Oh, the irony

Today on a national broadcaster, I saw a presenter asking about irony vs. coincidence. The occasion was that New Zealand held the world’s first national earthquake drill, just minutes after a (small) real earthquake hit just off the coast. Was that a coincidence, or was it ironic?

While irony is a rich concept (with dramatic, situational and verbal as the main types), a key part of it is something that happens that is contrary to expectation, or there is a difference between how things appear and how they are. The broadcaster was getting at the apparent relationship between the earthquake drill and the earthquake event, thinking this was an example of cosmic irony, where it seems that the gods are toying with us mere mortals. However, given that earthquake drills are held with the expectation of earthquakes, there is nothing ironic about their coinciding; it is merely coincidence. It would have been ironic if the drill were held and no earthquake ever happened again; it would have been particularly ironic if the earthquake drill caused a flux in the universe that prevented earthquakes.

In verbal irony, what is actually said is opposite in meaning to what is meant, although the true meaning may be conveyed in tone. For example, when asked whether she enjoyed the roller coaster and the woman says in a shaking voice, ‘It was great fun,’ we have an example of verbal irony. These kinds of example cross over with sarcasm, although there must be an element of ridicule in sarcasm: ‘Yes, I’m FINE, thank you!’ says the woman, after she has had to sit down, to her inquiring friend. The difference here is that in the first example, the woman did not intend to criticise her friend, but it is clear that there is a disparity between what she says and what she is feeling; in the second example she is still clearly not fine, but she intends to punish the stupid question with sarcasm that points out the disparity.

Dramatic irony is the interesting one from a writer’s point of view, because you have a mechanism that exploits the two audiences of the message: the reader, and the characters. In the play Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer he is searching for. In The Truman Show, the audience knows that Truman is on television, but he does not.

There could be irony in news presenters needing to ask the difference between irony and coincidence; are they not people whose job is to tell, not ask? Are they not trained in the dramatic arts? However, this is possibly expecting too much of news presenters, and will almost certainly lead to me being hoist by my own petard, which IS ironic indeed.

Apostrophe atrocity

Get a group of editors in a room together and you can bet that we’ll be complaining about misplaced apostrophes before you can say ‘greengrocer’. While detailed questions of apostrophe use take pages to explain, the basic rules of apostrophe use are fairly simple:

Apostrophes are used for two things:

1. to show that a single noun owns something: Ruth’s house.

If you remember that you can always turn this around into ‘house of Ruth’, it will help with plural possessives (see below).

2. to show that some letters have been left out of a contraction:

do not = don’t                   cannot = can’t

it’s = it is               or            it has

Apostrophes are not used in plurals unless there is also possession:

1. The girls are walking their dogs. (plural ‘girls’; plural ‘dogs’; no apostrophes)

2. The girls’ dogs are barking. (the girls own the dogs)

Apostrophes are also not used in the possessive ‘its’.

1. The dog wagged its tail.

(If you would like to see the basics of apostrophe use in cartoon format, have a look at Boggleton Drive http://boggletondrive.com/2011/08/17/apostrophes/)

So, to tabulate this:

  Singular Plural
Not possessive Please send this to the student. Please send this to the students.(note, no apostrophe)
Possessive Please send this to the student’s teacher.(one teacher, one student)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the student. Please send this to the students’ teacher.(many students, one teacher)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teacher of the students.
  Please send this to the students’ teachers.(many students, many teachers)You can change this around to say: Please send this to the teachers of the students.
IT’S/ITS – for a musical version of this, follow the link to the apostrophe song and forever remember “don’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ unless you mean ‘it is’”.
Contractions The dog thinks it’s great to have a tail = The dog thinks it is great to have a tail.It’s been wonderful to see you = It has been wonderful to see you.
Possessive The dog wagged its tail. (no apostrophe)

Causes of misplaced apostrophes

1. Plurals: people seem to think that you need an apostrophe for a plural. You can see from the table above that you only need this if possession is involved (and the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’ for singular and after the ‘s’ for plural). In the sentence: A picture is worth a thousand word’s, there is a misplaced apostrophe because ‘words’ is plural and has no need for an apostrophe.

