (Bob), our cat (Biscuit), and I had just moved to Tucson from the Washington, D.C., area. We rented a little house in mid-July and discovered, as we schlepped our two Pier 1 rattan chairs and ten thousand boxes of books from our beat-up step-van into our new living room, that the swamp cooler didn’t work. Bob climbed onto the roof, removed the white-hot metal panels to expose the motor, stared at it, and scratched his head—the way mechanically challenged men do when confronted with a problem more complicated than a broken vacuum-cleaner belt. I was dispatched to the hardware store for a screwdriver, and when I got back there were five sweaty, head-scratching men on the roof. A sixth guy, who knew a thing or two about swamp coolers, had gone home–he lived two doors down–to get his tools. Five minutes after he got back, the thing was fixed. To celebrate, all the men and their wives and children stayed for dinner, which, for the adults, consisted of beer, Wheaties, and ketchup.
The next day, while Bob and Marian unpacked and arranged the books in cleverly spaced piles, I rode a bus to the University of Arizona personnel office, filled out an application form, and made an interview appointment for the following Tuesday. The interview went well, the job was offered, I accepted… and I’ve been sitting here for the last ten minutes or so, thinking about the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, and the interesting work I’ve done because of that little parade of events in 1977.
I was hired as a part-time editorial assistant and promoted to full-time editor two years later. By then the mother of three, I preferred shorter hours, but Bob’s job as an assistant golf pro wasn’t lucrative. I made a little money on the side writing poems, short stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story.
At the U of A, I was responsible for most of the work on the General Catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box — unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process ate up unconscionable amounts of paper and time, requiring so many arbitrary and redundant levels of approval you’d have thought they involved the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read them before they reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition, except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.
I tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry without the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor corrections and clarifications of course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the matter of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the analogous phrase surface water.
The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a Hot Topic might involve Backus-Naur form expressions of SNOBOL. Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus-Naur” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.
On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.
Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the skyrocketing cost of printer’s ink.
Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending most of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:
History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.
I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes); eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with fat circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too.
I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.
In my work as an editor and coauthor, I’ve pegged two types of comma-abusers:
(a) PAG (point-and-guess): Buddy Holly was always-called “Buddy” by-his family because he-was so nice-to everyone.
(b) EOW (every other word): Holly’s junior-high has a-mural honoring Holly-and Lubbock-High School, where-he sang in-the school choir, also-honors the late-musician.
When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue going on like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who look so disparagingly upon hyphens probably refer to them as dashes.
(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over again. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the record-player’s needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratched place.)
This is not to say that I was infallible. I once renamed a special-education course via the accidental substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title was rendered “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale. But upon reflection, we agreed that the special-education folks wouldn’t be amused. They were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.
At that point in my emotional development, it was more important to be right than to be cooperative, so I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of being always right. I had yet to learn the fundamental purpose of the English language—to communicate, hyphens be damned.
Bad writers sit down to write, and they think, “Ah, I am writing. I must use special Writing Language.” These people may communicate beautifully in conversation, but their writing is stilted and usually verbose. They write to impress rather than to communicate.
The difference between writing and conversing is that conversation isn’t a unit. When you are talking with, say, Marcella, she is usually talking too. So your conversation is interactive. You and Marcella give each other verbal and nonverbal cues that guide the conversation. You can tell if she doesn’t understand something, and you say it a different way. You can also use body language to make your point. The two of you make constant little adjustments to keep the communication flowing.
When you’re writing, however, the reader (Arturo) can choose to read or not read your writing (unless he is your English teacher). He can stop reading at any time without letting you know. Arturo bases his choice on three things:
(1) his interest in the subject,
(2) the energy in your writing (your style), and
(3) the integrity (unity) of your narrative (that is, does the piece hang together?).
Excerpted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, designed for business writing but useful for any nonfiction genre
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