Saturday, December 19, 2009

A better noun, a better verb: more thoughts on copy-editing

When writing first drafts I will usually bung in instructions to myself as I go along, most often [CHECK] where I have relied on memory for an author's or a character's name, or a fact, or a guess at spelling, or whatever, and [FIX THIS] where the sentence clearly doesn't say what I wanted to mean. The combination of square brackets and caps makes the instructions stand out to an eye that has learned over decades of reading plays to associate caps in square brackets with instructions to act. As it were.

Anyway, there I was a minute ago squinting at a sentence from a book review I started a few days ago, in the middle of which I had written 'The story is marked by [FIND A BETTER NOUN AND A BETTER VERB, THINK WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN] the weird Scottish combination of wry understatement and behavioural excess.'

I like that last bit, but 'story is marked' is all wrong. Both the narrative and its narrator feature this, I think, very Scottish combination, so 'story' isn't really what I mean, and that combination is intrinsic to both the story and the storytelling so 'marked' (which implies something on the surface that was put there later) isn't right either. I have to figure out a way of saying it that is both more accurate and less awkward. Which means that the instruction in the square brackets is a bit misleading. As so often, one can get hopelessly bogged down in trying to come up with a different word when what's really needed is a re-structuring of the entire sentence.

Actually I'm ahead of schedule and the reason I'm working at all is that, on the weekend before Christmas when like everybody else I'm supposed to be running around like a mad rabbit planning this and buying that and nailing down the other, I've been struck down with the most disgusting coldy fluey thing I think I've ever had, with the full range of symptoms and every one of them floridly in evidence, so I'm not fit to do anything requiring physical energy or anything requiring going out. If I get further ahead with the work I'll be freed up to do Christmasy things when I get better, which please Goddess will start happening tomorrow if not sooner. But a head full of glue, cement and cotton wool is maybe not the ideal tool for trying to re-write a recalcitrant sentence, either.

My eye keeps going back to those square brackets, though. If I were allowed to say only one thing to a class full of writing students, it would probably be that. THINK WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN.


Mindy said...

This tale is characterised by?

narrative, chronicle,

Hope you are feeling better soon.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes indeed, 'characterised' is a front runner. Tx for good heath wishes.

elsewhere said...

Mmm...I use the comment function...which I guess might be indicative of some kind of techno sloppiness?

Suse said...

My ten year old just looked over my shoulder at your post and said "A noun is a naming word and a verb is a doing word. Right?"

Get well soon!

ps. I'm listening to Jane Eyre on audiobook (having just listened to Wide Sargasso Sea) and keep wondering whether the Sistahs will be blogging again anytime soon?

pps. word verif. is WORDHE. Really.

Zoe said...

Infused. All Scots things are infused with something.

I too am enlurgied, but unlike Owen I didn't lie down in a pool of kid vomit last night so I still feel I'm ahead.


Tatyana Larina said...

I hope the cold gets better soon. In any case, it's better to be away from all that seasonal madness.

How interesting about having instructions in square brackets. What a good idea!

It's a nice sentence, actually. I'm drawn in.

What this post illustrates, to me, is how a piece of writing gets created, many layers of careful thinking and crafting.

I'm sure some wonderful solution will soon emerge for the first part of the sentence, if it doesn't feel right.

Think what you mean—so apt. And difficult.


Textbook guidelines: active voice usually works better than passive. If I remember correctly.

Deborah said...

I'm sorry you're ill.

I learned the rudiments of writing from Professor Ken Moores, back when I was doing honours in Accounting and Finance (don't ask). He hammered us for sloppy writing, for using dressy words and elaborate structures, and from my erudite uncle and my father, both of whom delight in using exactly the right word to convey meaning. I have been very grateful for the writing education I got from these three men.

I have used just CAPS to indicate something I need to fix, but square brackets is a much better technique. Will be adopting... It's also quite a useful thing to do from the point of making progress, not getting held up by something you know isn't quite right, but moving on and then coming back later, when your mind may have had more of a chance to get to that "Aha!" moment, or maybe a deeply satisfying sighed, "Ahhhhh."

"The story is steeped in ..." 'though you might then need to do something about the excessive use of "st".

Bernice said...

I've been using hideous coloured highlighting plus comments but the bracketing is far more elegant, and has the virtue of working in non Word doc. files.

If more than one person is working on something, has anyone tried using Google Wave yet as a tool for keeping all of the argy bargy + docs + tracking changes together? Will be playing with it over Xmas break - prelim poking about suggests it might be about the best damned thing for corralling all of the process I've seen. Cheap too - all you need is a google account.

Out of sheer curiosity, PC do you keep versions of manuscripts as docs? (presuming you're not handwriting them or typing them manually) Or use track changes? then deliberately save & file them? (if that's not too nosey a question...)

skepticlawyer said...

Hope you beat the lurgy before Christmas rolls around. I suspect there may be worse times of the year in which to be sick, but not many.

fxh said...

pav - you may or may not be interested to know that square parenth..parenthis.. brackets are what they used in vondervool vonderfool kopehagen to indicate clauses NOT agreed to.