In which we veer away from the subject of editing (hat tip to Winnie the Pooh)

Robin William’s death has inspired so many comments. I feel moved to add mine.

I have come out publicly about my own depression. I feel a kinship with Robin Williams, who had been candid about his depression, and I quote from an interview he did with Terry Gross, another of my heroes:

“Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”

RIght about now, the media is/are (take your pick) full of people pontificating about stigma. Sure, there’s stigma, and it’s wrong. But I’d like to offer some thoughts, too:

  • I understand the need to report the cause of death. But is it necessary to repeat the exact methodology every time there’s a new report? Today, James Ragland, writing in The Dallas Morning News, tells us exactly how Robin Williams offed himself. Here’s why I think he’s wrong: Every suicidal person out there is morbidly attracted to the details. Do we need to feed this interest? I don’t think we do.
  • If you don’t know the signs that someone is considering suicide, ask. Come to think of it, if you suspect there may be an interest in suicide, ask. Here are some things suicidal people do that may not be as well known as others:
    • Giving away stuff — lots of it
    • Feeling better all of a sudden, as one might if a decision to seek the final solution has been reached
    • Extreme sadness or a lack of desire to do anything other than brood
    • Joking about suicide (yes, really!) or commenting that everyone would be better off if … (yes, sometimes it is that clear)
    • Withdrawing from other people
    • Hoarding pills or other dangerous substances

I don’t know how you get rid of the stigma. For a while there, I thought the thing to do was for those of us with jobs safe from stigma to speak out. Then I lost my job safe from stigma, and I no longer speak out.

Well, maybe sometimes I speak out.

Put a comma on it!

NOTE: In case you missed it, the title of this post is a nod to Portlandia.

And now, back to our content.

Time flies when you’re logging billable hours, thus the absence of your humble editor from the premises. But, as usual, I took to the Google prompt when a series of tooth-gnashing adjectives separated by commas irritated me.

I won’t pretend that I knew the name of this phenomenon, but sure enough, a Google search found it for me: the coordinate adjective. When two coordinate adjectives describe the same noun, commas go between them. There are two simple tests:

1. If you add the word “and” between the adjectives, does the sentence still make sense?

2. If you reverse the order of the adjectives, does the sentence still make sense?

If the answer to #1 and #2 is yes, bingo: coordinate adjective. Put a comma on it! If the sentence fails #1 and #2, then it’s a cumulative adjective. A comma doesn’t go there.

Time after time, I see commas incorrectly inserted between coordinate adjectives, and it DRIVES ME CRAZY! I am becoming a stark, raving lunatic about it.

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Test yourself

Test yourself

Can you spot the typo in this coloring sheet from Trader Joe’s? Yes, I shamelessly picked this up a while back just for the typo. It has been my experience that people don’t see mistakes in big type — we miss the obvious!

Does anyone read a newspaper like this?

Newspapers Work, a Belgian trade group, produced this video. Apparently the purpose is to show that newspapers make for absorbing reading, as not even the wildest stunts make readers look away. Props to the Poynter website for pointing this ad out.

I don’t know about this premise. I thought the whole purpose of the inverted pyramid (most important stuff first, continuing with gradually less important information to the end) was to facilitate skimming. I think someone slipped Adderall into these readers’ coffee the morning of the shoot.

Trends in punctuation (yes, really!)

Think something as staid as punctuation doesn’t ever change? I submit that grammar and punctuation are evolving even as we write. Of course, the trends are subtler than those in clothing, shoes or automobiles (remember fins?). But change is in the air nevertheless.

As a professional reader and writer, I’ve noticed a change in the way people use commas.  While it doesn’t keep me up at night, some of the new ways are jarring to my internal ear as I read silently.

For example, I keep seeing fewer commas — in most cases. The old rule about skipping commas after a short introductory phrase has been stretched to eliminate punctuation after wordy intros, too. My brain goes into overload when I’m reading and reading and reading, waiting for that comma break that never comes. Whew!

And another thing while I am ranting. (I’m TRYING to get the hang of this, but it still seems wrong.) What’s up with the multitude of commas in compound adjectives? I want to take them out, but editors and writers keep putting them in. I think we wouldn’t put commas in this expression: big bad wolf. Or little old lady. But I keep seeing it this way: big, bad wolf and little, old lady.

OK, so maybe I am still stinging from my edits being labeled “comma happy” by a client. I may be old-fashioned, but my comma style doesn’t bend to the whim of the latest fashion. Or maybe, if I wait, the old ways will come around again, like neon-colored clothing did.

First draft

Kurt Vonnegut told his writing classes at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop how to write a novel in eight words: “Get someone in trouble! Get them out! Man-in-the-Hole!”

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That is just one of the gems in speechwriter and novelist Robert Lehrman’s post in Opinionator, The New York Times blog. In a previous life, Lehrman wrote some of the words that came out of Al Gore’s mouth. I read it in the paper edition of the Times, where serendipity rules. Although I’d quibble about the hyphenation of Man-in-the-Hole, I loved this riff on political speechwriting. (Speechwriting? One word, two — or hyphenated?) I especially liked his illustration of the necessity of writing in simple terms. “Luckily, English is a rich language,” he writes. And it’s true.

