Tag Archives: Roger W. Smith

My Career as a Freelancer

 

 

During the 1980’s, I made my living as a freelance proofreader and copyeidtor. I never earned much, but I did manage, which was in itself an achievement, to get steady work. In my best year, I made somewhere between 16 and 17 thousand dollars, which was then a creditable though not great income and was proof that I had a legitimate freelance occupation.

I started out doing occasional writing of articles and proofreading. In fact, my entree into freelancing, and into publishing I was employed full time as an advertising copywriter for three publishers for four years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s came about through freelance proofreading work for the publisher Putnam’s, which began in 1977. A friend of mine who worked at Putnam’s recommended me to the in house supervisor of freelancers.

While working full time at Columbia University, I had taken, in 1976, a noncredit course at Hunter College taught by T. O’Connor Sloane, a high ranking editor at Doubleday. It was an outstanding course, very well organized, very well presented, and very thorough. I was greatly interested.

The course was taught once a week in the evenings for two or three hours, and when I was there, I became despite having worked a full day fully alert and energized. I learned a great deal; every fundamental of proofreading and copyediting, as well as book production, was covered. I took excellent notes and still have them.

I had always thought of myself as a competent speller, but, like most educated people, I wasn’t. (When I was 15, my high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, told me that one area of composition I had to work on was spelling.) Mr. Sloane, the instructor in the Hunter College course devoted part of one class to spelling. He said that overcoming spelling difficulties was simply a matter of recognizing and learning how to spell a few commonly misspelled words. He then produced a handout, a list of the 25 or so most commonly misspelled words. Ones I remember: misspell, judgment, acknowledgment, chaise longue, supersede, accommodate. (Supersede, he explained, comes from the Latin, super seder: to sit above. He had helpful explanations like this enabled one to remember the correct spelling.)

Since that lesson, I have always been an excellent speller.

He discussed fees in the last lesson. He said with irony that the class always tended to laugh when he commented on this topic. The freelance fees he mentioned were then in the neighborhood of $3.50 an hour, which seemed okay.

This course greatly helped me. My friend had previously worked at Funk & Wagnalls and through his intercession I got the opportunity (in around 1976) to take a proofreading/copyediting test there. I did not do well and was not hired. (This was just before I took the evening course with the Doubleday editor.)

The guy who gave me the test, a young editor, was sort of condescending. I was very frustrated, because I was very determined to get into publishing and knew that, if given the opportunity, I would overcome any deficiencies I had and would do well. I had the basic skills, I was certain, was very conscientious and very detail oriented. If I was unsure about the spelling of a word, I would look it up.

When (after taking the Hunter College course), I started freelancing as a proofreader for Putnam’s, I did NOT do good work on the whole. I was worried about overcharging them; worked way too fast and carelessly, as it turned out; submitted bills that were unusually low; and missed lots of errors. (I remember 33 or so in one book, I was later told.)

My in house supervisor/contact, Fred Sawyer, was patient with me and told me to work slower. I got some very good books to proofread. One, by a son of RFK, was about a famed Southern civil rights judge. Another was novel by a very popular science fiction writer, Frank Herbert. The sci fi novel was clever but pretty far out. Weird language and concepts.

Later, I became a pretty good proofreader, working for the Random House College Division and a medical publisher, Raven Press, among other places. The work required intense concentration. It’s awfully easy to pass over typos when reading.

For Random House and a couple of other places, a take home test was required to get hired. One would think that a take home test would be easy after all, you have unlimited time to complete it but the Random House proofreading test was extremely hard. It was a different story for me from my experience with the Funk & Wagnalls test. Thanks to the Hunter College course, and, with the freelance experience I had by now, I was able to ace the test.

I didn’t do copyediting per se (as opposed to proofreading) until late in my freelance career, but I became very good at it. (I had actually become good at catching errors of fact and grammar in my capacity as a proofreader, where you were allowed to query dubious things in the margins of the proofs. I recall one book on African-American history where the author, who one would think would at least know such things, misspelled W. E. Du Bois’s name throughout.) The bulk of the copyediting I did was for an academic who was the head of a foundation. He couldn’t praise my work enough and acknowledged it in his prefaces. He kept holding out the promise that he would promote and abet my advancement, but nothing came of it.

I developed into a very good copyeditor. It’s something one has to have a background and aptitude for, obviously, but one also has to have experience. It requires broad knowledge and a sixth sense of what to look for.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2019

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique; of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?

 

 

“It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.”

 

“You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance. “

 

“Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?”

 

 

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Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing.

Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.

I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.

He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.
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My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.

A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)

His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.

 

 

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Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.

Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)
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And yet. (Here’s where my writing comes to mind.)

My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also,  love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.

It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.

 

 

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Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.

Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.

This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.

A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.

There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.

One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.

 

Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.

But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.
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I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.

I take this in stride.

But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.

I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.

I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.

If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

 

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

 

posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)

February 8, 2019

I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.
a comment via email

Ewa Solonia

February 8, 2019

Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.

how to write a book review… how NOT to

 

 

“A writer should be a writer first. An authority second.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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I recently read two reviews of Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, a recently published biography of Robert Schumann.

 

 

‘Schumann: The Faces and the Masks’ Review: A Dreamer at the Piano

by Michael O’Donnell

The Wall Street Journal

September 14, 2018

https://www.wsj.com/articles/schumann-the-faces-and-the-masks-review-a-dreamer-at-the-piano-1536957468?mod=mhp

 

 

Robert Schumann: A Hopeless, Brilliant Romantic

by Jeremy Denk

The New York Times

November 19, 2018

 

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The Wall Street Journal review by Michael O’Donnell is excellent. Mr. O’Donnell is not a music critic. He is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Nation.

