Posted tagged ‘editor’

“Like a cigarette should”

July 28, 2013

Dissecting the grammar in advertising is like shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes (though I’ve never understood why one would shoot fish in a barrel). From an edited publication, you should expect editing. From a bunch of Mad Men, maybe you shouldn’t even expect writing. Creativity, of a specialized sort, yes. But not necessarily writing.

Poorly written ads have been around far longer than I have. The first such controversy I remember was over a brand of cigarettes, which at the time were advertised in print publications and maybe even on TV. “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the slogan went. I was incredulous: Those things taste good? But adults were taking sides over “like” versus “as.” The “like” people said the ad sounded like people talk, and “as” would sound stilted. The “as” people said proper grammar was worth something, and standards were going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that meant), and if we didn’t use the language properly, who knew what atrocities would follow. (Must be something about cigarettes — there were also magazine ads with the line “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!”)

This was my first exposure to prescriptivists and descriptivists — or, to put it in legal terms, strict constructionists and loose constructionists. Should we do things they way they’ve always been done because it’s “right”? Or should we change the rules to reflect the reality of how people use language, even if they’re “wrong”? I tend to lean prescriptivist, but it’s only a lean; both sides have a point, and though enforcing rules is often the role of an editor, so is making things readable and clear. So an editor has ample opportunity to experience everyone’s wrath.

But back to ads. Every once in a while one or more lines will jump out at me. On the radio, they’re like a dog whistle that most people don’t notice or don’t find bothersome. On paper, they make me want to get out the red pen. Here are some examples.

•     “If you need to lose up to 30 pounds or more ….” Okay, I sort of get why Madison Avenue wrote it that way. It’s still stupid. Do you need to lose up to 30 pounds? Or do you need to lose 30 pounds or more? It’s not both. I’d like the makers of this weight-loss product to lose this sentence.

•     “The detail and beauty is amazing.“The number-one issue in patents are patent trolls.” The first example is from a jewelry chain. As for the second, I am delighted to imagine what a patent troll looks like. Not so delighted to imagine how the educated people at this law firm managed to forget one of the most elementary(-school) rules of English grammar: The verb can’t be plural when the noun is singular. And vice versa, jewelry chain.

•     “See everything — like restaurants, shopping, and more.” My colleagues know I find redundancy annoying, irritating, aggravating, vexing, and exasperating. This line from an ad for a vacation destination is just the sort to which I’d take the red pen. It’s similar to the “30 pounds” line: If you must give an example of “everything,” say either “like [or ‘such as’] X and Y” or “X, Y, and more.” Not both. (Same with “et al.,” by the way, which is a Latin abbreviation for “and others” or “and other things.”)

•     “Dentures are very different to real teeth.” What? If you’ve seen this ad for a dental product, you know that some dentist supposedly says this, though he may well be an actor saying lines. But who would say or write that? Every time I hear it, I talk back to the TV: “From! From real teeth!”

“Your audience has grammar snobs and regular people. Whichever way you write your slogan it’s going to look natural to one group and un-natural to the other,” according to a writer for a blog called Cheap Talk. The writer sides with offending the “grammar snobs” because that’s the slogan that will get at least part of the audience “to turn it over, diagram it and correct it…. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Is anyone surprised?

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

A good “call” for home workers

April 30, 2013

Remember the fuss when the National Do Not Call Registry debuted almost 10 years ago? No more telemarketing calls! No more dinnertime distractions! Take that, aluminum-siding salesmen! But there were exceptions … for charities, surveys, political calls, businesses we’ve done business with, and of course bill collectors. And, it turns out, for sneaky telemarketers who find ways around the list—by disguising their numbers and names and just plain daring the Federal Trade Commission to come get them.

I spend most of my working life in employers’ offices, but there are plenty of days at my home desk. It’s amazing how often the phone rings. Amvets wants to collect clothing. Senior Medical Advisory (on several scam lists) wants to protect me from falls. “Card Services” wants to lower my credit-card rate. It lies about having sent two notices by mail and lies again about this being our last chance (if only). It or them I have reported to the FTC at least 10 times, but the number keeps changing. FTC, are you listening? Show a little “interest” and shut them down!