2. Numbers: It did used to be the fashion to put an apostrophe between a run of numbers and a plural ‘s’, for example, the 1980’s. This is now considered incorrect, as there is no risk of misreading it without the apostrophe: 1980s.

3. Shortened forms: Again, it was the fashion to form a plural shortened form with an ’s, but that’s now considered unnecessary as there is no risk of misreading: DVDs, CDs. There are some instances where it might still be used to avoid ambiguity:

A’s are difficult to get in Year 12.

You need to watch your p’s and q’s and make sure you’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

With the latter example, some style guides prefer that you italicise the p and q so that it reads like this: You need to watch your ps and qs and make sure you’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts.

However, this is more ambiguous – particularly the example of is, which is easier understood if an apostrophe is used.

Some of the confusion in these forms may arise because of the combination of contraction, which does require an apostrophe to mark the omitted letters, and a plural form, which requires no apostrophe. Words such as demos and subs are both plurals from contractions, where users perhaps want the apostrophe to mark the missing letters from demonstrations or from substitutions (or subeditors or submarines). But usual contractions don’t work with plurals anyway; they all have the pattern of omitting letters from singular words, most often ‘not’ (as in could not = couldn’t and do not = don’t), and sometimes ‘us’ (as in let us = let’s) or ‘have’ (as in could have = could’ve – note, not could of!).

4. Third person singular: as if the happy coincidence of a word ending in ‘s’ meaning a possible plural (two cats) or a possible possessive (cat’s tail) weren’t confusing enough, the regular form of third person singular verbs in English also ends with ‘s’ and does not take an apostrophe. That’s the he/she/it form. So: I eat, you eat, she eats. And because people are confused about apostrophes, they are starting to throw them in here too. The image on the home page is a good example of this: the early bird gets the right size, not get’s. It’s interesting that there are some words that can be both contractions and third person singular, such as lets/let’s. The use of lets, as in ‘He lets his children play in the park’ is not the same as ‘Let’s go and play in the park’, where let’s is a contraction for let us.

In the next post about apostrophes I’ll address some of the more specific cases that give people trouble, such as the descriptive versus possessive use (species distribution); proper names ending in ‘s’; joint ownership; inanimate objects and possession; compound titles; generic phrases; expressions of time; and examples from other languages.

Other resources

OWL at Purdue: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/

Grammar Girl: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/apostrophe-1.aspx and http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/apostrophe-plural-grammar-rules.aspx

An Olympic feat … er, font

This weekend saw the start of the 30th Olympiad, and a certain pink geometrical symbol has actually been noticed in our house, rather than being in the background. You know the one. It looks like a geometry test. It’s been lampooned in some fairly rude ways. Someone in our house said, ‘Does that say “ZOR”?’ It’s the Olympic logo.

I didn’t really pay attention to all the kerfuffle about it when it was released in 2007, and, living half a world away from London as I do, it’s been quite easy to ignore it ever since. But now it’s everywhere, and I was forced to see the font that had been used for the word ‘london’ embedded in the top ‘2’ of the logo.

SmartClinicI am interested in logos, because they’re such good examples of how instantly you can communicate something to your audience. Every time I see this one I’m impressed at how they managed to use petals to make a loveheart and a medicine capsule. It’s simple, but effective.

But I’m more interested in fonts, because my work is text, and people have to stay with a font much longer than they have to stay with a logo. A logo may annoy or delight you, but it will not make you throw down a document in despair at how the type creator impeded your access to the content you were trying to read.

