Third Sectors and finding meanings

political correctness

Much of my career has been spent either working in or for the not-for-profit industry sector. In recent rimes this has often been collectively known as the Third Sector, as opposed to the Public or Private Sectors, in case you were wondering. Although the term is not universally popular within the sector itself, it is a useful catchall.

This is a complicated arena to work in because of the vast and varied type of organisations that operate in this area. Outsiders mostly think of this sector as the charity sector, but most not-for-profits are not charities and could not be under UK law. But at least charities have clear sets of rules and procedures to follow. A situation addressed by the 2006 Charities Act. Before that registered charities had to operate under a morass of regulations developed since an Elizabethan 1601 statute. We might be a charitable nation, but it seems this is not always reflected by our Parliament. We had better not hold our breath for more charity legislation, 500 years is a long time without air.

Most of my charity experience has been within the area of education or working abroad where the definitions are less restrictive. The writing and editing challenges here are nearly all associated with not breaching the rules and being mindful of what charities can and cannot say.

In the UK much of the Third Sector is political and embraces think-tanks, pressure groups and movements seeking empowerment for one issue or another. Each interest party has its own no-go areas in language as well as having to keep a weather eye on changes in what is generally acceptable within developing social dialogue.

In my view there is rather too much emphasis put on the real and imagined historical minutiae of various words. This is because it can become a distraction from the issue at hand. It has also led to many people developing negative associations with the phrase ‘political correctness,’ which while well-meaning, if not necessary, tends to have an Orwellian ring to it.

Word usage and phrases tend to be subject to fashion, if that is not too controversial to say, and often someone only has to question the use of a given word for it to become tainted.

In January 1999 an aide to the Mayor of Washington DC was forced to resign over his use of the word niggardly, meaning picky or mean-spirited, because of its phonetic similarity to the N-word. It was a misunderstanding that was thankfully resolved, but it demonstrates how sensitive this issue can be.

One regional police force was so out of touch that it wrote its race policy from a poorly researched Internet article and ended up banning the phrase ‘nitty-gritty.’ Most linguists now agree that the word has its origins firmly within the 20th century and does not have the once-touted slave conations. However, one might think that organisations would be better served actually developing better social skills than second guessing language, but that is another topic.

The lesson to take from this is that words are emotive and intellectual arguments are no substitute for not causing the offence in the first place. Third Sector writing can be a minefield where one needs to be streetwise as well word wise.

Late Copy is Dead Copy

deadlinesYou might think everyone knows what a deadline is. However, I am not sure that they do.

We have never had a problem with deadlines in terms of meeting them. In most of my past operations, even where we have run junior staff or contractors, they have usually met all deadlines or have approached me at an early stage for others to fill unforeseen gaps.

On the whole writers and editors, especially those with a journalist background, know that often late copy is dead copy.

However, clients are not always so clear about this. When asked about the deadline some clients will say things like, “Sometime next week,” or “not for a few days.” One can never take this on trust. There is almost always a deadline even if the point of contact with the client is not aware of it. It behoves the editor to try and tease this out.

The ‘sometime never’ deadline is not the only issue that arises. Sometimes an over eager client will set potentially unrealistic targets.

We once worked on a project over Christmas. The client wanted the text first thing in the morning on the Monday between Yule and New Year. The biggest challenge was the implementation of XML tags within the copy, all of which had to be live tested on a website to make sure that stray code didn’t crash the page.
To our families’ relief by 9.00pm on Christmas Eve we figured we had cracked it enough to take two days off and finish up over the weekend.

In the event the client was surprised that we had met the deadline given the season and had just plucked the date out of the air. The true deadline had been by the end of that month.
Now even though this was slightly annoying, it was far preferable than rather more vague ‘after Christmas sometime’ that we have just discussed. This was a client who understood that projects like his needed a clear end point to be achieved.

If you should encounter a vague deadline and after inquiries it is clear that no definite date has yet been required, then set your own target. Preferably set one that is drawn on information supplied by the client and have it agreed with them first. That way if there is a problem or their requirements are firmed up they know to tell you.

In order to develop this blog I set definite copy deadlines, although in this case I am my own client. Otherwise there is a tendency to have project drift.

Strawberries and Cabbages

gallery-1432664914-strawberry-facts1cabbage11Some things are more interesting to read about than others. It is this truth that challenges us when writing much commercial copy. Many people will milk every last word of celebrity gossip and yawn when faced with breakdown of their savings account. With this in mind editors are often asked to liven things up and make the driest subject all the more interesting.

