Thursday, August 30, 2012

If It's Broke

At Children's Book Insider, Laura Backes offers common problems in stories for children, which are common problems in all narrative writing (thin plot, bad plot, flat characters, and bland, obnoxious, or otherwise unappealing voice), and concludes with a reminder about the importance of a solid command of mechanics:
When submitting to an editor, grammatical errors can distract from an otherwise strong book. When self-publishing, they're the kiss of death. If you know you have problems with punctuation, spelling, subject/verb agreement, formatting dialogue, etc., hire a good copy editor to clean up your manuscript. There are people out there who live to fix these problems. Use them.
If these be the common problems, what are the solutions? Backes says exactly what I say to writers who ask me how to improve their writing: Read. Read a lot.

Find writers you like and read everything they wrote. If you skipped out on the great books in high school and college, consider taking another crack at them: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina--there are lists all over the place if you need ideas on what to read:
  • 100 Novels everyone should read here.
  • Information Is Beautiful on the books everyone must read here.
The reason people like them is that they are great stories beautifully written. A lot of them. I couldn't stand Herzog, but it always ends up on someone's list. In matters of taste there is no argument.

By the way, if anyone is ever looking for an editor, I know a few whom I highly recommend, whose work is so good and evidence of such knowledge and skill that I am dazzled. It may surprise you that one might be dazzled by the skillful wielding of grammar and punctuation, but thorough competence always does dazzle.

Words for the day:
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
Samuel Johnson hadn't seen the Occupational Outlook Handbook when he said that.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If, Then

If you're always dreamed of writing a novel, National Novel Writing Month is coming up. More here.

If you're ever made a mistake, you might want to exploit it exorcise it work through it and let it go by writing about it for a contest. More here.

If you need deadlines to inspire you to write, there are plenty of other contests and competitions. More here. And here.

If you've always wanted to know more about how to build a sentence, you could read this.

If you'd like an opportunity to shake your head at the sorry state of affairs for writers, you could look at this.

Same as above, but for editors.

If you'd like an opportunity to feel righteously indignant, read about the Amazon review scandal. More here.

If you are a student (at any grade level) and you'd like to try writing and illustrating a six-word memoir, now's your chance. More here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Measure What Can Be Measured

I'm in DC for a joyous occasion, and even so--even here, in the midst of the joy, even in the thrill of riding the Metro and the suspense of wondering if this be the ride during which I become irretrievably lost in the bowels of the city--I'm thinking about readability.

In assessment publications, readability, or the grade at which we might reasonably expect a student to be able to read a given text, is determined by one or more of these measures:

Because of the Common Core Standards, one can no longer talk about readability without text complexity pulling up a chair to the table. Which is all to the good.

Here is an explanation of Lexile by Jason Turner at MetaMetrics (by posting this, I intend neither to promote nor disparage Lexile, simply to offer information). I'd like to clarify that when Turner identifies Lexile as a measure of text complexity, he means that it is a quantitative measure--there is no readability formula capable of providing a qualitative measure. 

This is such a vital point that I feel compelled to repeat that there is no readability formula capable of providing a qualitative measure. 

Readability formulae cannot interpret nor analyze meaning. No theme, motif, trope, metaphor, symbol--no beauty, no lyricism--can be interpreted nor analyzed by a readability formula, which greatly diminishes the likelihood that such a formula could provide an accurate measure of literary text. Readability formulae can count.

What is counted--word frequency, word length, sentence length--may vary from formula to formula. It doesn't seem to matter much what is counted; like the yellow, green, orange, and blue lines of the DC Metro trains that all pull up to L'Enfant Plaza, the readability formulae tend to arrive at the same conclusions: "No one of the quantitative measures performed significantly differently than the others in predicting student outcomes."

These formulae, therefore, are most useful in evaluating the suitability of informational text for students at a certain grade level, much less useful in evaluating the suitability of literary text, and not at all useful for evaluating the suitability of poetry or drama.