Which brings me back to the Olympic font. It was created by Gareth Hague, of Alias, and it was based on their Klute font. It is ‘intended to convey energy and dynamism’, and despite being called ‘2012 Headline’ the London 2012 Education website says it is ‘used for all communications and key messages’. This seems to be bad communication to start with, as there is ample information out there about how different fonts are required for the different purposes of headlines versus blocks of text. To be fair, I haven’t yet seen any text longer than a few words in this font – but then I haven’t looked. It would be too difficult to read and I’d just turn away.

Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type, had it in his list of 8 worst fonts and was horrified by it, saying in 2011 that it ‘is based on jaggedness and crudeness … the slant to the letters is suddenly interrupted by a very round and upright “o”, which may be trying to be an Olympic ring’. He admitted its advantage is how easily recognisable it is, but he was hoping they’d keep it off the medals. He’ll be pleased to see that the medal font is nothing like 2012 Headline, although he might have something to say about all that criss-crossing.

But what of the font for the next Olympics? Now there’s a beautiful thing. This one manages to be friendly without being twee, and is evocative of the fluid movements common to many sports. Created by Dalton Maag, who have offices in London and in Brazil, it has a ‘unique informality, inspired by the joyfulness of the Brazilian people.’ Paixão e transformação, indeed.

The paramedic method of editing

In June, I attended the Society of Editors (Qld) meeting in temporary HQ at Thorn St, where we were students in an editing first aid course delivered by paramedic Karl Craig. The course, ‘the paramedic method’, is based on Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose¸ a book first published in 1979 and now in its fifth edition.

Karl edits PhD theses, a genre in which 20,000 words of information can be crammed into 80,000 words of text, so it was clear that this paramedic editing is a skill he is necessarily practised in. He was introduced to the method when he began editing, around 10 years ago, and he described it as the sort of work most editors do intuitively.

The method is designed, as the book title explicitly says, for revising. It is not designed to help a person extract, syllable by syllable, the gossamer ideas from their heads to become print on the page. Nor is it designed for fiction, which must spend time building worlds for the reader, who must be serenaded into the story.

This method is a ‘direct assault on the “Official Style” ’. It’s short. It’s sharp. It’s straight to the point. It translates official style into plain language.

It’s not new, of course, as Karl pointed out. People have been lamenting the padding out of official language for years. In 1946 George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, an essay that decried the ‘contagion’ of unclear prose permeating the political language of the day. He said that ‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ The BBC television show Yes, Prime Minister made hay with this idea, as illustrated by Karl’s example where Sir Humphrey’s phrase, ‘the precise correlation between the information you communicated and the facts insofar as they can be determined and demonstrated is such as to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear’ turns out to mean ‘You told a lie’.

After this and other fine examples of language labouring, we got down to the nitty gritty by talking about the characteristics of ‘Official Style’:

  • It hides the actor and the action in the passive.
  • It displaces action from simple verbs into complex constructions.
  • It uses Latin words when Anglo words would do.
  • It adores the slow wind-up – the long, introductory phrase.
  • It loves to add prepositional phrases.
  • The words are inflated and embellished; it is euphemistic.
  • It takes up twice the space of an equivalent plain language explanation.

When occurring together, these characteristics of official style result in a curdled mess of meaning, quite suffocating under its own weight.

But how to administer first aid? Apply the paramedic method:

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Box the ‘is’ verb forms
  3. Ask, ‘Where’s the action?’ (who is kicking whom?)
  4. Change the ‘action’ into a simple active verb
  5. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups – make a fast start
  6. Mark off the rhythm units in each sentence with /.
  7. Mark off the sentence lengths with \.
  8. Read the piece aloud with emphasis and feeling.

When you’ve tried this method you’ll be able to derive a scientific index of just how bad it was: the lard factor. To determine the lard factor of a given sentence, apply the paramedic method to excise some words. Divide the number of discarded words by the original number and times by 100. This tells you how much of the original sentence was unnecessary to communicate its message. Karl told us that a lard factor of 50% is typical in most official writing.

