Loaded Language: Writing and Editing Controversial Content for Professional or Scholarly Publication
It’s been a tough year. Civic and political unrest in the United States, Brexit, a worldwide pandemic, military rule in Myanmar, religious and political extremism, among others. While you may wish to express your opinion on such issues in personal social media accounts, examining both current and historical issues in a professional or scholarly context intended for publication requires a different approach.
How do you get your message across in a way that will convince your readers and not set them on edge? This question is particularly pertinent in academic and scholarly nonfiction, in which the writer is seen as the expert imparting important information to the audience. Your job as an authority is to present your research and draw conclusions in such a way that your readers follow along with you and then draw their own conclusions based on your evidence—without being told how to feel about it. That is something that should be left up to readers to discover for themselves, when faced with the evidence presented. Otherwise, a writer risks possibly alienating readers or making them feel manipulated by the text.
Christmas or Xmas?
Some years ago when I was working on my children’s school council, one of the communications volunteers received a complaint from some parents after a brief communication went out asking for volunteers for a “Xmas” event. The complaint? That the use of Xmas was “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, in recent years, there seems to have been some backlash in North America over the use of Xmas as a shortened version for Christmas, claiming that the use of the abbreviation is an attempt to secularize Christmas.
Photo: Carla DeSantis
*A version of this blog post was originally published by Editors' Weekly, the offical blog of Editors Canada, 26 May 2020.
I still yearn for my “Summer of Reading.” It was the summer after grade 8—that awkward age when you are too young for a job, too old for some camps—and I had the now-longed-for luxury of time. I consumed a large number of books, lying on my bed reading V.C. Andrews’s creepy Flowers in the Attic and afterwards racing to the store with my friend to get the second book in the trilogy, to quench our thirst for more. Lounging in my screened-in porch, I dug into S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and devoured To Kill a Mockingbird while sitting under a tree. Not all of them were classics but popular YA choices from a certain decade. It was glorious.
It’s a new year, and many people make resolutions to edit their lives, so to speak: exercise more, eat or drink less, get their homes in order by editing out unneeded objects.
What about editing yourself, as in your words?
A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a group email interchange (personal, not business) involving a decision to be made, which left me frustrated with the way things were going. In a final act of exasperation—and perhaps acting too truthfully—I typed “I really don’t care” as my final response. But as my finger hovered over the “Send” button, my editor’s brain kicked in and gave me pause. My reply sounded too flippant. Would I leave something like that in a client’s document, or would I tweak it for better diction and tone? I decided to revise my response to “It doesn’t matter to me,” taking the onus off of “I,” placing it on the issue (“it”), and changing the verb from one of personal emotion to impersonal import.
This week I began a lengthy editing project, copyediting a critical edition of a medieval Latin text, accompanied by its English translation—a completely satisfying, challenging, and enjoyable job that is reminding me of my previous experience with medieval manuscripts (see my previous blog) and writing my own critical edition. This work makes me ponder, once again, the connections between copyediting and manuscript editing, which consists of transcribing the ancient script; choosing, eliminating, or editing the readings of various manuscript witnesses; and finding the sources on which the text may have drawn, in order to bring the text into readable form for the modern reader. What are some of the skills necessary for editing medieval Latin manuscripts and how have they informed what I do today when copyediting academic materials and bringing these texts into more readable form for my clients?
My husband’s quest for a minimalist home is futile. He longs for clean lines, mostly empty white shelves, while I feel panicked and see the house as soulless if those shelves are bare of my books. While I do continually purge my collection, the liberated spaces are quickly filled by new acquisitions.
Having watched a few episodes of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” on Netflix together didn’t help matters. “See? You just hold the book in your hand and see if it sparks joy or not!” While I can see that working with socks or spatulas, my relationship with books is much more involved and complicated for disposal to be reduced to such simplicity.
Photo: Carla DeSantis
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter came home with a less-than-stellar grade on her history test. When I asked about it, her reply came as a shock to me: “Why do we even need to learn history? We need to look to the future instead of the past.”
Now, I am all for forward thinking, but as someone who has spent most of her life thinking and learning about what past cultures have done, thought, and written – mainly in the context of language and literature – and how this has impacted and influenced modern thought, language, and literature, I had to stop and really think about what her reply means.
What is your style guide? Armani? American Eagle? Ralph Lauren?
Maybe when it comes to your fashion choices, but when writing for publication, business, or academic purposes, you need a set of guiding standards to ensure that your important work is presented in a consistent way, so that your reader can focus on your crucial message and is not distracted by the fact that “New York Times” appears within quotation marks on page 4 and in italics as New York Times on page 120. (Are you referring to two different publications, the reader may ask herself?) If you cite (Brown 2001, 120) on page 45 and (Brown, 66) on page 56, is it the same reference? And minor variations like “the United States Government” in one place and “the US government” in another will simply irritate your reader.
Photo: Justine McVeigh
The other day a friend of mine – on the verge of sending her youngest child off to university and probably feeling nostalgic – sent me a picture of our now-21-year-old boys playing ball in the schoolyard at age 9. She and her husband are soon to become what are known as “empty nesters.”
The Drop Off
This week thousands of parents will be dropping off their kids at college and university – some for the very first time, some for their last time. But in every case, whether it is your first, middle, or last child going, this experience of dropping off your child for the first time – or being dropped off for the first time – is a monumental moment, among the most emotional and memorable in both parents’ and children’s lives.
"Click. Add note to replace text. Add text box with notation for typesetting. Strike through text. Insert correct source at cursor." I am working in Adobe Acrobat on page proofs, preparing them for publication with a university press. I have been invested in this project from:
A Different Kind of Manuscript
Twenty years ago, however, you would have found me in the venerable Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan or Biblioteca Statale of Cremona in Italy, perusing a different kind of manuscript – ones written by hand on vellum or parchment paper in the late Middle Ages. I imagined a life of research, studying the written treasures hidden within the pages of such medieval manuscripts – accessible only to those trained to read the cryptic script and qualified to handle the fragile pages – and teaching Latin to university students. How did I end up working on modern books, on digital platforms, for other scholars?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.