Here is an explanation published by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors' Association:

There will be exceptions to using quantitative measures to identify the grade band; sometimes qualitative considerations will trump quantitative measures in identifying the grade band of a text, particularly with narrative fiction in later grades. Research showed more disagreement among the quantitative measures when applied to narrative fiction in higher complexity bands than with informational text or texts in lower grade bands. Given this, preference should sometimes be given to qualitative measures when evaluating narrative fiction intended for students in grade 6 and above. For example, some widely used quantitative measures rate the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Grapes of Wrath as appropriate for grades 2–3. This counterintuitive result emerges because works such as Grapes often express complex ideas or mature themes in relatively commonplace language (familiar words and simple syntax), especially in the form of dialogue that mimics everyday speech. Such quantitative exceptions for narrative fiction should be carefully considered, and exceptions should be rarely exercised with other kinds of text. It is critical that in every ELA classroom students have adequate practice with literary non-fiction that falls within the quantitative band for that grade level. To maintain overall comparability in expectations and exposure for students, the overwhelming majority of texts that students read in a given year should fall within the quantitative range for that band.
It seems clear, then, that for literary text we must rely on a second opinion. And yet, from what I see, reviewers (content editors at test publishing companies, panels of teachers convened to evaluate test materials) continue to rely primarily on quantitative formulae rather than qualitative considerations when deciding to accept or reject literary passages. Just as we can all agree that Grapes of Wrath is hardly a book for second- and third-graders, I think we can all agree that this is a mistake.

I understand why and how this mistake is made. Unless trained in the study of literature (which is and has been a bona fide field of study for centuries upon centuries), who feels qualified to make decisions about a literary work? And yet, in the immortal words of Galileo, here we must find some way to "make measurable what cannot be measured."

The good news is that there are many people who are so trained. Why not add their voices to the mix? This would surely help us remain true to the goal of creating the best fit possible between reader and text.

And now, I'd like to return to the beginning and wish Kia and Roy, the two most brilliant people I know, two who are blessed with every gift of intellect and heart, two who are not just brilliant writers but purely lovely human beings, every possible happiness. The Donne poem is from the ceremony.

by John Donne

I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not wean'd till then ?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown;
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres 
 Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 

NOTE: Just for fun, here are the Flesch-Kincaid measures for both the John Donne poem and this blog post.
Flesch-Kincaid measure for "The Good-Morrow": 2.1
Flesch-Kincaid measure for "What Can Be Measured": 12.0

NOTE THE SECOND: I listened to this bit with Martha Nussbaum on the value of the humanities and wanted to share.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What the World Needs Now

It may be unnecessary to say that in talking about what's wrong, I don't mean to pick on anybody in particular. Even if it is one person making specific mistakes, I tend to see this as a systemic ill, as previously discussed, rather than an opportunity to dogpile on an unwitting offender.

A systemic ill that is particularly pernicious in the test publishing industry. How can we expect kids to do well on tests when the tests themselves are riddled with error?

The safeguards are so simple:
1. provide adequate training (again, as previously discussed)
2. follow some kind of standard process for detecting and repairing error
3. use the information from #2 to supplement #1

These safeguards cost time and money, which explains why so many companies have gradually let them fall by the wayside. 

Training takes time and attention. I can't believe how fortunate I was to have received the training I did. In my first year as an associate editor, I probably had more training opportunities than editors now receive in a decade. It was a different era. The Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company at which I worked had an army of style editors, proofreaders, and QA personnel.

Over the last dozen years, I've seen companies completely dismantle their style editing departments and outsource the work to freelance editors. Now style editors (copy editors) are held in such low regard that if any Bright Young Thing with a talent for grammar and language conventions tells me she'd like to give this work a try, I steer her away from style editing and into content.  I hate doing it. I myself hold style editors in high esteem, maybe because often their job seems to be to keep me from making a fool of myself. What the world needs now--no disrespect intended to Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach--is more style editing.

Many companies have also dismantled their content development departments.

So there's no real continuity for item writers and content editors. They work on a project for one company and then skip to a project for another. The content development people who remain at the companies are overwhelmed and certainly don't have the time to provide training to freelancers; editors accept or reject items, which means they're likely to fix mistakes themselves, and so the item writer never hears of his mistakes and is free to repeat those mistakes forever in a state of unfortunate ignorant complacence.

Right now, I'm thinking of all this in terms of language conventions items, because I was reviewing a set this morning, but I'm sure this applies to all domains and content areas.