One thing Congress and President Bush did for us was the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act, a practical law that allowed us to register a phone number only once rather than every five years. According to the 2009 Economic Report of the President by the Council of Economic Advisors, “The program has proved quite popular: as of 2007, according to one survey, 72 percent of Americans had registered on the list, and 77 percent of those say that it made a large difference in the number of telemarketing calls that they receive (another 14 percent report a small reduction in calls). Another survey, conducted less than a year after the Do Not Call list was implemented, found that people who registered for the list saw a reduction in telemarketing calls from an average of 30 calls per month to an average of 6 per month.”

(Surveys, huh? Were they done by phone?)

One statement that often discombobulates telemarketers is “You’ve reached a business line.” If I can get a word in edgewise, that usually stops them. “Oh,” they say, “uh, okay, sorry.” The Do Not Call Registry applies only to residential lines, but telemarketers aren’t going to get far calling businesspeople, so they hang up—and possibly cross out the number. Sometimes people are particularly dense, though. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which claimed to be on a recorded line and not fundraising, blew right past the first time, so I had to repeat myself. Then, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand when you said that before. That’s okay, we can call businesses too. Today we want to—”

“Excuse me,” I said, politely, “I’m at work. Thank you.” Click.

Earlier this month the FTC announced the winners of its contest for ways to block robocalls. One invention routes calls to a second line, which identifies bad calls and cuts them off (the way an email filter handles spam). The other simply blocks unwanted calls after checking a list of “good and bad phone numbers,” according to news reports. These don’t sound all that effective as described, especially the second one, but maybe the problem is with the description. In any case, hooray for trying.

Because the person on the other end of the phone might be a source calling back or my editor with an assignment. Even with Caller ID, it’s hard to tell. When it turns out to be some recording offering to lower my credit-card rate, it stops my train of thought and also stops that source or editor from getting through. Calls I don’t want are a drain on commerce and specifically on the work the boss wants finished today. If it wouldn’t take so much time, I’d start call-bombing the FTC to say so.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The postscript to Petraeus’s biography

November 11, 2012

When the news broke Friday that General David Petraeus has suddenly resigned as head of the CIA because of an extramarital affair, I immediately pasted the Washington Post head and deck into an email to my Army brother with this subject line: “Oh no!”

It wasn’t yet public who his partner had been in this affair – or that some of his closest aides in the Middle East had noticed the general’s growing intimacy with the woman and had had the same thought.

Already we’ve seen, and will more in the coming days, several lessons from this mess. 1. As my brother hinted in his response (or maybe I’m just reading into it), men – will they ever learn? Nope. (Or in a variation learned from my college roommate, the smartest people can be really, really stupid.) 2. You can never know another person’s marriage. Maybe you can never fully know your own, either. 3. In this technological age, it’s harder and harder to keep a secret. 4. True, but as usual, this one was blown open by human frailty (chutzpah, hubris, jealousy, etc.) before the machines got involved. 5. Deployments threaten families and marriages – one of the issues Holly Petraeus had long worked on as an advocate for military families. 6. Geez Louise, what can possibly be worth the risk of your job, your marriage, your personal and professional reputation, and the pleasure of having your private life not splashed across every front page and news broadcast in America?

But the “who” is what I found intriguing here. The pretty, much younger woman involved is the lead author of Petraeus’s bestselling biography. They had quite a lot in common, which is surely what led to the strength of their acquaintance. Of course you want chemistry – at least a strong working relationship – with your biographer, but that may not be the best reason to choose a particular person.

From the Post’s article about her: “The woman, Paula Broadwell, then 37, had never written a book and had almost no journalistic experience. … [Petraeus] had until then been extraordinarily careful in managing his public image, allowing limited access to a handful of journalists, former aides say. … Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer on Petraeus’s staff, said he thought the general’s uncharacteristic confidence in an untested writer was ‘strange.’ ‘My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,’ he said in an interview Saturday.”

(Not to mention that she regularly wore “unusually tight” clothing in an Islamic war zone and spilled “sensitive operational details” in Facebook posts from the same war zone. But see Lessons 1 and 1a above.)