One word, two or hyphenated?

That’s the question we asked each other on the copy desk of The Dallas Morning News’ Trend section years ago. (I won’t specify how many years ago.)

We took a vote. A vote. I am ashamed to admit that now, especially after four years on the Opinion section of the same newspaper — I learned so much from knowledgeable staffers there.

However, now I have the same question as before: “One word, two or hyphenated?” Fortunately, thanks to another job in my past, I have an accumulation of grammar books.

Probably my favorite grammar book is Patricia O’Conner’s Woe is I. Here’s what she has to say about multiple words before a noun: “Use a hyphen when either of the two words in the description wouldn’t make very much sense by itself.”

That sounded kind of tentative, so I continued to another book on the shelf: Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay, by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis. “Most often, hyphens join two or more words that, taken together, form an adjective,” the Richards write.

Enough with the cutesy grammarians — I turned next to Theodore Bernstein’s Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. “Compounds consisting of an adverb and an adjective preceding a noun are usually hyphened [yes, hyphened] if there is even a remote chance that the adverb could be misread to be a modifier of the noun.” Bernstein goes on to specify that adverbs ending in -ly are not hyphenated because it is clear that they are adverbs.

Bernstein’s book was published in 1977, so let’s consult something more modern. Working with Words by Brian Brooks, James Pinson and Jean Gaddy Wilson list this as 11th in their “Twenty Common Errors” on the front inside flap: “Missing or misused hyphen(s) in a compound modifier.” First, they add “very” to the words that never deserve a hyphen. (In my humble opinion, “very” is seldom helpful.) “Use a hyphen between compound modifiers that precede the word they modify,” the book’s prescription, still doesn’t solve my problem.

Aha! You may have guessed that my motive is to prove that people hyphenate compound modifiers too often.So next I turned to the heaviest book I own, The Little, Brown Handbook, which, if I recall correctly, was donated to me by the English department at North Lake College. (Almost 1,000 pages. Woo hoo!) It reads:

A hyphen (or hyphens) correctly separate two or more words that are a single modifier before a noun. For example, well-known actor, out-of-date statistics, Spanish-speaking.
Don’t hyphenate when compound adjectives follow a noun.
Don’t hyphenate -ly words. (You’ve heard that before.)

None of this backs up my point (have I mentioned my point?) that words that modify each other should not be hyphenated before a noun.

Keys for Writers mentions that a superlative (-est) doesn’t get a comma, but it’s still not addressing my question.

I consulted the Bible of usage for journalists, the AP Stylebook. I can’t stress enough how helpful the online version is. The Stylebook says the fewer hyphens, the better.  “Use them only when not using them would cause confusion,” it says. But then, it elaborates by specifying that a compound modifier, two or more words that express a single concept, is usually hyphenated, unless it is one of the exceptions we’ve already named.
So, I submit:

high school student, not high-school student
real estate agent, not real-estate agent
but
red-haired girl
blue-green water

Editing on paper

I’ve already admitted that I print out stacks of paper and make old-fashioned red editing marks. (Well, usually red.) I love listening to my red pen traversing the page and drawing a bold curly deletion mark.

And then I translate my old-fashioned marks into edits on the screen.

You might say that this takes twice as long, and you would be (almost) right. I see several benefits. First of all, I spot errors more quickly on paper. It has nothing to do with avoiding technology and everything to do with efficiency.

Also, I can take these papers anywhere. (Well, almost anywhere.) It gives you a different perspective on public places if you need to take into consideration noise and available table space. The best place for noise is the public library — at least during the day. Drawbacks include that you can’t sip anything, at least at our library. Where you can sip, it is often noisy. I like wifi because I haven’t converted to a smartphone yet — this is a function of finances, not desire. Wifi enables me to keep up with my email on my trusty iPod Touch, which fits easily into my purse.

The translation process gives me another chance to spot errors, although I don’t attempt to read the document again. And it doesn’t really take that long unless the material is very messy.

I wonder what other people do. Fill me in.

New directions

Like it or not, our lives sometimes take us on journeys we had not planned. And that has happened with me as well.

After a year spent immersed in a great job hunt, I have reinvented myself as a freelance and contract worker specializing in editing and writing. I enjoy both, and both roles have allowed me to continue my quest as a closet grammarian. After all, frenzied working at The Dallas Morning News was like a graduate course in copy editing.

Now I finally have an excuse to have access to the AP Stylebook online — it’s worth it, for you holdouts. I bought a new dictionary. And a paperback version for traveling. 

Oh, yes, the traveling. Copy editing allows me to pack up a printout and work in the library, the coffeeshop, even out of town. That’s the good part. The not-so-good part is that it’s sometimes not what I would choose to read for fun, to put it delicately.

So that’s the good and the bad, and I hope to check in more frequently now that I’ve readjusted my goals.