He said that over years of converting ‘Official Style’ to readable material, he has found that plain English has its own characteristics:

  • active voice
  • reduced prepositional phrases
  • things do things to things
  • verbs instead of nominalisations
  • no long noun strings
  • pronouns that relate to their antecedents
  • parallel structures
  • important words at the beginning of sentences
  • subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses.

And with that we wrapped up our oxygen masks and put away the mannequins, having graduated from paramedic editing with a neat little checklist to back up our intuition in times of maximum complexity of emotional disturbance caused by the confluence of ever-approaching deadlines with dwindling time resources … er, stress.

Acknowledgement: this article was first published in the June edition of Offpress, the Society of Editors (Qld) monthly newsletter.

Newsletter? Blog? How to reach your audience

I’ve been asked recently about whether you should use a newsletter or a blog to keep in touch with your audience. The first thing to recognise is that these channels can be used together to support each other, and that it shouldn’t be a question of either/or.

The other thing to be clear about is what kind of industry you’re in, and what your readership is for each of these communication tools. An organisation with a more  commercial focus may have an email list of thousands of people, most of whom don’t have a personal relationship with anyone in the organisation. A community organisation may have just tens or hundreds of people on their list, most of whom have had personal interaction with someone from the organisation.

Newsletters

A newsletter is a targeted bulletin, quite literally, a letter of news. What has happened in your organisation since the last newsletter? Like the evening news, a newsletter is a number of small stories so that your audience can quickly get an overview of an update about you. None of these stories will require much background and the style of writing will be journalistic, using the inverted triangle of media releases to quickly orient the reader to the who/what/when/where/why/how of a story.  As a newsletter is an update about existing work, or the first time that you’re mentioning a story, the time element is important – make sure you express the ‘when’ in your newsletter stories.

Blog posts

A blog post, on the other hand, is a place for a more in-depth discussion about a single topic. Think of the blogs you read: you probably come away from reading a blog post and tell your friends/colleagues/partner: today I read this blog post about the language of the Olympics, or about the Sahel food crisis. Each blog post is an exploration of a single idea, more in depth than you give in a newsletter. It will have more background, and may include personal anecdote or reflection – that will depend on the topic and the overall purpose of your blog, of course. The audience for blogs is more ephemeral than your newsletter audience because although the core people who are connected to your organisation will probably also read your blog, there is a group of transient onlookers who may sweep by and stay for a while, perhaps signing up for your newsletter, perhaps sharing your site or a particular blog post with friends or colleagues of theirs, perhaps commenting, perhaps passing on.

Newblog?

How to get these two communication methods to work together?

Each channel needs to link to the other.

In your newsletter:

  • Provide many links to your website. The stories should be able to stand on their own, but make the reader want to find out more. Tell them where you’re sending them: to a page about a project? a profile of a person? a blog entry on a particular project? Make sure they can get more information about aspects of your work they find most interesting.
  • Post your newsletters on your website so that people who sign up to your newsletter know they can get back issues at a single spot.
  • Make sure people browsing your website can sign up to your newsletter if they want to. And when you meet people and exchange business cards, ask them if you can add them to your newsletter now that you have their email address. They should be able to get off your list easily if they want: web standards these days require that people can unsubscribe to a newsletter in a single click, so make sure your newsletter software complies with this.

In your blog posts:

  • The blog items should also have cross-references to your newsletters (which will be linkable on your website, remember?). Work in a way of saying, ‘Following up from our news last month ….’ and link to the relevant spot in the newsletter (not to the whole newsletter, so you’ll need anchors).
  • Remember to talk about some other aspects of your work in each blog post – you don’t want to irritate people with the cross-promotion, but if someone is reading about your views on word choice, perhaps they’ll be interested to know you also wrote about cohesion?
  • Provide options for readers to subscribe to your blog posts so that they are delivered direct to readers’ inboxes. Give them options to share your posts on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest … if you use these social media you’ll know how much material you read that you found through someone you’re connected to, not direct from the organisation.

