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Literalism

According to The Collins English Dictionary, literalism is ‘the disposition to take words and statements in their literal sense.
Take it from me, this dry-as-dust definition describes a condition which can momentarily lead to an almost psychedelic sense of unreality and some pretty amazing mental images.
I know, for I suffer from mild literalism.
The symptoms first appeared some years ago, when I was doing some work for a multi-national company and had been called to a meeting at a local factory. I had arrived early, and with time to spare I was passing the time perusing the noticeboard in the corridor.
A health and safety alert caught my eye.
Apparently, there had been a serious chemical leakage at a sister plant up north. Although it was a potentially lethal situation the danger was averted when, as the notice explained, ‘the staff evacuated.’
Now, evacuate can mean several things, but the way this sentence was written simply means that the staff defecated.
And who can blame them? I thought. It must have scared then to death. I was glad I didn’t have to clear up the mess though.
Of course, after a moment of sober reflection I realised that this was merely a case of sloppy writing. What was really meant was that the staff were evacuated.
Humph! How mundane. My initial reading was so much more colourful.
That’s the trouble with literalism. Everything is such a let down when you discover what people really mean.
Now in this instance the onset of my literalism was triggered by some slapdash grammar, but even correct English can set off an attack.
There was the time in Austria when a guide told me that in the 19th century English visitors were common in the Tyrol, and I spent a blissful few hours imaging hordes of drunken shell-suited Victorian Brits rampaging around Innsbruck, swearing, belching, and eating fish and chips from half-read copies of ‘The Sun’ newspaper.
Alas, the guide merely meant that English visitors were frequent, and not common as in vulgar or coarse. Ah well. It was a glorious thought whilst it lasted.
Here’s another example.
I was recently watching a TV programme about prehistory, (I know. I really should get out more.)
I have to admit that it was fairly heavy going, and the eyes were beginning to glaze over in preparation for the long blink, when suddenly the presenter said “About 10000BC the population of the world exploded.’
Now this perked me up no end, and the old brain cells started whirring.
The population exploded? Wow! Now that is interesting. Did they detonate all at once, or one after another, I wondered. Perhaps they blew up in groups, one tribe at a time. Either way there must have been one colossal bang. Why had nobody mentioned this before? And once again, for I have a tidy mind and like to get these things straight, I wondered who cleared up the mess.
Of course I soon realised that I had gone off the mark again. The presenter simply meant that the population had multiplied rapidly. (Damn. That won’t do either. I now have a picture of stone age people reciting their times-tables very quickly.) No, what the presenter meant, and what I should have written, was that the population rapidly increased in number. Which is no doubt historically more accurate but not nearly as much fun.
The English language is littered with snares for literalists like me, and there’s nothing I can do about it except bow down and accept the situation. How far do you think I should bend?

Million Dollar Howlers

According to Amazon, more Kindle books are returned due to bad spelling and grammar than for any other reason.
It’s not hard to see why the Kindle in particular should be so singularly prone to typos.

  • Authors are human (mostly), and make mistakes.
  • The rush to publish and the DIY nature of the Kindle process means that many authors are dispensing with the quality control processes which were integral to the traditional publishing process. Specifically, instead of using the publishing house’s professional copy-editors they are correcting their own manuscripts which, as I know only too well,  is almost impossible to do successfully.

Copy-editors are trained to pick up those howlers and faux-pas that slip unnoticed into the work of lesser mortals. Most professional organisations wouldn’t dream of publishing or releasing any information before it had been throughly checked over for errors by copy-editors or other specialists.
Which makes the following blunders and boo-boos as puzzling as they were expensive.

Penguin Tales

Back in 2010, Penguin Australia had to pulp 7000 copies of ‘The Pasta Bible’ because it contained a receipe for tagliatelle and sardines which called for ‘salt and freshly ground black people. . .’ It should, of course, have read black pepper.
Embarrassing!

The most expensive hyphen in history

On July 22, 1962 Mariner 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, marking the United States’ first attempt at an inter-planetary mission. Unfortunately a hyphen had been ommitted from the coded computer instructions, resulting in incorrect guidance signals being sent to the spacecraft. (Actually there was some speculation that the problem might have been caused by an ‘overbar transcription error’—whatever that is—or even a misplaced decimal point, but the missing hyphen was the most likely culprit. Either way it was an editing error.) As a result, five minutes after launch the Range Safety Officer issued the destruct command and the $80 million spacecraft was blown to smithereens. The spelling error ended up costing each and every US taxpayer about one dollar each.

Chilean disaster

ChilecoinHow’s this for a high profile spelling mistake?
In 2008, 1.5 million Chilean 50 peso coins were released with the South American country’s name spelled as ‘Chiie’ instead of ‘Chile’. The mistake was not caught until a coin collector reported the error. By that time, 1.5 million coins were already distributed to the public. Although the mint has so far refused to remove the coin from circulation the mistake has caused the country significant embarrassment, and several Chilean mint employees lost their jobs because of this massive error.

It’s unlikely that any of us Kindle writers will be responsible for howlers on the same scale as these, but maybe we should learn from them.
If the people responsible for such important projects as these can make such gigantic cock-ups, what chance have we got to catch our own mistakes unaided?
So get a professional copy-editor to check your manuscript. Don’t be tempted to scrimp on this stage.
You may not lose a million dollars. But it might cost you your reputation.
 

The Writer’s Secret Weapon

If you’re writing and self-publishing book of any sort, but particularly a non fiction book containing facts and figures, here’s a great tip that will save you possibly hours of time in the correction and editing stage.