There are no golden rules for doing this but let us look a few things to try or avoid. It is never wise, for instance, to lead on numbers. Unless the story is the statistic, then leave the numerical breakdown for the end. Jargon too can be much loved by the in-house writer, but even people who know what it means find their eyes glazing over.

Instead, try to relate the information to characters, places or interesting events. Although it is not always possible, try to tell a story.

There are two passages below, one about strawberries and one about cabbages. Neither is going to thrill you and both have been edited down to exactly 123 words. You might think that strawberries are inherently more interesting than cabbages, but which information do you find more engaging from the two?

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The strawberry is a widely grown hybrid species of the genus Fragaria. It is what is known by growers as an aggregate accessory fruit with a distinct aroma, colour, and sweetness. This ubiquitous desert was thought to have been first cultivated in 18th century France. It was later improved by an introduction of a cross between the North American Fragaria Virginiana and the Chilean Fragaria Chiloensis.

The wild strawberry, of course, has been around since antiquity. The French developed this interest in the wild fruit from the 14th century although it was earlier known to the Romans for its medicinal properties. This smaller sweeter variety was handicapped by the pips, as the diminutive fruit tended to make eating medieval strawberries a crunchy experience.

The cabbage comes in a vast array of colours and species and could be the answer the problem of feeding the world. Although loved by the Chinese and much of the planet, it has met with a prevailing unpopularity in most of Europe. Indeed the Ancient Greeks believed that the growing of cabbage would taint the grape and so spoil the wine; refusing to grow it anywhere near their vineyards. The Romans considered it unfit for a senator’s table and only the dour killjoy Cato thought it worthwhile.

However, this versatile foodstuff is highly nutritious and easy to grow and in recent years the United Nations has noted a significant increase in cabbage production in the most over populated countries of the world.

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Perhaps you saw no difference, but consider, the first is about the French claims to pre-eminence in strawberry growing. The second is about the growing importance of cabbage as a food source.
The first has various dates and a lot of Latin jargon to obscure its message. The second tries to get you on side. It does this after hitting you with the key fact by giving you a version of the cabbage image that you will probably identify with.

Both passages return to their theme, but which one still holds your attention?

Wood for the trees

treesOnce we were asked to prepare 200-word personal profiles for an international summit. The event was to be attended by various world leaders, captains of industry and a sprinkle of celebrities to add to colour.

Most of the attendees had clued-in PAs who supplied various information, often already summarised down to no more than 500 words or so. There is quite an art to conference publications and most of the participants were well aware about what to say.

It is always a challenge to get 500 words down to 40 percent of the original text without upsetting the client, but by the time you get rid of the padding it is often just a matter of leaving out the least important facts.

However, at this particular summit the PA of a very senior international music star sent us 45 pages of hastily written prose praising their boss. A polite inquiry ascertained that these pages had already been summarised and it was “impossible to say less about such a great artiste.”

We suggested to the eager employee that as even her president was only getting 200 words in the guide book perhaps we could shorten it. We were told to just take the “most important parts.”

We were astounded that she had just surrendered her employer’s image control over to a small team of contract editors, but not surprised. It happens more often than not with internal publications.

No doubt the PA was thinking that as no more than 500 people would ever have read it. However, when you consider the identities of those 500 in this instance, it is still strange that more care was not taken to tailor the profile to better suit that particular celebrity’s agenda.

In this case we focussed on the many awards and relevant recognition the star had achieved, taking care to lift key phrases from the original introduction so as to as far as possible keep the feel of the thing. However, it could so easily have gone wrong both us and them.

Ultimately it is hard to sustain the idea that 10,000 words being culled to a mere 200 was in anyway a summary. What we did was a thorough rewrite. If everyone had taken the same approach we would have to have edited around a million words in a week.

Vanishing Words

misty lawnAt a party recently the subject of writing and editing came up. Not only were we enthusiastically told that with the advent of text messaging grammar was becoming redundant, we were also treated to the theory that since worldwide book sales are down then it wouldn’t be long before all the editors would be out of work. Presumably following the same logic, language teachers and journalists would also be out of work too.

Rather than go into a rant, let us dwell for a moment on the romantic notion that the word is inextricably linked to the printed book. It is a lovely idea that conjures up a scene of lemonade in summer and tea on the lawn while Emily and John sit under the old oak tree reading the classics.

The truth is this has never been true. Before the age of the email far more words were committed to paper by pen than have ever been published. The email and text have not challenged the book so much as the old habit of letter writing.

Then as someone who has spent at least half his career writing for digital publications the decline if Paper Age has brought more convenience than problems.
We heard similar predictions when movies first appeared and then again with TV. The truth is book sales grew exponentially during the 20th century as our media age fuelled an almost insatiable demand for the informative and creative word.