Some organisations are just not newsy, and some don’t have people going to their website to read 500–1000 words of a blog post. But if you work for an organisation that does have a news cycle, and that also has interesting commentary about aspects of its work, do the newsletter and the blog.

50 ways to love your editor

In the last few weeks I’ve read the three ‘Hunger Games’ books, and found myself experiencing something of what the author went through (on a much smaller scale) when she came up with the idea for it. Suzanne Collins was channel surfing between actual war coverage and reality TV that showed young people competing, and the lines began to blur in an ‘unsettling’ way.

So in my head, the recent inundation of critique about Fifty Shades of Grey became blurred with this lovely piece about 5 ways to get your editor to kill you, and with, of all things, a old favourite Paul Simon song, and this is what happened:

‘The story is all inside your head,’ she said to me,

‘We’ll work together so it comes out logically.

I’d like to help you in your struggle for your fee.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

She said, ‘It’s really just my habit to improve

the gem you wrote; this story will your readers move.

You could repeat yourself, accentuate the mood.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

Just slip in a comma, Donna,

Make a new para, Sarah,

You don’t need that apostrophe, Lee,

We’ll get your full fee.

Drop that full stop, Bob,

You don’t need to put the brakes on!

Be sure to tell the truth, Ruth,

And get your due fee.

She said, ‘Don’t worry – it just looks like disarray,

I know this piece is worth your time, don’t be dismayed

that we must edit when you thought it was okay.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

‘Now with those changes you should sleep on it tonight,

then in the morning read it back aloud, you’ll find

it will be clear to you, it only needed time.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

Verb and subject agree, Lee,

Use consistent tense, Jen,

That word is a weasel, Liesel,

We’ll get your full fee.

Get the facts straight, Kate,

No need to elucidate!

You should show, don’t tell, Mel,

You’ll get that full fee.

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.

Plagiarism

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.

Textual cohesion

In another post I described the effects of choosing one word over another, and how such choices can evoke quite different scenarios and feelings. But authors think about more than the choice of one word over another; they look all the time for how to connect the ideas and keep reinforcing the feelings they’ve evoked in their readers. Over the course of a paragraph, or a few paragraphs or chapters you can use cohesive devices (such as repetition) to create coherence (so you can understand the piece).

One great example I found recently of how an idea is developed was in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s a fictional retelling of the story where two babies, twins, were born to Mary, and she named one Jesus and the other Christ. One section of the story has Christ witnessing Jesus’ baptism:

So John held him, and plunged him under the water and lifted him up again.

At that moment Christ saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice might say if it spoke from heaven and told him.

Then Christ goes home to Mary and tells her about what he saw:

‘It flew right over my head, Mother. And I thought I heard a voice speaking from heaven. It was the voice of God, and it was speaking to me – I’m sure of it.’

Soon afterwards, he goes into the desert to look for Jesus, and asks him if he has heard the word of God yet:

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Because something happened when you were being baptised. I saw the heavens open up above you, and a dove came down and hovered above your head, and a voice said “This is my beloved son”.’

On the first reading of this, where there was a little more text between each of these events than I have provided here, I didn’t see the development in Christ’s mind from something he imagines might have been said, to something he thinks he hears, to his report of actually hearing a voice saying something. Only on the second reading did I pick up how clever Pullman had been – the character is not aware of this development, and at first neither was I.

The piece is cohesive because alongside the stepped development of one idea – from Christ imagining possible conversations to believing he has heard God saying something – there are also repeated elements that almost provide handrails to the steps: ‘a voice’ and ‘from heaven’ (‘the heavens’ in the final example) occur in each of the three sections, guiding the changes and supporting you as you follow the character through the three steps.

This technique is used to develop arguments in all kinds of writing. The better it is done, the more persuaded you are by the writer, and the harder it is to see how you were persuaded.