A most interesting proposal

Fiction editing is great for exploring subtle shades of meaning, of controlling how ideas are placed in a reader’s mind, and perhaps opening up whole new worlds. Although there is a definite structure, deviations from the main trip are delightful, if skilfully executed. You want the person to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, to smell the flowers along the way. Corporate, academic or science editing, on the other hand, is about communicating a message efficiently, about making complex ideas accessible (or, some might say, with tongue firmly in cheek, as inaccessible as possible), and letting the reader take the information and do something with it. No flower smelling here, thank you, I’m trying to save the flowers from extinction. Let’s go.

This makes corporate editing a lot of fun in terms of finding out stuff, stuff that I can well envisage one day turning into fiction. For example, some years ago I was writing a brief section of a report that was a demographic study of Australia. As part of the research for that I had to trawl through excel tables from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (which I secretly enjoyed very much), and I noticed that the number of women who said they were married differed from the number of men who said they were married. The statistic I was looking at said that more women than men thought they were married. Who were these women married to? Why were some of the men not declaring their marital status?

I’ve long lost the actual example, so I thought I’d look it up again to see if it was really true, or if I’d made it up. It’s true. And by looking at the historical data from here, I saw a pattern. From 1976 through to 1993 (for the years 1976, then every year from 1981 to 1993) fewer men than women said they were married. Then, between 1993 and 1994, something strange happens. In 1994, and for every year up to 2001, when these historical statistics finish, fewer women than men declare that they are married. (The categories people can choose are ‘married’, ‘never married’, ‘widowed’, ‘divorced’.)

The actual percentage of people who are apparently married to nobody fluctuates from almost -0.4% to +0.4%.

On the left hand side of the graph, the negatives show the number of men apparently not married, although there are women who think they are married to these men, as a percentage of the total number of married men.

On the right hand side of the graph, the positives show the number of women apparently not married, although there are men who think they are married to these women, as a percentage of the total number of married women.

I’m sure Bernard Salt, or in fact any statistician worth their salt (sorry, Bernard) would have a field day with my amateurish number necromancy. But you have to admit, this is fun. It makes me want to find out who these singly married people are and what happened around 1993/94 that made this statistic suddenly switch. It’s probably something quite boring, such as people whose divorces are in train, but not yet final, disagreeing as to whether they are married or divorced at the time of the census. But I would expect if it were that simple then the numbers would just cancel out, or at least the graph would swing between the positive and negative from year to year. Perhaps there was a change in the numbers of women filling in their own census forms, and therefore answering questions differently from how men might have answered them. I don’t know.

But I do know that the science of looking at large numbers reveals truths that we otherwise don’t have access to. In the hands of a skilled communicator, they really come alive. It was seeing Hans Rosling’s TED talk this week that reminded me about the ABS marriage statistics. What this man does with data and cardboard boxes is amazing.


I smell a repetition

I’ve been paying attention recently to how fiction authors build up a sensory picture through repetition (also mentioned here in the post about cohesion) and I remembered this wonderful example from the novel Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. Pages 1 and 2 feature a description of the city that introduces you to the focus on smell that pervades the book. This paragraph is very rhythmic and repetitive in structure. The repetition occurs at word, phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph level, but I just want to look here at word level, by seeing how many times the words ‘stench’ and ‘stank’ are used:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumourous disease. The rivers stank, the market-places stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the Queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life, that was not accompanied by stench.

stench: 7                  stank: 12                              TOTAL: 19

Even the usually frequent word ‘and’ occurs only 13 times; ‘of’ occurs 17 times – each of these grammatical ‘glue’ words still occur less often than ‘stench’ and ‘stank’.

