Review of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk, by Bill Walsh
One of the surprises I encountered when I began not only editing but paying attention to other editors, e.g., through social media and their writing, was that there are celebrity editors. I’m not sure how well known they are outside the editing world—especially since I didn’t know of them until I was in the editing world—but their names are familiar sources to cite in discussions of style and in the ongoing conflict between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Unsurprisingly, they’re editors who write, whether that writing is done in books, in blogs, or just on Twitter.
Shortly before I attended this year’s ACES conference, I had purchased Bill Walsh’s Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk but hadn’t started reading it yet, so I was pleased to discover that he was attending the conference himself and giving a presentation the first night. I was going to see a celebrity editor!
The fun part about Yes, I Could Care Less is that you get even more of a look into communications among celebrity editors. The first chapter contextualizes Walsh’s particular level of being particular, in comparison with other people who write about language and its evolution, lack thereof, and right thereof. If I didn’t already know these conversations took place, though, I probably would have been a little lost.
It’s hard to imagine an internet without Wikipedia. It’s my primary source for information in trivia writing, and it works nicely when I need to check on basic info for an editing project.
Wikipedia’s reputation tends to be mixed, though, for the good but also obvious reason that anyone can edit it to say whatever they want. Its reputation doesn’t stop us from using the site as a preliminary source that we may or may not—depending on our present needs—look beyond for corroboration on what we’re looking for.
I would like to discuss productive and unproductive approaches to Wikipedia, taking into account that it is just as unproductive to reject all information found on Wikipedia as it is to accept it unquestioningly. Wikipedia can teach us to be more investigative researchers as well as participants in the diffusion and dissemination of knowledge.
An Informal Source of Knowledge
I only taught undergraduates for three years, but in that short time, I came across numerous students who tried to do as much research on Wikipedia as they could get away with. The longer they’d been in college, of course, the more likely they were to have had a class or two in which professors had forbidden the use of Wikipedia for any purpose, under any circumstances.
As I’ve mentioned before, I use the site Elance for finding work sometimes. It’s been going through some corporate-side changes lately, including merging with Odesk, out of which they have formed a company called Upwork. Elance still exists, but they’re aggressively trying to get Elancers to set up their profiles on the new Upwork platform, as well.
Amid all this restructuring, they’ve sent surveys out to Elance users asking for opinions about potential changes to the way they take service fees out of the amount of money clients pay freelancers for work done through the site. Currently, this service fee is 8.75% for every single job on the site, large or small. Freelancers choose how to factor the service fee into their bids (that is, swallow it, charge it to the client, or split it).
The survey proposed a new fee service plan in which the amount charged would depend on how much work you’ve done with a specific client. Different survey takers received slightly different numbers in the proposed pricing plan they were shown,* but this was mine:
I'm a reference list fiend. I love citations. I enjoy working with bibliographies. You won’t hear someone say that very often. But as true as it is, there are a few things that would make my job a lot easier if they’re done at the client’s end. As luck would have it, they would also make your life easier so I have folded my “wish list” into this much more general overview on reference maintenance and how to save yourself work—and money, if you're hiring an editor to work on your references—down the road.
1. Your master list
Keep a central database of all the sources you’ve ever used in any type of written material you produce. Just create a new file in Word, Excel, or any other application you like, name it anything you please (perhaps "Master Source List," if you’re reaching for a suggestion), and keep a running list. This will save you the work of having to look the reference info up in the future if you use the same source again.
There is reference manager software that already does this sort of thing, and I will discuss briefly below. For now, I'm assuming most people will be starting with a DIY version of this practice.
I know, I know, the new OMG Shakespeare series from Penguin Random House symbolizes the “nadir of Western civilization” in its translation of several works of the Bard into an exchange of text messages, complete with abrvtd txt spk and emoji. It’s an “absolute atrocity to written literature” and “the most disgusting thing [one has] ever seen.”
Or at least the 1-star reviews on Amazon (from reviewers who don’t actually provide any evidence of having read the books) suggest it is. And no, I haven't read them yet either. That's why I'm discussing them in a blog post and not leaving an Amazon review. I'm also not pretending to be talking about the execution; it's the concept this post is about, as most of the online discussion I've seen has been.
I’m not on the cutting edge of internet slang myself. I’m such a nerd, I even text with full words and complete sentences. Whenever I use a hashtag, I feel like a poser, and I don’t mean during my Barney Stinson impression—I mean when I’m actually sending a tweet.
And yet I love the entire idea of this series, which includes srsly Hamlet, YOLO Juliet, A Midsummer Night #nofilter, and (my favorite title) Macbeth #killingit. While most of my friends’ reactions have ranged from confusion to despair, with a few giggles here and there, a couple of the dissenters and I have been ROFLMAO, as we quaintly used to say in 1994.
