Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre

March 26, 2013

Many of you know John E. McIntyre, night editor at the Baltimore Sun and purveyor of consistently good sense on language and editing – evident on his blog You Don’t Say, which I read daily and often link to. Good news: McIntyre has written a book, titled The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing, and it is excellent.

John E. McInytre - The Old Editor Says - Maxims for Writing and Editing - book coverAt 70-odd pages, The Old Editor Says is short enough to breeze through in an hour or less, depending on how long you pause for thought, laughter, and quoting to neighbours. Then you’ll want to read it again.

McIntyre is a sharp and entertaining writer, traits honed by his newsroom experience. Take this line: “The next time you use ‘to die for’ in copy, we can make that happen.” (His point: beware exaggeration and journalistic tics and clichés.)

Each page opens with similarly aphoristic advice (occasionally inherited from other editors), followed by a brief discussion. The prose is clear, concise, measured, and filled with sound guidance. Here are some conclusions from one such piece of advice:

First, from your editor, as from your butler, there are no secrets. If you have allowed yourself to be lazy, careless, turgid, or sloppy, there is no concealing it.

Second, everyone – everyone – is capable of shoddy work, especially in the first draft. That is why writers need editing, not just self-editing, but editing from an independent set of eyes.

Third, humility should be the outcome. The writer should understand the human propensity toward error, and the editor should not assume some snooty sense of superiority for having ferreted out errors, because the editor is equally prone to them.*

The book does not deal much with specific issues of grammar; instead it devotes space to pointing out how errors and deficiencies commonly arise and suggesting how to prevent or mitigate them. It explains what’s necessary to keep readers reading and not frustrate them through carelessness and complacency. And it has fun doing so.

The Old Editor Says offers wise counsel on proofreading, word choice, office politics, ethics, stylebook use, job satisfaction, and more. Its main province is the newspaper trade, but its distilled insights are generally applicable to wordsmiths in other fields, as seen in this passage on rules and responsibility:

Those “rules” from whatever stylebook you use aren’t statutory; they’re guidelines. One-sentence exhortations, the ones in this little book included, are not adequate for the complexity of experience.

What you need is judgment.

Mr McIntyre has written a useful and original book that’s also a pleasure to read. If you’re in the business of writing or editing, The Old Editor Says will satisfy, gratify, and edify. You can get it through Amazon and elsewhere in paper and electronic formats; I ordered my copy from the Book Depository (UK).

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* Anyone who doubts the fallibility of editors should see these confessions at the Subversive Copy Editor Blog.

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Audio lingo

April 19, 2012

This blog normally focuses on text, sometimes on images and video. Audio is relatively under-represented, so what follows is a selection of podcasts and interviews I’ve listened to lately, in a language-and-linguistics vein.

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Some of you already know about Lexicon Valley, a new podcast on language from Slate, hosted by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo. There have been six episodes so far, 20–40 minutes long and covering such subjects as syntax, taboo words, pseudo-rules and Scrabble. The show is entertaining, well-researched, and sometimes surprising.

Critical reaction from linguists and others has been very positive. Arnold Zwicky, who features in one show, is impressed, while Neal Whitman finds it interesting and linguistically sound. Dave Wilton thought the first episode fun and first rate, despite one minor criticism; Joe McVeigh (“excellent”) and Crikey (“treasure”) also praised it.

Lexicon Valley is on a temporary break but will soon be back with new episodes. Listeners are invited to comment and suggest ideas for future coverage.

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Since 2009, to mark National Grammar Day in the U.S., John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has been writing humorous pulp serials which he calls Grammarnoir. This year they reappeared as podcasts: Grammarnoir 1 (2009) (text); Grammarnoir 2 – Pulp Diction (2010) (text); and Grammarnoir 3 – The Wages of Syntax (2011).

Grammarnoir 4 (2012) has yet to be broadcast, but the script is online in four parts: one, two, three, four. Each serial plays with the style and language of hard-boiled crime fiction, and is packed with drama, derring-do and editorial wit.

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Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gave a lively and fascinating interview with New Books Network about slang in all its rambunctious glory. A voluble and thoughtful speaker, he discusses lexicographical research, historical attitudes to slang and taboo, the Urban Dictionary, and more.

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In 2001, Judy Swallow on NPR’s The Connection hosted an interesting discussion about language between Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace – both articulate and passionate commentators on language. They are rather more prescriptivist in their outlook than I am, but don’t let that put you off. One listener calls in to criticise different than, insisting it should be different from. Her reasoning was quite strange:

If you compare two things, one’s gonna be up and one’s gonna be down, and then you use than, but if something is simply different, it’s different from the way it used to be.

(It’s possible she said gotta rather than gonna; I couldn’t tell.) Garner defended the usage, saying that different from would have been “very awkward and difficult” in the instances in question. My post on different than, from, and to, which received a fresh flurry of comments recently, shows that different than is acceptable.

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Finally, a shout-out to A Way with Words, a public radio favourite hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, which I’ve been enjoying for years and recommend highly to anyone unaware of it. Etymology, wordplay and dialectal variation are recurring themes.

If you know any podcasts or other audio material that you think I might enjoy, language-related or otherwise, feel free to suggest them.