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Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Hell. It was just three weeks ago that we were writing about Alistair Cooke's decision to give up Letter from America, and now he's dead.

Looking back at the 9th March posting, we think it stands as a pretty good epitaph to the great talker's skills and talent.

One point we didn't mention then, though, which was well made in the excellent Radio 4 obituary programme today, was how deliberately Cooke developed a spoken, rather than written, style.

Even now, few people writing for radio really capture the broken, discursive shapes and structures of real speech. What we hear is generally the written word, spoken out loud – which is not the same thing at all.

Cooke consciously worked on a style that would sound like talking, rather than reading.

You can see the difference if you examine any of his scripts, which look, on paper, as if they desperately need the touch of a clever, and tireless, sub-editor. He knew better, and we should give him full credit for knowing exactly the effects he was trying to achieve.

We loved the voice, the unexpected detours, the way he meshed together the trivial and the sublime, and the way he was always there.

Now he's not. And we will be missing him for a long time to come.
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Good to see our friends at the Plain English Campaign grabbing some front-page publicity in the London papers with their hit list of today's most disliked cliches.

Top of the list was "at the end of the day", closely followed by "at this moment in time".

But some of the other words and phrases that were rightly fingered are much more subtly pernicious. We were pleased to see "epicentre" (used incorrectly), "bottom line" (used inexactly), "ongoing", "address the issue" and "going forward" named and shamed – not least because we hear or see them used, unblushingly, many times a day.

We've always had a lot of time for the Plain English campaigners and their steady, persistent efforts to bully, cajole and persuade government and industry to care about saying things in clear and straightforward ways.

But people in business often don't seem to realise how much they stand to gain from promoting their ideas or their products in lucid, understandable prose.

In fact, there still seem to be a good few dinosaurs around who are convinced that pompous, opaque verbiage helps, by making them seem serious and clever.

There was a rash of that sort of thing back in the 1970s, especially in the burgeoning IT industry, but we should have left that nonsense behind by now. We've got over nylon shirts, Ted Heath, the Austin Allegro (the only British car ever designed with a square steering wheel) and bubble-permed footballers. Surely we can just let the linguistic habits of that benighted decade die off, too.

For those interested in fighting the good fight – either as amateurs or as professional editors – there is a long and useful list of bullshit-free phrases, The A-Z of Alternative Words, on the Plain English Campaign Web site.

Many of the suggested substitutions will be second nature to most e-editors (delete "sufficient", insert "enough"; delete "on numerous occasions", insert "often"), but there are plenty more that most of us usually let through unchallenged.

The point is not that the Plain English Campaign's substitutes should always be adopted, but that the words and phrases the list highlights should always be tested for aptness and relevance before they are allowed to pass into print. And if we don't exercise that sort of judgement, no-one else will.

Saturday, March 20, 2004
Apologies for the break in transmission. Europe this time. Or, to be more precise, a very shaken and distraught Spain, dumping its government in Sunday's election in an agonized reaction to the horror of the Madrid bombings.

Real life and death tend to make e-editing issues pale into insignificance, so we have not made as much progress as we'd hoped on the next subject we planned to tackle here.

When we get round to it, perhaps during this next week, we will be looking at the big question of what practical steps you can take to improve editorial standards in a commercial editing environment, especially when there is no budget to spend on outside training.

We have some ideas and a few cheap gimmicks that have worked for us, but we'd welcome any other contributions we could pass on to other E-EDITOR readers. So if you know how to take underskilled and dispirited editors and writers and transform them into hard-hitting editorial teams, please get in touch and share the magic.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
We were sad to hear, in the last few days, that Alistair Cooke had said his last "G'd evening" on Letter from America, bringing to an end a 58-year-old tradition.

But it was good to note that the very last Letter, broadcast on Friday 20 February, was right up there with his best.

It talked, inevitably, about the past – about the first Gulf War, about the first President Bush, about Clinton, about George W, about the second Gulf War and about Saddam.

Then it came right up to the present, too, as it talked about how George W Bush's poll ratings, consistently above 60% for month after month, fell below 50% when the CIA's former weapons inspector, David Kay, said the fateful words: "We got it all wrong."

And it deftly, elegantly, linked this through to the resurgence of Democrat hopes and the momentum building up behind Senator John Kerry.

Vintage artistry from the veteran commentator. But it also reflected, in a little throwaway line, Alistair Cooke's wonderful awareness and ear for language.

After running through the story of the 1991 Gulf War and its consequences, he neatly turned the course of his argument with the rhetorical question:

"So what, as Shakespeare asked, is the concernancy?"

Superb. Could there ever have been a more George-W-Bush-like word than "concernancy"?

