Penman No. 241: The Long and Short of Summary

240_f_86352387_qpckndkcg4djurkk2t8g8niysulm2iejPenman for Monday, March 6, 2017

 

 

IN DEALING with communications and reports drafted by my office staff and by my students, one problem I often encounter is the writer’s inability or reluctance to summarize needlessly long passages.

Some of that happens simply because the writer doesn’t know how to digest material, which further means that he or she can’t distinguish between the relative levels of importance of different statements. Another reason is sheer fear, especially in authoritarian or sensitive environments where messing with someone else’s text could land you in major trouble.

But we all need summaries, good ones, of everything out there. We simply don’t have the time to slog through every document that comes our way in this information-saturated age.

Good summarizing takes sharpness of mind and boldness of spirit. It means you know which parts you can cut without doing damage to the heart of the piece and that you can stitch the snippets together to form a new whole. You’d be surprised by the compelling clarity that shines through a properly summarized paper, by how much latent energy pulses in tautened prose.

I had an interesting conversation last year with a Filipino graduate student in Seoul. I was recalling the time more than 40 years ago when, as a junior writer-editor employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, I wondered why the current Five-Year Development Plan I was editing was as fat as a phone book, while the South Korean plan I had as a reference was no thicker than a Perry Mason paperback. And look, I told the student, where Korea had gone, minus the verbosity.

And then the student told me something that explained away the mystery of that anorexic document. In Korea, he said, managers and CEOs put a premium on brevity; the higher up the ladder your document went, the more condensed it was expected to be, to spare the bosses the chore of plowing through pages of data. Recommendations were to be brief and to the point.

It’s surprising because it seems so counterintuitive. For most of us, less is simply less and more is surely more. Our normal tendency is to add, to elaborate, to complicate until we can barely remember what our original thought was. We Pinoys especially have a tradition of rhetorical bombast that employs big words without meaning much, and we’ve mastered the art of filling dead air with, well, dead sounds.

This is why speakers in school programs (and the people who introduce them) take forever to say the most prosaic things; people walk up to the mike in the open forum and feel compelled to tell their life story before finally asking a question, if they do at all. We love to talk for the sake of talking, cluttering our prose with the same verbal indiscipline.

For me, a good summary begins, first of all, with the writer’s grasp of the main ideas running through the piece he or she is summarizing. This requires a thorough read-through of the original and an understanding of its basic argument. Without this sympathetic comprehension, attempts at trimming it down to size are bound to fail or to at least be misdirected. The best book reviewers are great at being able to reduce a thick volume to its thesis. That’s because they’re not just idle English majors like you and me, but are very likely experts in the field who may know more about the writers and their subjects than the writers themselves.

Since most of us aren’t such experts, the next best thing would be to take careful notes of what’s being said—identifying (and even physically highlighting) main points in the text and understanding why they’re being made. These points can then be paraphrased, condensed, and sequentially presented.

A good summary is also mindful and possibly reflective of the tone of the original—whether businesslike, contemplative, combative, or comic, for example. Nowhere should the summarizer’s own opinions or biases intrude, unless one is summarizing one’s own material.

This leads me to one of my pet peeves, the abuse of PowerPoint by speakers who don’t know the difference between a talk and an AV script. These are the people who will turn their whole speech into slides that are little more than blocks of text and unreadable graphs, and who will do little more than read everything that’s being flashed onscreen.

We might not mind this practice too much if these speakers were audibly engaging, knowing which phrases to emphasize or when to pause for dramatic effect. In many cases, however, this ritual is performed by zombie-like drones who seem to have no inkling that they actually have an audience behind them (behind, because they’re reading off the screen)—and an audience that can read as well as, if not faster than, them. PowerPoint presentations are meant to be verbal and visual summaries of whatever is being pitched.

There’s little excuse for a long paragraph to be splashed across the screen where a picture and four or five memorable words will do. That paragraph will be forgotten as soon as the slide vanishes, but the image will linger long afterwards.