The placement of all these ‘stench’ and ‘stank’s is not random: there is a mini-climax and resolution in this paragraph itself (a mini-version of the structure of the book), with the numbers building to a crescendo about three-quarters the way in: the actual climax is the phrase “the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion”. We traced a path that began in the streets, rose through the domestic and then industrial buildings, to the next level of animacy (animals), and so up to the people, and a return to the places they inhabit, from peasants to the King. Once we’re at the King, we are at the top, and as if to underscore his importance, he has two occurrences of the word: ‘stank’ finishes one clause and opens the next. The final rhyming hammer blow of ‘rank’ is like the final nail in the coffin: the matter is sealed. Then we ease off to the Queen (no ‘stank’) and directly back out from the specific to the general again, with a brief respite from that word, but not an escape, for the last word in the paragraph – as if to remind us that we cannot get it out of our noses – is the word we met right at the beginning: stench.

Another interesting thing about word choice in this paragraph is that only three words are used to describe smell, and one of them, ‘aroma’, is used only once. There is an obvious omission of the word ‘smell’. There are other words that could have been used and were not, strong words such as fetor, odour, foulness, malodour and reek. They would have built up the fabric of the piece and made it more three-dimensional than it is. By using just the two words, the author is saying that although there was social richness (from peasantry to the monarchs) and complexity of housing, of clothes, of linen, of food and of work, there was one extreme, non-gradable level of smell, which he describes with one verb (stank) and one noun (stench).

While this technique is not maintained throughout the book (you’d be wanting a whiff of smelling salts every few pages if it were), it serves to hook you in and let you know that you are going to get a rich, textured story, one that assaults your olfactory senses in the beginning, and, hopefully, seduces them by the end. This book did mine.


In all the turmoil around Craig Thomson and his use (or otherwise) of HSU credit cards to procure prostitution services for himself (or for someone else), I’d forgotten about this gem from December last year: Craig Thomson may also be a common plagiarist. His sources for a report about what Australia could learn from Europe’s GFC experience were, apparently, no more highbrow than what any school or university student pulling an all-nighter would have been able to find on Wikipedia and other freely available internet authorities.

He’s got off lightly, with the plagiarism scandal far outshone by his other alleged activities. Not everyone is so lucky: last month the Hungarian President, Pál Schmitt, quit his job under allegations that his Doctorate was largely the work of two other academics. In Germany, a similar case occurred in March last year when the Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stripped of his PhD due to plagiarism. He resigned his position, which even spawned a Facebook page, ‘Wir wollen Guttenberg zurück’ (We want Guttenberg back) – it has more than 510,000 likes. In England, the London School of Economics has investigated claims of plagiarism and ghost-writing in the doctoral thesis  of Seif-al-Islam el-Qaddafi, and in Russia, Vladamir Putin’s thesis also came under fire for large sections of it possibly being the unattributed work of others; he, at least, has managed to stay where he is.

In music there have been some expensive cases, such as Michael Bolton’s  massive $5.4 million fine for plagiarism in 2000, and George Harrison’s payout of close to $600,000 in 1981, in a case that dragged on for years even after the decision was made. And in comedy last year, Jordan Paris ripped off jokes from other comedians, then apologised by … ripping off another comedian’s joke! It makes me want to tell you the one about the plagiarist who … but no, you’ll have heard it before.

The pejorative connotations of plagiarism are relatively new – years ago (we’re talking the 18th century) it was considered appropriate to copy the masters. It is still not uniformly regarded negatively; Helen Zhang talks here about the Chinese cultural values of rote learning and emulating teachers as a barrier to the developing scientific culture there. India has experienced a high profile case that affected both scientific and political circles – the science advisor to India’s Prime Minister had to apologise to scientific journal Advanced Materials for copying the work of other scientists.

That’s why I think that there’s something missing out of this list of 10 reasons why you should operate without copyeditors at your own risk; copyeditors pick up plagiarism. (Alright, it was maybe implied in reason 2: A libel suit for a carelessly written story can cost more than a copy editor’s salary.) I have certainly seen examples of it in my work. There’s something about a change of style, a familiar run of words or development of argument, a disconnect between paragraphs that alerts a sharp editor to when material may have been lifted. Often it’s just a matter of alerting the author to the correct attribution – all works build on the work of others, after all. The key is to acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we stand.