Publicity Writing and Copyediting, Considered

Posted January 28th, 2014 in Copyediting, Publicity, Random by Emily Varner

As this website attests, I am primarily a publicist for books in biblical studies and church leadership. But I also copyedit books on occasion, to exercise my copyediting and proofreading skills (not to mention learn a ton). My informal tagline for copyediting is “helping really smart people not sound dumb;” and while it sounds arrogant, I beg to differ. Bar none, the authors I have copyedited have been brilliant, creative, thoughtful, perceptive, and organized. But that doesn’t mean they express themselves in the best words, phrases, sentence construction, or tone. To read through a manuscript I am editing is to become an anonymous student of a master teacher, to ask questions that will enable other students to learn well, and to clear up clutter and confusion that will detract from the message. When authors come back with appreciation for how their nameless copyeditor has channeled their style and thoughts to make their books better, this hard work is all the more worthwhile.

Publicity writing can feel like the opposite challenge; at times, I long to retreat into the safety of using many words to explain an argument, perspective, or approach. Instead, I get a handful of words–a few phrases–that can either push the book and author into a deserved spotlight or hide them in the waterfall of new books and resources, which are constantly pouring out before a seemingly shrinking number of book readers. My tagline for publicity writing could be “trying not to sound woefully ignorant of an author’s complete argument.” If I could express the entire argument in a few sentences, there would really be no need for a book. And especially in (though not limited to) academic circles, PR hype is not my friend. Can something be “the best,” or “comprehensive,” or “groundbreaking”? Perhaps, but I had better be doubly certain of that before I want to claim it.

In publicity copywriting, the author and editor can become a great ally in the process. I don’t have the leisure of reading each manuscript three times, I don’t have the same depth of understanding of the subject matter, and I don’t communicate nearly as much with influencers in the book’s field. Involved authors help nuance the necessary truncation of their material and point publicists in the direction of the most receptive audience for their work.

In these situations I am no longer the faceless entity re-crafting phrases but an actual person with an email address, someone whose job description includes turning into tweetable text something that requires a book. And that thick skin that authors get warned about needing upon the return of their copyedited manuscript transfers to the publicity copywriter–being content not to get it the first time and to need a hand, whose extraordinarily thin wording may require a good deal of finesse before it can go to work for the book and the author.

Comma Clarity (or Lack Thereof)

Posted March 4th, 2013 in Random by Emily Varner

I recently started a new copyediting project, a collection of lectures from a theologian now deceased (which, incidentally, makes querying the author about edits a challenge). I also happen to be watching, and helping where I can, as my first-grader’s reading skills develop. She is doing fine, but her more-developed oral language skills seem to be causing her some problems: the early readers are boring, but she won’t slow down enough on more challenging books so that the words on the page are the words she actually reads. Her attempts to “read” her predetermined meanings bring some of the most fascinating yet maddening moments of my day. It is reader-response to the n-th degree: “No worries if the words aren’t really there; I can make a sentence with similar-sounding words say what I have in mind.”

But the funny thing is, I can see myself doing the same thing as I edit. Last night I was nearly done composing a query (which goes to the compiler/editor, by the way, not the author) when I realized I had read the sentence entirely wrong. Fortunately, I at least had the words right and the problem was one of emphasis and construction, but I had to laugh. Context and style really do take the driver’s seat: our ability to derive meaning out of someone’s written words is severely hindered without these often subtle signals.

In my recent editing work, this has manifested itself in much deliberation over commas. House style for my current project prescribes a less-is-more approach to commas, which runs slightly against the grain for me. But essential commas, of course, have to stay (or, in some cases, be added). Here are some of the words and phrases bringing some additional fascinating yet maddening moments into recent days.

Because . . . (I Said So)
Think about this one for a second.
“Clean up your prose, because I said so.”
“Don’t clean your prose because I said so; do it because you want to learn to be a better writer.”
It seems simple enough in the abstract, but consider how easily this can lead to a situation in which a comma makes the difference between two opposite meanings depending on the rest of the sentence. Whether you see a comma signals how to read and emphasize the phrasing. For example, “The church cannot bring all its resources to bear on present problems, because clergification removed the sense that all members of the believing community are ministers . . .” Now try it without the comma.