Yet Cooke, of course, never got things like that wrong. Scurrying to the source, we quickly tracked down the Prince's teasing conversation with the foppish windbag Osric in Act V Scene II of Hamlet.

Hamlet dazzles Osric with one of the most ridiculously overblown and Bush-like speeches anywhere in Shakespeare ("Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory...." and so on), before going on to ask him about the "concernancy", by which time the poor sap is completely lost and bemused.

It's a fine moment in the play. And just dropping in this strange word, with its unexplained but unmissable link to the President, created a fine moment in Alistair Cooke's last Letter from America.

We're going to miss that kind of link between language and life. We'll miss that feeling that, whatever else changes on Radio 4 or in the world at large, we can always come back – even after years away – to the calm intelligence and grace of radio's great stylist.

At 95, he can hardly be blamed for deserting his post. But most of us who've grown up, maybe even grown old, listening to that voice will miss it hugely. And most of us whose work is with words will miss his constant reminders of the art and craft of language.

G'd evening, Alistair. Get some rest now. And thank you again.

Saturday, March 06, 2004
We've been doing some analysis today of our own E-EDITOR Web site and blog statistics – and it certainly casts an interesting light on the importance attached to blogs on either side of the Atlantic.

The breakdown of hits by time zone was so unexpected that we had to check our figures twice.

In the US, and in continental Europe, awareness of weblogs is far higher than it is in the UK.

We knew that already, but we were still astonished to see that America accounted for 39% of the hits on this blog. Western Europe (the GMT/UTC-plus-one-hour zone) contributed 32% of the hits so far, while people in the UK were only responsible for 19%.

And that's pretty amazing, for a UK-based weblog that's largely about the trials and travails of the e-editor's lot in British industry.

When we turned to the main site at www.e-editor.co.uk, there was a more predictable geographical spread. The UK accounted for 55% of site visits, with the US on 25% and Western Europe on 5%.

Since the content of the blog and the site is similar and broadly complementary, it seems obvious that the marked differences are to do with the medium, rather than the message. And that has obvious implications for a lot of companies in Britain that are currently falling over themselves to launch weblogs for their clients and potential customers.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
One of the problems in talking about the e-editor's work is the lack of hard facts. What we need is more empirical evidence about what we do and what is really involved.

That's why we have started putting e-editors into cages and measuring their pulse and blink rates while they work. It's why we've strapped electrodes to their hands and introduced scan path analysis equipment to track their eye movements. It's why we use real-time CAT scanning to observe their brain activity while they're writing headlines.

Or it might be, if anyone could be bothered.

Instead, to try to get some crude indicators of what e-editors really do at work all day, we've invested in some new capital equipment that doesn't rely so much on high technology.

We've got a clicker.

All the clicker does is count. Whenever you tap it with a finger or the flat of your hand, it adds one to the previous total. It's the sort of gadget they use to count cars in traffic surveys. Nightclubs give them to the bouncers to keep track of how many people are dehydrating inside.

But we're using them to see just how many decisions a sub-editor makes per page, per hour or per day. And the figures are already quite startling.

There were some similar experiments, years ago, where men were given clickers and told to click throughout the day each time they thought about sex. Though some of the clickers simply broke through metal fatigue, the surviving counters showed figures of anything from 400 to 2,000 clicks a day.

And our clicker experiment is already showing us just how many decisions we all take when we work our way through a piece of text.

Spending an hour or so on a light "first pass" edit on a piece of fairly technical IT material can easily involve 150 to 200 separate editing decisions. At the other end of the process, proofing, too, can rack up extraordinary numbers very quickly.

There'll be much more detail and analysis of the figures when we have more results to work on. But the first, dramatic insight is that it is not at all surprising that e-editors occasionally make mistakes.

If people are taking several hundred discrete editorial decisions in the course of a working day, it is hardly surprising that they may get some of them wrong. The managers who come back to us gleefully pointing out a typo here and a verbal infelicity there should be aware that the individual who perpetrated these crimes has probably taken 700 correct decisions that day, all of which are likely to go wholly unremarked.

If there are two errors out of 700, that may not meet the engineer's beloved Six Sigma quality standards, but it's pretty good going in the real world.

The concentration – indeed, the sheer stamina – needed to do this kind of work is seldom understood. And at least, by doing some rough and ready research into the number of decisions various document types and levels of editing involve, we're starting to shed a bit of factual light on a previously hazy area.

If anyone else likes the idea of investing £10 in a clicker and joining us in our experiments, we'd be very happy to share the results with a wider audience. We know there are marketing companies, charities and construction firms and legal partnerships tuned in to this blog and to e-editor.co.uk, and we'd welcome the chance to add some input from the widest possible range of sources. It's time we had more facts to back our arguments, so let's get clicking.
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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