Yes, the second coauthor is Vernon Loeb, a Post and Philly Inquirer editor who has overseen DoD coverage. Still, celebrities and their publishers aren’t focused on the second coauthor. If you are arguably the preeminent general of a generation, so concerned with your image for posterity, do you follow your ego (or worse) and choose a newbie with whom you have a lot in common and a ton of chemistry? Or do you pick an experienced biographer or reporter, someone who may not be as flattering, as deferential? It’s a serious question, what kind of biography you want for the ages. And what does each member of the team realistically contribute to that end?

You could say the proof is in the pudding; the book garnered strong but mixed reviews and became a bestseller. Or you could look at the fact that this untested writer used seriously questionable judgment on several occasions – including in sending threatening emails to a perceived rival, which is what got the FBI on her trail and led to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

It’s easy to come up with another lesson: Choose a biographer with a track record, one at least with a background as a reporter/writer/editor etc. Would that have avoided trouble, though? Has a professional biographer never, ever begun an affair with the subject? Has a professional, experienced writer never been known to go off the deep end and do something really dumb, even borderline criminal?

I’m going to have to fall back on Lesson 2 here: I can’t see inside either one’s marriage, and unless they spill to the press (this is contrary to my professional interest, but honestly, more people would be smart to keep their mouths shut!), we’re not going to know much. I would, however, like to know what Vernon Loeb thinks. He might write a column for the Post; I’ll keep an eye out for that. His view of this mess would be both unique and enlightening.

Addendum, Monday night. There it is! “Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair.” By Vernon Loeb. First sentence: “My wife says I’m the most clueless person in America.” Heh. In the photo, he looks like an older version of Sean Penn in Milk. Turns out he and Broadwell were paired up by their mutual agent – he to be the ghostwriter at home in Maryland, she to be the researcher with unfettered access in the field. “An incredible opportunity,” he thought. When people raised eyebrows about the researcher and the general, he says, he always gave her the benefit of the doubt.

As for the biography and its authors, “the editors at Penguin Press were quite clear about what they wanted: a book on the rigors of command told from an inside point of view,” he says. “I had no say over the book’s ultimate take on Petraeus, which some have found excessively laudatory. Broadwell was free to make whatever revision or modifications she desired to the text, and did so liberally.”

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Going Forward, Part 1

June 17, 2012

Otherwise known as the Department of Redundancy Bureau.

It’s rare that this pointless phrase is ever useful. Ninety-some percent of the time, you can slice it out of a sentence and never know it was there. To prove this, let’s take some random headlines and other lines from the Internet:

“Greek economy faces challenges going forward”

“Biggest positional needs going forward for Steelers”

“Sony reveals business plan going forward for 2012”

“We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be ….”

“Celtics going forward with a familiar core”

Okay, that last one is a legitimate use. The others? Well, I could cross my eyes every time I heard such nonsense, but as Mom used to warn, “Your face will freeze like that.”

An editor risks frostbite at all the redundancies in newspapers, on billboards, in junk mail, on TV, on radio, online, on banners behind small airplanes, etc. etc. For example:

* free gift                                                                                  * 9 am in the morning

* added bonus                                                                         * continue on

* unexpected surprise                                                           * true fact

* PIN number, VIN number, ATM machine,                   * armed gunman

SAT test, HIV virus                                                               * unconfirmed rumor

* surrounded on all sides                                                     * past history

Piece of cake, as they say, to edit such phrases as “a variety of different things” and “a potential hazard.” That’s why I can pretty much promise an ability to shorten any piece of prose — there are always cliches, redundancies, multiple words and phrases where one or two will do, and so on.

In most cases, I guess, people just aren’t paying attention. Most people don’t give any more thought to language than they do to their route to work or what they had for breakfast Monday. More important, they never learned grammar in the first place, never had the benefit of reading literature, didn’t learn a foreign language and analyze the differences with English, didn’t do crosswords, or didn’t have teachers who pointed out illogic with red pens and led class discussions on, say, “9 am in the morning,” a term I keep hearing on WTOP around 7 am. In the morning.

I expect that of Everyman at this point. I don’t expect it from President Obama and his speechwriters, who allowed “going forward” a few days ago. Ugh! Speaking only about grammar and language, we had eight years of an inane president. This one was a constitutional law professor known for his erudite speeches and a couple of well-reviewed bestsellers he wrote himself. Et tu?

