All posts by Carol Saller


Book Indexing, Part 1: Is a Computer the Right Person for the Job?

Photo courtesy Calsidyrose.

In short, no.

Back-of-the-book indexing is much misunderstood, which I know from having to argue at cocktail parties that it cannot be done adequately, let alone well, by a computer. (Yes, unfortunately, that’s what passes for cocktail-party banter in my neighborhood.)

Of course I understand how computers can scan and tag and sort, and I understand that in many ways they are more accurate and reliable than humans, and thank god for that. Computers can write lists and …


By Ear or by Eye

Photo courtesy of Enokson.

When I hang out with writers or editors, conversation inevitably touches on working with music in the background. There are always listeners and nonlisteners, but the most passionate are those who never work while listening. I think I understand—they read and write “by ear,” so their “music” is on the page; additional music clashes and distracts. Those who work more visually, on the other hand, can afford to add a music track. They might listen or not; it’s optional.



When the Book Is Too Big, Are Online Supplements a Good Idea?

Photo courtesy of marlèned

In book publishing, each project begins with a financial projection that takes into account everything that affects costs and revenues: the number of words and illustrations in the manuscript, author royalties, subventions from financing bodies, printing costs, estimated sales, and so on. The trick is to juggle all these data until the math adds up to at least the minimum acceptable profit.

If it doesn’t, the editor must tinker, adjusting anything that can be adjuste…


Repetition Redux

Photo courtesy of Rusty Clark

The other day, my colleague Ben Yagoda wrote about “elegant variation”—that is, the way writers sometimes strain to avoid the repeated use of a mundane word. He had fun with the colorful terms invented by sports writers in particular. It’s clear to me, however, that all kinds of writers feel the compulsion to avoid repeating words when they write.

The English language, after all, has a great many words in it. (Having my photo on the wall here with professional lingu…


Forewords, Prefaces, and Introductions: Where to Begin?

Photo courtesy of efeikiss

Grab the nearest monograph from your shelf and turn the first pages: half-title page, series page, title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents … then what? Almost certainly not Chapter 1.

It’s a rare work that presents itself without preamble, because an academic work is always part of a longer journey through a discipline. Scholars have a lot of baggage, and they like to unpack up front the story of the research: what inspired it, how it was nurtured b…


Are You a Difficult Writer?

"Of Flames and Shadows," by Markus Röncke

Difficult writers and difficult people tend to share some characteristics; you might already know whether you are one or not. If you feel that being difficult is something you do well and rather enjoy, then carry on. Otherwise, here is a bit of self-examination and amateur therapy.

First, let me point out that difficult writers are often good writers. Reasonably protective of their prose, they unreasonably see editing as an assault.

They are defensive. T…


Citing a Tweet (It’s Not Just for Twits)

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There was online chatter recently when the Modern Language Association posted its style for citing a tweet. This didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the amount of backlash from commenters who are still shocked at the idea of Twitter as a legitimate source of information for scholars; who cling to the idea that Twitter data consists only of what millions of users ate for breakfast; who not only choose to remain stubbornly ignorant of the technology, but are wi…


Old-Style Versus Lining Figures

Old-style figures work best in some contexts. (Photo by Duval Guillaume.)

Something you might or might not notice when you read a book or journal article is the style of any numerals that turn up in the text. If you don’t notice, that’s a good thing, and it is probably thanks to a professional graphic designer who put some thought into specifying the right style for that text.

The most basic choice is between old-style and lining (or modern) figures. Old-style figures are more elegant within a l…


When Style and Grammar Rules Elude You

Photo by Spencer Ritenour

Few things are as annoying as not being able to find something, especially when it was within sight only moments ago. But at least in most cases you know what you’re looking for—keys, dog, car—and you’re pretty sure it exists.

Searching for a style or grammar rule can be tougher. You don’t always know whether there actually is one, much less what it’s called, and those are serious impediments to figuring out where it might be hiding. In years of reading questions e-…


Which Shortening Is Best? Ibid., Op. Cit., Loc. Cit., Etc.

Photo by Phil Dokas

Although I have complained about the misuse of citation software, it’s not as though I believe the quaint and perhaps dying method of hand-composing citations to be a cure-all. At least the software mangles the format consistently, which allows a copy editor to put certain gaffes right by means of global searches.

In contrast, when homemade notes fail to follow a system, they fail in myriad ways, so any editor determined to impose order is faced with endless drudgery. Recentl…