All that is happening is that the medium has changed and after the first rush of enthusiasm for self-publishing, it obvious that there is even more need for professional writers and editors. A Kindle does not stifle writing, it unchains it.

We live in an era when a free of printing costs books can be produced for diminishingly small audiences. The growth in specialist business publications is testament to this. In recent years we have worked on projects where 80 page books have been targeted at fewer than 200 people.

Although worldwide book sales have declined, in recent years UK sales have fallen by only a few percentage points. My wife has done her best in this regard, a week never going by when she hasn’t bought a book or six. If one looks at the accompanying growth of Kindle sales then it is surprising that book sales have not declined still further.
The truth is the demand for the published word has never been greater.

It is interesting that our friend at the party seems to suggest that standards in writing, and by extension editing, must fall if one is writing emails and digital books. There is no reason why this should be so and experience does not bear this out.

What is being challenged by increased digitalisation of every kind is the impact on the evolution of language. Also, it is interesting to note that more and more abbreviations have become acceptable in formal texts. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as a wag once said, ‘all change is change,’ perhaps editors must change too.

Lost in Translation

lostOne of the common challenges of recent years is the growth of Asia and the impact on international publications. It is not unknown for a simple editing job to become infinitely more complicated because through no fault of the client the source text is not as advertised. Then we are in a scenario where one is not so much editing text, but entirely rewriting or even researching it.

The difficulties here are obvious. Quite apart from the increased danger of inaccuracies, one suddenly finds there is less time for a job than had been allowed for. Then there is the issue that the author is particularly proud of his or her efforts and wants to see their own words in print or on a web post.

The trick here is to make the text appear to be more or less the same body of work, with the same tone and voice, but with grammar and factual errors ‘clarified;’ sometimes extensively.

The most common cause of these problems is that the text can be written by someone who not only doesn’t have English as a first language, but barely has any real English at all above the conversationally level.

Sometimes it is obvious that text has been run through Google Translate, so what began as artistic and well-crafted copy can end up as potential nonsense. One client had to contend with interesting assertions like ‘the company will float like a stone’ and ‘progressing into a noble and historical past.’

Then there are the problems that arise from the differences between American, Standard and some versions of International English. The latter being a kind of hybrid of US and British English that seems to be common in some European style books.

Once we worked until midnight checking and rechecking a text for a particular fussy customer only to come in the next day to face a memo about all the errors. Luckily the customer had faxed over his copy with the ‘errors’ circled. We had spelled it colour and flavour, as per the style book and the well-educated German gentleman had assumed that ‘color’ and ‘flavor’ were the correct usage.

Of course one cannot make the customer feel stupid; after all it is an easy enough mistake to make, and a rather diplomatic email had to be sent to explain the usage and to apologise for the confusion.

More challenging still is that there are often political or cultural issues to be sidestepped. Here we are talking about factual interpretation or even a diametrically opposed understanding of what is acceptable to say.

Sexist and racist terminology are obvious pitfalls, but often certain clients will make casual assumptions about the status of certain territories, notably where there are military occupations or border disputes. This can happen even when the author knows that citizens from these countries will be present at a relevant event or will be a recipient of the text.

Never is carefully editing more important.

Dotting your Ts

highstsignHere is an interesting issue that came up on a project. That is the use of the point or period after shortened words. The use of the term ‘shortened words’ is deliberate here as will be explained.

Most contemporary house style guides would suggest leaving the point off after Mr, Dr and other such words. Indeed most spellcheckers will suggest the same.
Historically this comes from the printed press where space economy used to be an issue and continues because clean copy can be compromised by being littered by too many seemingly random dots on the page. However, in one case some purists disputed this and went as far as to complain about the use and misuse in internal memoranda.

Just for a bit of fun let us explore a traditional view on this.

One of the points of contention seemed to stem from the fact that the office had Americans and British people in it. Most of the older people from the states were strongly in favour of the use of the point, whereas the UK position seems to be in favour of leaving off these humble dots. Interestingly my own (UK-educated) father would agree with the Americans here.

It is often suggested that there is a difference between standard British and US English in this regard and for the most part experience has supported this.
The reason we opened the discussion with the phrase ‘shortened words’ is because of the difference between abbreviations and contractions. An abbreviation would include usage such as Capt., Maj., or any shortened word that does not end the same letter as the one fully spelled out. A contraction is a word that does, and would include: Mr, Mrs (originally mistress), and St (for street). The latter being one of the most misused in British street signs.

My own view is that if it is not needed and can be left out then it should be. However, ultimately we pose the questions is it consistent and is it clear? In professional writing the style-guide is king.