Sunday, October 17

Style Guile

Poynter Online | Fifty Writing Tools is a really incredible series by Roy Peter Clark on the secrets of the great prose-doctors. (I also blogged this at Delicious SIN, by the way.) Since we are slowly but surely working up a style guide, I'm happy to find a source that jibes so well with my preferred bible of prose improvement. It's important to be able to let your reporters know your personal preferences and tics up front--most of all because it cuts down the time you spend discussing changes you might make. If you can invoke a rule of thumb, such as "cut excess words and pleonasms" or "unmix mixed metaphors," you have a firm basis for discussion and the writer can invoke your own principles in making her case quickly and decisively. Cutting vague and unspoken points of contention out of debates helps avoid simmering power struggles and resentments. I've seen so many editors who cause themselves and their writers endless grief by stubbornly sticking to invoking the imperial authority of their own intuitions: "Gee, I dunno, the tone just didn't seem right." If you can't state why you should change something--and justify it in terms of what your model reader will experience in reading the story--you shouldn't change it. Not that I always stick to my own principles. Intervention is a constant temptation. But hey, I try! After all, we're not perfecting a Hollywood screenplay here through 67 drafts; we're cranking stuff out. Speaking of which, if I could just find that copy of that style guide I did for Internet World, we could finish this thing. Mike the copy editor has been working on his end the Martin Luther worked on his bible translation: patiently and inexorably. Never buy a new bumper when you can kludge something up from the scrap heap of history! That's my motto. The ultimate goal: a plug-and-play process for adding new writers. We are in a business here: we hope our publication will grow. And while it is enjoyable to negotiate the nuances of an editor-writer relationship, practical realities dictate that you be able to say simply, "read this, then do your thing." I learned a lot of this from teaching. I loved to sit in office hours giving individual attention to students. It's something that's sorely lacking in large universities now. But students can eat your personal life and studies. And letting yourself get sucked into negotiations over grades is recipe for disaster. Make expectations clear. Negotiate them in advance, then close the case and move on to actually getting stuff done.


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