Of course you’ll always lose a little something even in the best summary, but let’s put it this way: the best summaries will make the reader want to read the rest of the material, which is what you probably wanted to happen in the first place.

(Image from fotolia.com)

Penman No. 114: Still Nothing Better than Good Writing

Penman for Monday, Sept. 15, 2014

 

FIRST OF all, my belated thanks to those readers who sent in their responses to the editing exercises I put out in this column a few weeks ago. In no particular order, they included Ed Maranan, Adrian Laserna, Vince Mendoza, Ver del Valle, Crisma Mina, Fely Claviolo, Renz Felipe, Ronita Dacula, Louie Recillo, Jenny Llaguno, Lydia Chan, Razielle Esguerra, and Lawrence Bernabe.

I had no time to critique each response individually, so what I’ll do is to publish, below, what I thought were the best responses, and everyone can then match their answers against this list. Just take note that, as with anything having to do with language, these answers aren’t graven in stone and could accept another word here and there.

Exercise I (Wordiness)

1.  I managed to traverse the thoroughfare without jeopardizing my safety.

I crossed the road safely.

2. The people of the Philippines have a great liking for festive occasions.

Filipinos love fiestas.

3. Society as a whole, as well as the individual persons in it, should practice the virtue of honesty.

Let’s be honest.

4. In my personal opinion, it is my idea that a prohibition on pistols, revolvers and rifles should be implemented.

Ban guns.

5. His actuations produced a profound surprise in the very depths of me.

 He shocked me.

6. We have insufficient information with regard to this state of events.

We need to know more about this.

7. Let us satisfy the requirements of our bodies for nourishment.

 Let’s eat.

8. The outbreak of hostilities was within the realm of possibility.

War was imminent.

9. I give you my permission to continue doing whatever it was you were doing.

 Carry on.

10. He was a uniformed enforcer of the law.

He was a cop.

Exercise II (Modulation)

1a. (nice) Filipinos are a hardworking people who can rise above their poverty through resourcefulness and strength of spirit.

1b. (nasty) The Philippines is a nation of beggars.

2a. (neutral) The Philippine economy depends greatly on the remittances of overseas workers.

2b. (nasty) The Philippine economy would collapse without the remittances of millions of Filipinos forced to work overseas by the lack of good-paying jobs at home.

3a. (neutral) Your proposal needs improvement.

3b. (nice) Your proposal shows promise and, with some changes here and there, can rise to its full potential.

Strictly speaking, the second exercise really no longer belongs to the realm of editing, which most often involves rendering a piece of text in its simplest, clearest, and most accurate form possible, but rather to editorializing, which is the art (some would say the nefarious art) of introducing an emotional or political slant into a statement to influence the reader’s opinion. PR specialists and propagandists (including editorial writers) do this all the time. I worked years ago as an editorial writer for a now-defunct newspaper, and one of these days I’ll do a separate piece on that experience.

I was also pleased to receive a message from a reader we’ll call Mike, who works as a content editor for the Cebu-based self-publishing arm of Penguin Random House, and who started his editing career as a copywriter for the marketing department of a Japanese vehicle-exporting firm, also in Cebu. Mike shared his experience with me, and I got his permission to quote a bit from it:

“I foolishly believed back then that, since I already had significant copywriting experience, editing would be a cinch for me. Instead, I learned the hard way that writing and editing involved two completely different kinds of skill sets and mindsets; junior copy editors in the company undergo rigorous training in the Chicago Manual of Style, and I struggled at first. I’m glad that I eventually got the hang of it, but the experience was a huge eye-opener for me. I worked as a copy editor for a couple of years (editing and indexing manuscripts submitted to us by authors looking to self-publish their work), then eventually got pulled back into the Marketing Department again, but this time as a content editor in charge of our in-house copywriters. I now edit marketing and promotional copy: website content; mailer and newsletter copy; and copy for brochures, flyers, PR kits, and other marketing and promotional materials.”