One of the easiest ways to begin streamlining your writing and preventing your research from getting weighed down is to recognize some of the most common (and most commonly overused) fluff words that find their way into academic work.
There’s an interesting thing about the metaphors that characterize these words. I’m only a title and a sentence into this post and already I’ve referred to them as “inflated” and as “fluff” but also as “weighing down” one’s writing. These metaphors connote both unnecessary heaviness and unnecessary lightness, which might seem contradictory, but what both types of metaphors share is the impression of taking up space without offering substance.
It may be that you include these words not because you are consciously trying to “sound smart” but only because they have seeped into your academic vocabulary from others using them to that end before. That doesn’t make them useful, though, and rather than making you sound smart, they are more likely to make you “sound like you’re trying to sound smart.” You probably don’t want that.
So let’s look at some of the worst offenders, most of which have appropriate uses along with their inappropriate overuses.
Dissertation-writing graduate students’ favorite word is “state.” Or at least that’s what seems to be the case every second time I read a chapter discussing interview data. It’s a popular word for lit reviews, as well, but interviewees in particular sure do like to “state” things.
What I’m referring to is the speech tag the author introduces quotations with. It’s this:
The participant stated, “. . .”
And although I might be a little wry about that one particular word, it’s just as likely that you (if you’re writing anything that involves a series of quotations) fixate on a different one. It’s understandable, actually. By the time you reach the interview chapter, you’re probably very weary of the whole dissertation thing, and creativity in speech tag choice is way down on the brainpower priority list.
Admittedly, it is a little thing, and your committee probably won’t notice it as much as your editor does. But they might, and so here are a few words you can use to diversify your speech tag arsenal, as well as when to use them most effectively.
I have given presentations to students on improving their academic writing, with a special emphasis on the issues that might affect speakers of English as a second or later language, and these presentations have been excellent opportunities for me to learn how and why students approach writing in the ways they do and, most importantly, why they make the errors they do.
If I know the logic behind an error, I can better explain the edits I make in a paper when there’s a chance my reasoning won’t be apparent.
One of the questions that came up during my last presentation arose when I mentioned that jargon and big words are not necessary to make a paper read as academic and that avoiding them is often the better option. The student simply said, “I thought we had to use that kind of language.”
Here, then, is a bit more explanation and discussion about what I do and don’t mean by this suggestion.
What I Do Mean
Complex ideas are best explained in the most straightforward language that can accommodate them, and less complex ideas are not made more sophisticated with inflated language.
or: Why the Best Critical Reader for Your Academic Paper Probably Isn’t an Expert in Your Field
When writers seek out editors, they usually have some excellent search criteria in mind: experience overall, experience editing in their writing genre, availability within their timeframe, reliability, communicativeness, budget, and so on.
One piece of criteria that I sometimes see in job listings from authors, though, is something like “Must be an expert in < name a field here >.” This field might be as broad as psychology or economics, or it might be as specific as accounting-based valuation models or religious perspectives held by the Romantic poets.
When I respond to these job postings, I do my best to explain why I think I’m the editor for the job despite my lack of expertise in the author’s (sometimes very) specific field of research. I confess that I seldom get those jobs.
Let’s use the dissertation as the focal point for this discussion, though most of it applies just as easily to papers written at an earlier level of education and those written later in one’s career.
A doctoral dissertation or thesis is the paper written to establish the writer as an expert in one particular topic within his or her field of research. It’s the writer’s contribution toward advancing that field of research by introducing findings, theories, or concepts that are brand new to the field. One of the ways in which a graduate student identifies a completely new topic is by specializing. A dissertation addresses a sufficiently narrow topic in great depth (as opposed to discussing a broad topic superficially).
We covered dot dot dot dash last week. Here comes dash dash!
Whatchoo talkin’ about, John Anthony Gillis? This doodad: – If you’re not used to looking for the difference, you might think it’s a hyphen, but it’s not. It’s a teensy bit bigger.
When to use it: The primary use of an en dash is to indicate a number range. The next most common use is to indicate some other kind of range, like a route from one location to another or a time span represented in words. After that, there are some style-specific uses, such as in the names of university campuses.
When not to use it: Don’t mistake it for a hyphen. Also, depending on the style you’re using (as dictated by a publisher or journal, or if you’re just blogging or producing copy for your own use), there will be a particular way you’re supposed to use dashes for setting off pieces of text. Most use em dashes (coming up next), but some use en dashes. If you’re using a style that requires an em dash for that, then an en dash isn’t interchangeable.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.