Examining a great hyperlocal website

I have enjoyed reading Cedar Hill Eats for some time now, as it is about the restaurants in my area. This topic is a natural, because we are an oasis in the middle of a restaurant desert.

We are some 20 miles south of downtown Dallas. The southern half of the city is somewhat neglected by the rest of the city in every way, and The Dallas Morning News won a Pulitzer for a continuing series on this inequity. And the imbalance includes restaurants, except for Cedar Hill (mostly) and a few blocks just south of downtown called the Bishop Arts district.

But Cedar Hill Eats isn’t about any of this. It concerns itself with everything about Cedar Hill restaurants — what’s opening and closing, menus and reader reviews.

I asked the founder of Cedar Hill Eats, Jill Clark, to explain how she got started and how the site is working:

How would you describe Cedar Hill Eats?

Cedar Hill Eats is a community service: free and user-friendly.  It’s a place where local diners can review Cedar Hill restaurants, visitors to Cedar Hill can glean that information before they visit, and people in the local restaurant business can find feedback and often free advertising.

When did you start it?

The website went “live” at the end of August 2009.

What did you start with — i.e., a blog, a presence on Facebook or some other medium? Why?

The website came first: Twitter followed closely behind and then came the Facebook page, months later.  (Those were set up as a way to get more readers/reviewers to the site.)  Because of the restaurant database and other administrative gadgets, I’ve always thought of CedarHillEats.com as more than just a blog.  There are many options in the administrative menu that I never got around to playing with.

What gave you the idea for the site/Facebook fan page?

Chris Wilcox of McKinney gave me the idea for the site.  He had already started McKinneyEats.com earlier in the year and my husband and I saw a story about his project on the local NBC affiliate.  (See http://www.nbcdfw.com/the-scene/food-drink/Diners-Dish-on-McKinney-Gastronomy.html.

I gave it some thought and later contacted Chris, who was already toying with the idea of franchising his Eats concept.  Chris was using the McKinneyEats project as a way to not only promote his community but to make a few coins with advertising on the site. 

After a short time I decided not to go after ads.  I’m not a “Type A” personality, so I wasn’t comfortable approaching people to buy space on the site.  What confirmed that for me was when Corky Brown, who is with the City of Cedar Hill, asked if they might link my project to the city’s official website and use it as the dining guide for visitors.

After that I felt it best to not clutter it up with ads and do my best to keep things as correct and current as possible.

How did you grow the site/Facebook page?

After photographing and putting in the data on about 80 eateries in Cedar Hill, I periodically drove around town looking for new ones or businesses I might have overlooked.  I started an e-newsletter, which was sent out monthly for the first year or more.  I chose some locally owned restaurants to feature on the front page and arranged to interview the owners/managers and get photos.

I designed flyers and business cards and handed them out when it seemed appropriate.  Chris Wilcox was already conducting a poll on his site, so I decided to incorporate that idea. 

The result was that a bunch of Cedar Hill restaurants received strictly-nonscientific-just-for-fun certificates stating they’d been voted the “Best” at something.  I thought this was a fun way to get them acquainted with CedarHillEats, and some of them instructed their regulars to go to the site and review their restaurants.

Every month, I gave away a prize package (worth about $25) to a randomly chosen reviewer from the past month.  This may have encouraged some word-of-mouth advertising as well as more reviews!

I also wrote short articles on sites like NeighborsGo to advertise the site. 

Presently there are about 100 restaurants in the database.

How much time did you put into the project?

After it got off the ground, I probably averaged about 10 hours a month.  The first of the month necessitated at least a couple hours work of updating the site, closing out the old poll, drawing a winner’s name for the prize package, etc.  It’s really hard to say because sometimes when I went out to eat, I was ultimately putting time into the project!

What kind of feedback have you received?

I’ve received mostly positive feedback.  I met some wonderful people in the restaurant business in Cedar Hill, for example.  They appreciated what I was doing, and I was happy to promote their business in some way.  Occasionally I’d receive a complaint or two, but sometimes it was constructive criticism.  (Maybe I overlooked a donut shop or failed to report on a closure.)

Can you give us an idea of what kind of readership you have?

There are close to 200 followers on Twitter, 234 who “like” CedarHillEats on Facebook, and during the month of February the website had 4,230 hits.

Not everyone lives or works in Cedar Hill.  Several past prize package winners, for example, live in other cities in the area.

Facebook shows a variety of faces and all ages as friends of CedarHillEats, but women outnumber men, and they tend toward middle age.

What do you see as a next step for the project?

I hope that CedarHillEats.com will continue to grow as the city grows and be a positive reflection of not just the city’s dining environment, but of the city and residents itself.  There is always the potential for it to expand and be BestSouthwestEats but that would be a full-time job for someone who’s a real “go-getter!”

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I’d say Jill Clark has recognized a coming blogging market. Although she chose not to sell ads, it could be done.

What do you think? Can you think of any additional topics for hyper-local coverage? What would you like to see or do yourself?