I’m taking note of Mike’s message not just because it was a pleasant surprise to me to learn that Penguin Random House had a back-office in Cebu, offering jobs to editors, but also because Mike sent me a link to a provocative article on gawker.con by Hamilton Nolan, titled “Against Editors,” which reminds us that while good editing can save a badly written draft, there’s still nothing better than good writing to begin with. Nolan says:

“This is not to say that editing is not a legitimate job. It is. It is also a necessary step in the writing process. But it is not the most important role in the writing process. That would be writing, which any honest editor will tell you is much harder than editing. (An editor who will not admit this is not worth listening to.) Reporting is a difficult chore. Writing is a psychologically agonizing struggle. Editing is not easy, but not as onerous as either of the two tasks that precede it. You would never know that, though, by looking at the relative salaries of the people who do the work.

“Good editors are valuable. They are also rare. If we simply kept the good ones and dismissed the bad ones, the ranks of editors would immediately shrink to saner levels. Editors are an important part of writing—a subordinate part. Their role in the industry should be equally subordinate…. To hire a new editor instead of a new writer is to give up actual stories in favor of… some marginal improvements, somewhere, or perhaps nothing at all.”

Penman No. 112: Exercises for the Editorially Minded

Penman for Monday, September 1, 2014

 

TO MY pleasant surprise, last week’s piece on what editors do drew a stream of positive responses—I never imagined that so many readers would find the thankless and dimly illuminated job of editing so fascinating—but my biggest surprise after the column came out was to realize that I’d already written not just one but two columns on editing, back in 2010. Thankfully, I didn’t repeat myself too much, and since I’ve already written dozens of pieces on, say, fiction and nonfiction, I don’t see why I can’t do a fourth one on editing, focusing this time on how an editor thinks or should think.

But before I go one step further into the trenches, let me just point out another important fact about the editor’s job. Particularly in a journalistic context, where some element of public interest is presumably involved (as opposed to literary publishing, which comes down to very personal tastes), “editing” involves much more than dotting I’s or finding better substitutes for problem words. Editing in journalism inevitably involves matters of policy—the publication’s policy in respect of the treatment of, say, political and social issues. What newspaper and magazine editors worry or should worry about are spelled out in a textbook titled Creative Editing by Bowles and Border (Wadsworth, 2000), which says, in a chapter on Situational Ethics:

“Copy editors are likely to be concerned with decisions involving the writing, editing and production processes: Is the use of profane language or obscene photographs ever justified? When? Are the implicit biases of the editor or the newspaper as a cultural institution evident in the selection of 
stories and photos? Should they be? Do certain people groups or institutions receive more play than others? Conversely, are some people groups or institutions ignored? Are headlines and captions fair and accurate? Are stories edited to eliminate bias and opinion? Are subjective words or words suggesting a viewpoint 
given thoughtful consideration?

“Managing editors and other senior editors are likely to be concerned with questions of policy: Should victims of crimes be identified? If so, when? In stories about rape? About incest? About battering? In stories involving juveniles? Should suspects in crimes be identified? If so, when? At their arrest? When they are charged? At the time
of trial? Should the cause of death be listed in obituaries involving victims of suicide or AIDS? Who in the newsroom should know the identity of confidential sources? Just the reporter? The supervising editor? The managing editor? The publisher? If a reporter pledges confidentiality to a source, are editors
bound by the same promise? How involved should newsroom employees be in writing and editing special sections that promote 
consumer products? How should corrections and clarifications be handled?”

Frankly, when I contemplate questions like these, I’m glad to be in the classroom rather than the newsroom, knowing how tricky these situations can get. It would seem that they should have clear and easy answers, but they rarely do, especially given the realities of Philippine publishing and politics—but that’s a story for another day.

Today, let’s do something more elementary—elementary enough to be among the very first exercises I give my students in CW198, Professional Writing. (I don’t care if my future students see this here, because they’ll still be hard put to cough up the answers. As all my students know, I always give open-book exams.) You might know if you have an editor lurking inside you if you can do these exercises reasonably well. Just for fun, I’ll respond to the first 10 responses emailed to me—if you don’t hear back from me, that means you were No. 11.

