The Charm of Ali Smith

I’ve posted before about enjoying Ali Smith’s writing, and here I go again.

There’s no pleasure that compares to curling up with great writing. Some writers express ideas so well that they seem to know what you’re thinking and feeling before you do. This sentiment is expressed by one of the main characters in John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, another book I’m currently reading (quite the long wait for that one at the public library). I love experiencing that kind of connection with writing, but that’s not how I feel about Smith’s writing.

Instead, Smith has charmed me with her subtle creativity: Both the overall structure of her novels and that of her individual sentences break convention without being annoyingly “capital C” creative. There’s no “look at what I can do” literary gymnastics.

But what Smith can do is impressive. She captures character voice so thoroughly it’s as though there’s nothing separating the character’s thought from the reader. For example, in The Accidental a teenager feels responsible for a tragedy, and Smith gives the reader a front row seat on his mental roller coaster: The stark facts present themselves again and again between other frantic thoughts of what-might-have-been and if-only-could-now-be, and the whole thing keeps going round and round. (Okay, yeah, maybe it’s a stream of consciousness thing if stream of consciousness weren’t some kind of writing style — and that’s just it: I’m not thinking “oh, stream of consciousness” while I’m reading Smith.) Who doesn’t know that wrenching place where regret is unbearably palpable?

I’d love to have a conversation with Smith’s editor, and I’d love to see the original manuscript. It appears as though Smith’s been given (rightfully) plenty of free rein. But for all I know, maybe the ride was a whole lot more wild before Penguin took over the controls.


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Grammar Madness Update

Forget about your NCAA bracket: If you’re more concerned about your Grammar Madness bracket, check out the winner of the first Grammar Madness battle here.

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The Shame Game, Grammarian Version

All right, you pedants. Let the public shaming begin.

Grammarlyblog’s tournament of grammatical errors — Grammar Madness — begins today. If you love spotting errors on social media, this tournament is for you. Today’s vote focuses on contextual spelling mistakes — the old pore/pour kind of slip.

So get surfing the web for the most egregious errors, and then vote on your favs.

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T & A: Tight and Always on Time

Terry O’Reilly is an award-winning copywriter and broadcaster. His CBC radio program, “Under the Influence,” focuses on advertising strategies both past and present. Terry always rewards his listeners with the inside scoop behind well-known marketing campaigns.

Today Terry revealed that the Aero chocolate bar tagline “Irresistabubble” was coined by none other than Salman Rushdie. That’s right, Rushdie started his career as a copywriter, and he’s not alone: from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Helen Gurley Brown, Terry dropped plenty of big names who got their start in copywriting. (Fitzgerald’s fiction, which he worked on after hours, was apparently rejected by 122 publishers.)

Rushdie credits the copywriting trade with his later success. He says he continues to write the way he learned to write in his copywriting days: he makes every word count, and he never misses a deadline. Writing is a job like any other, and he puts in his hours every day.

Keeping writing tight and on time has always been essential in advertising. Never waste a word, never miss a deadline. And I’d argue that these qualities of writing are even more important for today’s fractured market of media-savvy consumers.

Is your content concise and current? Hire an editor and be sure.

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My Copy Edit and Your Copy Edit Were Hanging Out Clothes…

…/My copy edit struck your copy edit right in the nose/What was the final word count?

Remember this skipping rhyme from childhood (with different words, of course)?

I’ve been amusing myself and learning at the same time by completing short copy edits and then comparing my work to that of another copy editor. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) provides some before and after examples of edited writing.

There’s no one correct way to perform an edit, but one edit can definitely be better than another. I joked above about final word count because the most significant difference between my edits and the ones posted on SfEP is length. My tendency is to cut the fat, and that’s easy to do when you’re editing for practice and don’t have to present the edit to the writer.

For example, here’s a piece of unedited text:

Dear Customer

Happy New Year, as another year starts myself and Crown Dairy are always looking at ways we can improve the service we provide you.Due to the area I serve, the amount of customers I have and the large congestion of traffic, parking and vehicle Restrictions I have been having difficulties in calling back on customers in order to collect payment, in the interest of personal safety (i.e. I am carrying less cash) and providing an efficient early delivery of your milk and goods to your doorstep, I would like to suggest our direct debit payment service, you just fill in the form provided, return it to me and I will bill you on the last week of every month with payment to follow. Switching to Direct debit is not compulsory however this would be greatly appreciated in allowing me to be safer at work and providing the efficient service of your doorstep deliveries and that of our new online service milk plus, if you are already a direct debit or milk plus customer please ignore this letter.

Kind Regards

Your Milkman

Here’s my edit:

Dear Customer,

Happy New Year!

To better serve you this year, Crown Dairy suggests signing up for direct debit payment. Simply fill in the form provided, return it to me, and I will bill you on the last week of every month, with payment automatically debited from your account. Switching to direct debit provides you with more efficient doorstep delivery because I avoid the delays of traffic, parking, and payment collection.

For full online service, please visit our website and sign up for Milk Plus.

I look forward to serving you in the new year.

Kind Regards,

Your Milkman

And here’s the edit from SfEP:

Dear Customer

Happy New Year! The start of a new year is a good time to see how Crown Dairy and I can improve the service I provide you.

Because of the heavy traffic and parking restrictions in your area, it can be difficult for me to call back and collect payment for the goods I deliver. For my own safety, I carry little cash, so I can’t always provide you with the right change when you don’t have the exact money.

It would be a great help if you would be willing to use our direct debit payment service. Just fill in the form with this letter and return it to me. I will give you a monthly bill for your records, and payment will be taken automatically from your bank account.

Of course, you do not have to use this way to pay. However, it would allow me to work more safely and more efficiently in delivering goods to your door, including those ordered via our online “Milk plus” service.

If you already pay by direct debit, please ignore this letter.

Kind regards

Your Milkman

My instinct was to cut the wordiness and make the point about automatic withdrawals. But I like the gentle and persuasive tone of the SfEP edit. This edit keeps the personal tone of the original intact as well as the full explanations — explanations I deemed too detailed and unnecessarily focused on the milkman’s needs. But if the customer base is reluctant to use direct debit, the explanations are needed.

Of course, when I’m editing with a real live writer, I tend to take a more conservative approach, but it’s helpful to be aware of our natural inclinations. And for me, that means remembering that shorter isn’t always better.

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Happy Grammar Day!

It’s National Grammar Day (well, it is in the US, anyway), so amuse yourself with some fun blogs devoted to the subject. This post by Copyediting has several fun suggestions.

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Copy Editor Close-Up

For insight into the work of a copy editor, check out this interview with copy editor Susan Bradanini Betz. The interviewer is writer Edan Lepucki, who has been copy edited by Betz.

I particularly appreciated what Betz had to say about being aware of a writer’s style and what the writer is trying to accomplish. I just finished reading Ali Smith’s There but for the, and I imagined Smith’s copy editor starting to edit this work, making a  few changes, and then throwing in the towel, sitting back, and enjoying the ride. Did Smith mean to do that? What about this? (What about there, but, for, and especially the?)Yup, she meant it all, and I admire the copy editor who let it — the dialogue, the wordplay, the lack of punctuation — all stand.

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