Right now, I offer some specific observations about language items:
1. When language items accompany an editing passage that contains embedded error, the content of each item must be mutually exclusive. A sentence from the passage should contain only one error, and should be used only for one item in a set.
2. "Syntax" has to do with grammatical rules; "diction" has to do with the writer's choice of words.
3. An item should clearly target only one type of error, and should not mix types of errors. For example, a punctuation item shouldn't include distractors that contain errors in verb tense.

More previously discussed here.

As an aside, it's interesting how you can learn a lot about a person by reviewing his or her work, and how this body of knowledge grows over time. It's like how my mechanic told me that he knows more about his customers from the condition of their cars than he does from talking with them. He can tell who drives erratically, who slams on the brakes, who grinds the gears, and he can tell who doesn't. Everything is everything. You can develop a similar personality profile simply by reviewing a writer's work.

I can't tell you how many times I've finished working on a manuscript, items or reading passage, don't make no difference, and felt a deep and tender affection for the writer because his or her work demonstrated care, attention, and conscientiousness. 

UPDATE: Forgot to mention. I started writing about all this because I saw this book mentioned in the Common Core Standards and immediately ordered it. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jobs, Money, and Love for All

Good grammar and spelling skills make your life better.

From Education Week, a teacher's blog post about an employer who screens job candidates to weed out those with poor English grammar skills:

In a fiery post for the Harvard Business Review, Wiens says he flat out won't hire people who are careless with grammar. And to ensure that no offenders slip through, both of his companies—Wiens is also the founder of the documentation-software maker Dozuki—have instituted mandatory grammar tests as part of the hiring process.
Before I read the source post by Kyle Wiens for Harvard Business Review, I had mixed feelings. Is this really necessary for candidates who aren't writers? I know so many smart, capable people who use--oh, let's call it "nonstandard grammar." They're not writers, and so I switch off the inner critic before I read their email messages.

But Wiens makes a compelling argument:
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts. 
In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose. Great programmers are more than just code monkeys; according to Stanford programming legend Donald Knuth they are "essayists who work with traditional aesthetic and literary forms." The point: programming should be easily understood by real human beings — not just computers. 
And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil's in the details. In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything. 
He's right that details matter.

You can even put a price on details. According to a 2004 article in The New York Times, one spelling mistake can cost as much as $198:
Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. 
An article published by BBC News in 2011 calculates the cumulative costs:
An online entrepreneur says that poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for Internet businesses.
Wayne State University assistant professor Fred Vultee, who conducted a study sponsored by the American Copy Editors' Society, found that not only can readers distinguish edited from unedited text, but they notice and are troubled by errors (more here). Said Vultee, "Editing makes a difference. It's across the board, it's not imaginary, and it's reasonably big."

And if that weren't enough, errors in spelling and grammar can also inhibit romance: "In a survey of more than 5,000 members asking about the most common profile mistakes, 51% complained about profiles with poor spelling or grammar...."

Over the last almost twenty years, I've worked with writers whose English language skills range from impeccable to not. When I say "not," I don't mean to pick on anyone who makes an occasional typo or some other minor mistake. It's very difficult to proof one's own work; the brain insists on making the text appear as you know it should appear. I use "not" for those whose work displays not just a repeated pattern of error, but sometimes repeated patterns of different types of errors, even after those same types of errors have been pointed out to the writer previously.

Is it prejudice to expect that people whose trade is writing should have strong language skills? Maybe. For me, it's work avoidance; writers who make lots of mistakes cause me lots of extra work. Which means I can verify that mistakes have a cost, because if I need writers, my first calls are to the ones whose writing causes me the least work in terms of content and style.

I don't fault anyone for not knowing something; we all of us stumble on our ignorance sometimes. And yet, it works against us to cling to that ignorance once we become aware of it.

Toward the goal of jobs, money, and love for all, I offer the following resources:
Grammar & Style: Grammar Guides, Style Guides, APA,
HyperGrammar at the University of Ottawa
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Pam Nelson: Grammar Guide
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk, E.B. White, and Roger Angell
The Purdue Online Writing Lab
Top Ten Resources on Spelling and Word Study