The first exercise has to do with the bane of Filipinos who love English too much, to the point of using 30 words where three will do, and of using a P1,000 word where a five-peso one will do. Cut. Simplify. Ruthlessly.

The second exercise is rather more advanced, and involves matters of judgment, nuance, and vocabulary—in other words, style. This is something that an editorial or opinion writer (which I was, way back when) would specialize in. I tell my students that they can express the same idea in three ways—nice, neutral, and nasty—depending on their specific purpose. I don’t mean for anyone to be nasty, of course, but just like learning karate or shooting, you never know when you might need it. Let’s have some fun!

I. Wordiness: Simplify and shorten the following sentences without changing their meaning.

  1. I managed to traverse the thoroughfare without jeopardizing my safety.
  2. The people of the Philippines have a great liking for festive occasions.
  3. Society as a whole, as well as the individual persons in it, should practice the virtue of honesty.
  4. In my personal opinion, it is my idea that a prohibition on pistols, revolvers and rifles should be implemented.
  5. His actuations produced a profound surprise in the very depths of me.
  6. We have insufficient information with regard to this state of events.
  7. Let us satisfy the requirements of our bodies for nourishment.
  8. The outbreak of hostilities was within the realm of possibility.
  9. I give you my permission to continue doing whatever it was you were doing.
  10. He was a uniformed enforcer of the law.

II. Modulation: Rewrite the following statements in the “nice-normal-nasty” modes, as required:

  1. (neutral) The Philippines is a country whose people are predominantly poor. (turn into nice and nasty)
  1. (nice) Heroic overseas workers contribute greatly to the health of the Philippine economy. (turn into neutral and nasty)
  1. (nasty) Your proposal is almost totally bereft of intelligence and originality, and is unacceptable in its present form. (turn into neutral and nice)

Penman No. 111: The Editor’s Job

2094063835_a852a12998_zPenman for Monday, August 25, 2014

 

LAST WEEK I promised to write a piece on editing or editorship as a job, and here it is.

Here in the Philippines, when we say “editor,” we usually think of a newspaper editor, someone who lords it over the newsroom with a fearsome temper, wielding a pen like a saber. That’s the growly character we also often see in the movies, a 60-something guy who chews out a quivering cub reporter.

Most editors I’ve met are actually quiet, even mousy people who get their work done with a pencil in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Their names might not even appear on the books or the materials they edit. What they do is really an art unto itself, but there are no awards given, no National Artists designated, for editing. The editor leaves a ghostly signature behind; you’ll just know that an editor has been there by the effortlessness and the limpid clarity with which you read the prose of a certain piece.

Editors work with writers to polish drafts and to turn them into the best reading fare they could possibly be. The presumption, of course, is that every writer needs an editor—even the best ones; I certainly believe this, and as an author I expect a reputable publisher to have my manuscript gone over by another pair of eyes. Even in this newspaper, I’ve been saved many a time from woeful embarrassment by the alertness of my editors.

Editors review and revise manuscripts for several things: the accuracy of the contents, grammatical correctness, and stylistic felicity. As the intermediary between the author and the reader, the editor has to ensure that the author’s message comes through to the reader as clearly as possible, while retaining as much of the author’s style—his or her particular manner of expression, which can vary greatly from writer to writer.

Editors can employ any one of several levels or degrees of editing, as the job at hand or the terms of engagement may require: heavy, moderate, and light. Heavy editing means not even dealing with the text line by line or sentence by sentence, but by paragraphs and pages, thoroughly rewriting whole sections if clarity so demands. Moderate editing takes place at the sentence level—rewording this and that, putting this clause before that one, smoothing transitions and strengthening connections between paragraphs and topic shifts, making sure that the punctuation is perfect, and so on. Light editing might be little more than proofreading—checking for typos and misspellings, supplying missing apostrophes, questioning and resolving a word choice here and there, italicizing book titles, etc.