That . . . (the World May Know)
“Jesus came that the world may know he is the Christ.” (in order that)
“Jesus came; that the world did not know him was not his fault.” (noun clause)
“Both are sentences that express Jesus’ coming to Earth.” (restrictive relative clause)
These are three valid uses of that, and again, if you’re reading out loud, you need to decide which use it is before the words come out of your mouth or you’ll end up re-reading it. Another lovely can of worms is the use of which. Don’t get me started on that one.

Or . . . (Something Else)
And then there’s the appositional use of or.
“We are not even discussing the use of colons or dashes.” (alternative)
“Em-dashes, or ‘my favorite punctuation marks ever,’ haven’t yet been mentioned.” (“also known as”).
Notice how, in the second example, taking out the commas makes two separate things out of something intended to be identified with one another.

Clarity in punctuation makes a difference–usually between sense and nonsense, but occasionally between dramatic differences in meaning. I offer my thanks to the many professional editors and style gurus helping authors express the things they want to say so that readers encounter minimal obstacles on their way to meaning. I keep learning so much from you in the small contributions I make to that cause. Now back to my commas.

Money Quote from Job by Walton

Posted October 18th, 2012 in Books, Random by Emily Varner

I spent part of my morning redeeming my gym time by reading. (Sorry, fellow gym-mates, but the TV is boring–especially for the next two and a half weeks in a swing state.) Today: Job (NIV Application Commentary) by John H. Walton. I realize reading a biblical commentary on the elliptical machine makes me odd, but who am I trying to kid?

But that’s not the point–here’s the money quote for the day. I believe I even said “Wow” out loud when I read it, and then re-read it:

“Trusting God–which is the same as fearing God–means accepting the fact that God does not need us or anything we possess or accomplish, and acknowledging that he is not lacking in any aspect of his character or nature. The God revealed in the Bible cannot be manipulated or outmaneuvered, and our petty attempts to do so only demonstrate our refusal to accept Scripture’s presentation of God in favor of our own caricatures of him.”

–Job, John H. Walton, p. 334.

Obviously this makes a lot more sense when you’re reading the commentary through, which is why you should read the whole thing.

A No-Email Transaction

Posted October 10th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

Recently, I wanted to contact a well-known elder statesman of contextual New Testament scholarship about a review, but discovered that he “doesn’t do” email. Which meant typing and proofing a letter, printing it, addressing and stamping it, waiting for the reply, and sending another letter (or, in this case, two). What a testament to the momentous changes in office work in the past fifteen years that this is a rare occurrence!

I was arranging a review for a publication, and the logistics really were quite comical. Check in with the paper editor about their openness to having so-and-so write a review (email). Send a letter (mail). Wait. Get response (mail) and ask editor a couple questions (email). Receive another letter the next day with a change in the review scope (mail). Order some additional books (email). Check in with review editor (email). Make a determination about what the best way to proceed (need some time to think). Send another letter (mail; two days later than I would like because of Sunday and the holiday). Right now I am waiting for the reply letter so I can email the paper editor with the final word.

At first, it was refreshing to type, print, and sign a real communication! And I felt like I was getting a Christmas card when I received the response. The editor and I both expressed some envy about someone who could continue to function at such a high level without email. (Maybe that’s why–I’m certain this scholar thinks so!) Why don’t I do this more often? This is so real and tangible! But then the complication set in. Oh, it would be so much easier if I could just get an immediate response. Or maybe even call, or IM, or text!

So I guess I’m not going to switch to an all paper system after all. But the experience was a good reminder to me of why personal notes still matter, why “slow” can sometimes be better than “fast.” And why, even though I’m not giving up my email account and Twitter feed, I really do need to unplug for a few hours each day, think, dream, and not “do” email.

The Perks of this Work 2

Posted February 17th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

In my last post I explained what it is about working with ideas that suits me. But I also find that there are benefits to working with books and ideas on a part-time, freelance basis.

Perhaps freelancers are underpaid and exploited because they provide all their work hardware, don’t receive healthcare and retirements benefits, and generally just work really hard. In fact, I remember a time when I said that working from home is the worst thing I could ever imagine. People who work out of their homes are never be away from work that needs to be done–they constantly make choices about when laundry and meal preparation are going to fit into getting their paid work done, and most of their friends and family see them as non-working people with time for impromptu lunches or visits.