Of course, spoken language has something of an excuse for redundancy. You need to be understood both literally and figuratively. Advertisers want to get that magic word “free” into your head. “PIN” is one syllable, so “PIN number” is clearer on the phone and in recorded instructions. Presidents, perhaps, want to sounds like your average Joe (Biden? Plumber?), though the wisdom of that varies by what they say. If studies show that people need to hear a message eight times before it sticks, maybe a bit of redundancy is forgivable when life has so many distractions.

But there’s no excuse for “future plans” or “true fact” (do people really say that unironically?). Aggravating as it is to hear terms like this, the best approach may be a dual one: as an editor, to strike them whenever possible, and as a listener, to laugh. It’s better than raising my blood pressure or crossing my eyes. But more on that in the next chapter — Going Forward, Part 2 — about cliches.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.


April 20, 2012

A memoir is a tricky thing. It’s the world according to you. Pretty much everyone else is bound to bicker with your interpretation of the facts, let alone with your opinions and impressions. But do you care? Probably not! It’s your book, and besides, by the time others read it, you’re quite possibly dead.

Now let’s consider the editor of this memoir. On the rare occasions I’d given any thought to such a person, I’d assumed a few things: (1) He or she must be a diplomat at the very least. (2) He or she must be patient and great with detail. (3) Some percentage of editors don’t last at this because they can’t put up with subjects who (a) have poor memories or (b) have enormous egos or (c) throw things at them. Or some combination thereof.

That was from imagining the editor/ghostwriter sitting with the subject much as in the film The Ghost Writer (see my post of December 15). However, this week’s project ….

Who am I kidding? This year’s project is editing the memoir of a fellow who was an Air Force JAG officer, CODEL escort officer, and Beltway bandit lawyer, among other things. A friend spent seven years interviewing him and transcribing the tapes. Late last year I picked it up from there. I’ve met the subject once, but this is a solo project – me at the home computer, the electronic transcript on one side of the screen, the edited version of the current chapter on the other side, and the boxes of transcripts on a chair beside me. That’s because my predecessor made handwritten notes on the typed pages, and all those have to be put in as well. It’s like I need three eyes.

I haven’t read Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, but I have considered how immersed the guy’s gotten in the minutia of someone else’s life. I’m getting a taste of that now. My subject has an uncommon memory, and it’s a bit uncomfortable to realize that I know him more intimately than almost anyone. More uncomfortable than that is realizing that for all these details over all these years, I have a perspective on him that he doesn’t have on himself.

I’m the editor, not a ghostwriter. But like a ghost, I am of course keeping that perspective private. His story is the world according to him. That’s what he’s paying for, and that’s what he’s going to get.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

A new stage in journalism

December 2, 2011

Tomorrow my new story was published in the Washington Post. No, wait – on Saturday, my Wednesday story will debut in the Washington Post. No, wait – on Wednesday, Saturday’s story ran in (on) the Washington Post.

This multiplatform journalism is so confusing.

Put it this way: Wednesday, the real-estate editor sent me a link to my first story for her, which had just been posted online. The story, about staging one’s home for better sale, is scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s print edition. (Why the Post keeps undercutting its own material, from features to op-eds to Toles cartoons, by running it online days ahead of time is a mystery. Won’t people continue to drop their subscriptions when their weekend papers are filled with material they’ve already seen online?)

This story is my first direct experience with what I described in the Express article about the NPR producer who puts together slideshows, video interviews, interactive maps, and so on. The editor wanted not only a reported article but a gallery of before-and-after photos and a video of one of my stagers discussing what she does and then doing it over a period of hours (speeded up, with a crew involved – pretty cool effect). I collected the photos from all over, many more than were actually used; discussed options for houses we might use for the video; and arranged for the chosen stager and the Post people to converge to make it all happen.

With this article, I’ve now appeared in at least six sections of the Post: Style, Travel, Food, Sunday Source, the Magazine, and now Real Estate. (Weekend, too, though not sure that counts because Escapes is there only after migrating from its former home in the Style section. And five years of my column in Express, of course.)

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.