Literary editing is an even more special job than journalistic or technical copyediting, because it involves and requires a finely developed sensitivity to at least two things: what the author intends, and what the reader (or that larger group of potential readers, the market) expects. Creative writing deals in rich and potent ambiguities, and the literary editor must know how to achieve a balance between efficient clarity and nuanced expression.

It’s not the editor’s role to tell the author what or how to write, but a savvy editor will point out potential problems to the author—problems of interpretation, of pitch, of considerations that will sometimes go far beyond the text.

If the author is a creator, the editor is a critic—indeed, the work’s very first critic—who interrogates the text. Depending on the quality of the text, the editing can be more difficult than the writing. And eventually you’re dealing not only with the text, but with the author, who can be even more intransigent than his or her hopelessly garbled copy. Many authors—especially Filipino authors, who have had little or no previous experience with good editors—think very highly of themselves and their writing prowess, and resist the editor’s ministrations, no matter how positive and helpful they may be.

When I take on an editing job, I make it clear from the outset that while I will do everything I can to be sensitive to the client’s wants and temperament, I will literally have the final word as far as grammar and style are concerned. (I often choose to become an editor when I don’t have the time or the inclination to write the text myself; I advise prospective clients that they’ll save some time and money by getting a junior writer to prepare the draft, then getting me on board as an editor to do the final styling.) I ask people to trust me with what I’ve been trained to do, the same way I trust my editors with my copy.

In editorial mode, I’ve sometimes asked clients if they really want to come out with something they said that, in my best judgment, they might later regret, or might cause them unnecessary trouble. Sometimes people use books to settle old scores, and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with candor—and every truth or even half-truth contributes to historical discourse—I have to keep the client’s strategic interests in mind, and at least advise him or her of the possible pitfalls ahead. An editor can choose to play the independent and even adversarial critic, and every job needs a bit of that; but you can be sympathetic without being easy, or hard without being harsh, and I’ve found that that’s the best and fastest way to get solid work done, with a minimum of fuss and without leaving a bloody trail of crushed egos.

What do you need to become a good editor? Many editors begin and may still work on the side as writers, but paradoxically, some if not many editors may not be good writers—especially creative writers—at all. But at the very least, you need a near-impeccable command of the language, a sharp eye for detail, self-assurance, guts, and the desire and the drive to shape language to perfection.

 

 

Penman No. 22: A Feast of Festivals

MILF3

Penman for Monday, Nov. 26, 2012

WHETHER BY design or sheer coincidence, November is turning out to be a kind of Literary Arts Month for the Asia-Pacific region, with a plenitude of literary festivals and conferences being held one after the other over the last four weeks.

First off—as I reported on last week—was the Reaching the World Summit held Nov. 5-9 in Bangkok, Thailand, under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association and in conjunction with the SEAWrite Awards, in itself a major regional literary event. Going on at the same time, from Nov. 2 to 11, was the Singapore Writers Festival, featuring Michael Cunningham of The Hours as this year’s big name, backstopped among others by Marina Mahathir, a feisty political commentator who just happens to be the daughter of Malaysia’s famous PM.

And then, from Nov. 14 to 16, we had our own third edition of the Manila International Literary Festival, billed this year as “Read Lit District.” It was put together as usual by the inimitable and irreplaceable Andrea Pasion-Flores and the National Book Development Board, with the generous support of the Ayala Foundation, among other sponsors. And finally, the world’s biggest gathering devoted to nonfiction—the 2012 Bedell Nonfictionow Conference, with several hundred attendees expected—took place just last week from Nov. 21 to 24 in Melbourne, Australia.

I am, in fact, writing this in Melbourne as I await the opening of Nonfictionow, where I’ve been privileged to be asked to deliver one of the four keynote addresses. You’ll get a report from me very soon on how this conference turned out—and why, as I suggest in my keynote, there’s an even greater necessity for good nonfiction in this age of Facebook and Twitter, when almost any event is deemed newsworthy five seconds after its occurrence. More on this in the coming weeks.