Write yourself a style-guide and stick to it.

Let me explain.
Look at this rough draft extract from a book about electric bikes.

On the urban commutes and similar short journeys which account for eighty per cent of electric bike usage, the electric bike is about 15 percent quicker overall than than any other form of powered vehicle. Although cars are capable of much greater absolute speed, traffic conditions in towns and cities reduce their average speed on an urban journey to below 9 mph, which is some 9 % slower than the average speed of an electric bike (just over ten miles per hour).’

Notice anything? In one short paragraph I’ve written percentages in three different ways, (eighty per cent, 15 percent, 9 %), miles per hour in two different ways (mph, miles per hour), and rendered numerals in both number and letter formats (9, nine, etc.)
It makes the thing difficult to read, it lacks clarity, and it looks sloppy. It’s just not consistent. It gives the impression that the writer is careless, and unconcerned with the quality of his writing. Which might also leave a reader concerned about the quality of his information.
And there are many more stylistic traps for the unwary.
How about ages, for example? Do you write ‘She was 30’, or do you write ‘She was thirty’?
What about dates? Should you write ‘April 1 1914′, or April 1st 1914? Or even 1 April 1914, or April first 1914’?
How do you deal with abbreviations (e.g. or e.g or eg?), Dates? Times? Titles?. . . The list of possibilities for inconsistent formatting goes on and on.
Of course you may argue that that your job as an author is to get the stuff down on paper in the first place, and ensuring consistency is the job of the copy editor (or should that be copy-editor?). And you’d be right—if you or your publisher can afford one. But many new self-publishing authors are their own copy editors, and I speak from experience when I tell you that trawling through a 300 page manuscript for the fourth time just to address these elements of consistent styling leaves you with an empty feeling of despair and a need to reach for the medicinal whisky bottle.
Believe me, it’s better to aim for consistency right from the start.
So, my advice to you is to put together your own style-guide as soon as possible.

A guide to your style-guide

A style-guide is not a guide to the basic rules of good grammar, correct spelling and clear communication, which should already be familiar to you. (If not you’re in the wrong job.)
A style-guide sets out your own house-style, which is just a posh name for a set of rules which ensure uniformity of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, numbers and all those other little rascals that are open to inconsistency of style.
In most cases there is no right or wrong way. Miles per hour is just as valid as miles-per-hour or mph. Thirty is no more correct than 30. (Unless it starts a sentence, but let’s not get too technical here.) It’s mostly a matter of preference. But the important thing is consistency. Be uniform across the whole document. Decide what your house-style will be, and stick to it.
Although there are generally no hard and fast rules, common practice, evolving modern parlance, and the need for clarity have led to some usages becoming widely accepted by the major style manuals (which we’ll look at shortly). You might want to adopt these rules.
Your own style guide will be tailored to your needs and what you’re writing. If you’re a writer of murder mysteries for instance, you might only need a few notes clarifying your treatment of dates, or ages. If you write history books you might also need to decide how you will handle foreign names, or titles, or references. A writer of a technical or scientific book may need a more chunky guide, addressing elements such as mathematical formula, percentages, numbers, statistics, equations, and anything and everything under the sun.
Sounds like a lot of work? It really doesn’t take that long.
As a starting point you could look at some of the major online style-guides. These have been developed by major publications with many contributing writers. The guide (often called a style manual), ensures that each writer adopts a tone and style consistent with the company’s wishes.
There are many out there, and a simple internet search will give you plenty to choose from. Here are just three.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online : A very widely used style manual published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press

Garbl’s Editorial Style Manual: Writing and editing advice about abbreviations, addresses, capitalization, English grammar, numbers, organization terminology, plurals, possessives, punctuation, spelling, word usage, and the World Wide Web.”

Telegraph Style Book:   The ‘official guide to house style’ for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and Telegraph.co.uk.

These are massive resources, and can cover anything from the correct spelling of Abbottabad (the city in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was found) to the correct use of the word ‘Zionist’. Clearly they are far more comprehensive than anything most authors need, but they are worth looking at for several reasons:

  • You can see how they address the styling issues that you face. . .
  • . . . which you can adopt yourself, if it suits your own style.
  • You can, if you want, identify and adopt those usages which are widely accepted as best practice.
  • They are handy to refer back to for guidance should any unexpected stylistic issue raise its head.
  • They are fascinating references in themselves, and a good way to waste half an hour if you’ve got the time to spare.

OK. I know that you are a writer. You’ve got a book in your head which needs coaxing out, and you need the diversion of concocting a style-guide like you need a snake in your bed.
But it needn’t take long. And take it from me, it’s not wasting time. It may be a pain, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

‘Grounding Therapy’ Accepted into Smashwords Premium Catalogue

My new book ‘Grounding Therapy’ has now been accepted into the Premium Catalogue of ebook distribution giant Smashwords, which means that it is now available for purchase not only from the Smashwords store but from such well known names as Barnes & Noble, Sony, Apple iPad iBookstore, Kobo and the Diesel eBook Store, as well as all major smart phone platforms via app providers such as Aldiko, Page Foundry, Kobo and Word-Player.
So those of you who can’t or won’t shop with Amazon now have plenty of alternatives!

See the Grounding Therapy’s Smashwords page here. . .
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/517856

Grounding Therapy published on Kindle

My first Kindle book, “Grounding Therapy: Nature’s Most Powerful Natural Health Secret” has just been published. Describing a powerful, previously unknown but completely natural healing power, it’s a concise, simple to understand primer on the phenomenon of Grounding Therapy and it’s out now on Amazon.

Use the link below to check it out.