But I have found that a major perk of always having a few plates spinning is that the mundane tasks of life and the social outlets of parenting allow for the percolation time I need on projects, keeping ideas fresh, and recognizing connections that I hadn’t seen before. It is almost like I take mini-vacations from work each week. Just the other day I had one of those “aha” moments (That’s how I need to do that thing!) while I was driving home from the grocery store.

I also have a brilliant husband who is both energetic when it comes to things technical and genuinely interested in the content and process of the work I am producing. He can tell me what tool I need ftp achieve a certain goal, suggest better ways, and be a sounding board about problems I am having or things that are exciting me. It can be so easy for parents of young children to slide into talking only about the kids, with little else to say after those updates are complete. It suits us two chatty people to have an endless supply of ideas and technical plans to process together in our spare moments.

Working part time reminds me  of attending school part-time while I was working full time. I finished up my M.A. this way, and it made me wish I had gone to school part-time through all my undergraduate and graduate work. My classes seems more interesting, more connected to real life; the work for them was less drudgery and instead a break from the everyday. So also, I find the perks of my part-time work include a sense that what I am doing does relate to the ordinary life of the Christian person and that it is a treat to get to tackle it in regular, solid chunks throughout each week.

The Perks of This Work 1

Posted February 8th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

The last few months have been a rather wild ride, as you can tell by the lack of posts since October. I’ve been charging though numerous new personal tasks but also keeping busy publicizing books. But unfortunately I’ve had to turn down some editing gigs, which I really hate doing because the work is so great. It’s like taking a mini-independent study course on some very interesting topic I know comparatively nothing about. Copyediting is a chance to dig deep where I usually only scratch the surface. And often it’s a chance to make someone really smart sound even better than they did at the start. At the end of a copyediting project, I’m “up” (if it only really lasts a few months) on the prominent primary source documents for a particular discipline, the classic works on a defined topic, and the various schools of thought related to that topic. I have an opinion on something I might not have considered before, and I can have a conversation about something new.

But all the aspects of the work I do–even the “scratch the surface” ones–include similar perks. I get to try on the thoughts and ideas of others, see how they sit with me, what other resonances I find with them. In the long run I might not agree wholeheartedly with the position of an author whose book I publicize, but at the same time I don’t take the book on unless I think it makes a valuable contribution to current (or perennial) Christian conversations. That is, the books I work with are worthy of consideration, legitimate contributions to the world of ideas.

And that’s what I mean about the perks. My brain is wired to swim in ideas, to weigh their value, to introduce them to others. It took a while for me to learn that, but I have been a much happier and productive person since figuring it out.

In the next post I’ll turn to the “perks” of taking up this kind of work on a part-time, freelance basis.

 

 

We Are Live!

Posted October 27th, 2011 in Random by Emily Varner

Only a couple of months later than we had hoped, the AcademicPS website is finally live! Thanks to Marc at Big Ocean Studios and Rebecca at The Design Room for you professional help conveying what AcademicPS does.

Doug Varner is getting a kick out of checking out who has been visiting and from where using Google Analytics, and of course we’ve figured out so far that mainly is has been us plus someone in Russia who stayed for about half a minute. So if you’re here on purpose, leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Andrew Bronson suggested a couple years ago that a picture of Emily would be a good addition to the AcademicPS cache of informational materials, but she’s still a little squeamish about that. Is there something you’re wanting to see?

Off the Clock

Posted July 6th, 2011 in Random by Emily Varner

I don’t take on a PR project I don’t believe in, but every once in a while I can’t help sharing information about a book no one is paying me to publicize. This happened again over the weekend and today when I found myself recommending a book I learned about through working on Baylor University Press’s academic catalog (which I believe just went to press this week): Rhetorical Darwinism by Thomas Lessl. The language of religion and the language of science are profoundly involved subjects to tackle, but well worth the analysis Lessl provides in his book (at least the portions of it that I read). If you’re like me and noted the eschatological nuance in the writings and beliefs of historical figures like William Wilberforce and Christabel Pankhurst with curiosity, his analysis helps make sense of how that aspect of their message has diminished among Christian circles but increased within the scientific and pseudo-scientific community.