Right now I’d like to focus on the MILF (something about that acronym keeps distracting me, and it has nothing to do with southern secessionists), the youngest of its kind in the region and perhaps necessarily the most modest, compared to its long-running forebears in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Singapore, Bali, and Jaipur, among other places. But even at age three, it’s already shown both strength and precociousness, and the ability to attract both big-name writers and SRO audiences—many members of whom pay quite a bit of money just to listen—over its three-day run.

I’d have to admit that years ago, when Andrea first mentioned the NBDB’s plans to start an international literary festival in Manila, I was less than convinced that we could pull it off, having been spoiled rotten by the many others I’d attended abroad. How were we going to bring in world-class international authors? How many locals would turn up? Where were we going to hold the event?

As it turned out, all my misgivings went for naught. Practically since the beginning, the MILF has been a resounding success, attracting the likes of Pulitzer prizewinners Junot Diaz and Edward Jones last year and prizewinning Nigerian poet and novelist Christopher Abani this year, as well as international literary agents and editors, not to mention the usual suspects from the local literary community.

This time around, I sat on two panels—one on “Making the First Page Count” with New York-based author Tim Tomlinson and Soho Press senior editor Juliet Grames, and another with Chris Abani on “The Writer’s Demons.” Both sessions proved deeply instructive even for me, reinforcing the value of encounters like this even among old pros—just when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t.

Most instructive of all was a session I attended on literary editing, featuring the prolific and versatile Australian author-editor Ken Spillman, the Hong Kong-based poet and editor David McKirdy, and again Juliet Grames. The session drew a full house—and a good thing it did, because literary editing remains a great unknown to most Filipino authors and publishers, leaving us with unpolished texts if unbruised egos. (Since Soledad’s Sister was picked up by an agent some years ago and subsequently by publishers and translators in Italy and France, aside from a US edition, I’ve had the good fortune—and the humbling experience—of dealing with literary editors, whose comments and suggestions proved insightful and helpful. No pain, no gain.) Here are some outtakes from what they said:

Ken Spillman: “The best writers respond well to criticism…. In my hands, on the average, the manuscript would be reduced by 10 percent…. I see editing as a partnership, helping the book become the best book it can be…. (In a good book) I suspect a lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes but it is never evident in the reading.”

David McKirdy: “Don’t send a publisher something that’s neither fish nor fowl, and therefore unmarketable—like a combined collection of poems and prose. You should have a clear conception of your work. Don’t try to put lots of different things together—it doesn’t work.”

Juliet Grames, being the most experienced editor of the three, gave the longest and most novel presentation, beginning with the confession that she started off as a writer when she entered the publishing industry, thinking that she could learn the secrets of the trade from within, but soon found her calling as an editor. “Midwifery might be more for you than motherhood,” she said. Her first editing job was no earth-shaking novel—“It was No More Kidney Stones, revised edition,” she said with a wry smile—but it led to many others, and also impressed upon her the importance of the variety of projects a publisher undertakes. “Crime fiction supports the literary fiction that we publish,” she added.

Then like a teacher, she stood up and drew a series of Venn diagrams on the whiteboard: a set of diagrams each for readers, writers, and publishers. (If you’ll recall your high school math, Venn diagrams have to do with circles or sets and their intersections.)

Juliet explained: “For the reader, the three circles to consider are language, or words; story; and morals, issues, or topics. Readers read for these reasons, and my dream book would have all three.” For writers, it was passion, money, and message; for publishers, it was money, cachet, and ideology. Her final bit of advice resonated well with the audience: “Find yourself in these diagrams, and find and approach the right publisher.”

We are, of course, still a long way in the Philippines from having a passel of publishers to choose from, but then again the purpose of an international literary festival is precisely to remind our authors to expand their horizons beyond the local scene. With the right novel or nonfiction opus in hand, we might yet break into the global market of readers as have the Chinese and the Indians, and put Philippine writing squarely on the world’s literary map.