Jeremy Denk’s review in The New York Times is not well done. Mr. Denk is a concert pianist. In a Wikipedia entry, he is categorized as “one of America’s foremost pianists.”
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What went wrong with the Times review by Mr. Denk?

Well, consider how it opens:

It won’t cure your problems, or the world’s, but it can’t hurt to immerse yourself in the music of Robert Schumann, a man who knew how to love. No less an authority than Sting agrees. I know this because Sting once put his hand supportively on my back while I practiced the postlude of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” and I haven’t washed that shirt since.

Robert’s life story comes to a harrowing end — I won’t spoil all the grim details, even more tragic than the median Romantic artist’s. Nonetheless, if you take the time to read Judith Chernaik’s new biography, “Schumann: The Faces and the Masks,” your life outlook may improve. Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.

This takes the reader too far astray. A good lead can be clever, and even get into the topic sideways, so to speak. See for example, my post

“J-school students, give heed!”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/j-school-students-give-heed/

Sting is a musician who performed with the rock band The Police. In case you don’t know it, Robert Schumann was a composer, of classical music. I shouldn’t need to explain, but this review, the lead paragraph of same, makes one wonder, just what is it about? As I just said, a lead can be clever, and kind of “sneak up” to the main topic, but a writer should never lose sight, or let his readers get confused, even momentarily, of what the piece is about. I learned this from my high school English teacher. Don’t violate the principle of unity. What’s going on here is that Mr. Denk wants to impress us with how cool he is. Readers of a book about Schumann are not likely to care about Sting, or perhaps to know who he is, and he has nothing to do with Schumann. It’s a bad brew of anecdotal material, or details that don’t cohere. If I am writing a piece about my struggles to overcome a drinking problem, I probably don’t want to talk about what my favorite books are. And, it’s fine to make clever parallels or connections between two seemingly, ordinarily disparate facts, occurrences, events, time periods, etc., but this is too much of a stretch. Schumann’s music as an antidote to hate? Music to settle our nerves in today’s vitriolic political climate.

“Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.” This is an ill-advised sentence. It’s totally off topic. It’s a gratuitous interpolation presumably intended to make Mr. Denk look like he’s in the forefront of enlightened current opinion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Schumann, with music, or with the review. So, we are to presume that one listens to Schumann to help oneself cope with feelings of angst arising from Trump? That seems to be what Mr. Denk is alluding to. Such an allision is out of place here, is off topic, and is likely to leave the reader puzzling over what was intended. Such fuzziness or lack of clarity — being too cryptic — is a sign of bad writing.

Denk’s review contains pregnant, provocative insights about Schuman’s music. There are also a lot of banal generalities having nothing to do with the book or Schumann.

This review tires and frustrates the reader because the reviewer, Mr. Denk, seems to have lost sight of the book under review, and, at times, it almost seems, of Schumann, so anxious is he to impress with a brilliant aperçu.

This is a specimen of overwriting. And, of neglecting the commandment: First, be clear. There are seemingly brilliant observations here about Schumann’s music, but they get buried in a mass of opaque verbiage.

As an example of what I term overwriting, consider the following sentence;

One of Schumann’s great discoveries was the power of an underexploited area of the harmonic universe. Imagine a chord Y that “wants” to resolve to another chord, Z. Because music is cleverly recursive, you can always find a third chord (let’s say X) that wants to go to the first: a chord that wants to go to a chord that wants to go to a chord, or — if you will — a desire for a desire. Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts.

Provocative points, indeed brilliant ones, but they could have been stated much more clearly and the point(s) thereby made more effectively. The sentence “Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts” is a prime example of such opacity, of god awful prose.

The book under review has all but been forgotten.
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Based on my own experience, I believe:

that a book review should in and of itself be readable and hold the reader’s interest;

that the review should elicit reader interest in the book’s subject;

that the reviewer should mainly discuss what the book is about and what can be learned from it, including new findings, while, at the same time, conveying, directly or indirectly, his judgment of the book.

The best reviewer is not necessarily an academic or a specialist or authority in the subject area. What is wanted most of all is an enthusiastic reader. And, needless to say, a good writer.
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

left vs. right brainedness; does it apply to writing, and how so?

 

 

In a previous post of mine

 

“left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY”

 

left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY

 

 

I began by saying:

An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.

No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup. …

I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.

I then went on to tackle the subject from my own layman’s vantage point, I am certain that I am left brained.

What follows are excerpts from that post in which I try to relate the concept to creativity, and discuss its applicability to the writing process.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

 

 
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An online chart I consulted

 

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

 

http://www.diffen.com/difference/Left_Brain_vs_Right_Brain

 

shows the following:

Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.

Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.

 

 

There is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience.

Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.

But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straight-laced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.

A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.

I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.

Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”

Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It’s the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.

The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?

I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.

Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.

The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.

It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.

People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.

My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.

A key to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.

 

 

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My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.

As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication.

What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is a still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle.

People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does, and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.

For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from being a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.

“ballet in a telephone booth”

 

 

 

“… it was as a columnist that Mr. Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. ‘Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told the writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.’

“But soon he was doing what he called his ‘ballet in a telephone booth,’ creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus. …”

 

— “Russell Baker, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist and Humorist, Dies at 93,” By Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times, January 22, 2019

 

 
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I think I know what Russell Baker meant (I grieve for his passing) by “ballet in a telephone booth”: He meant writing a compelling, funny, readable, coherent op-ed piece within the confines, so to speak, of a strict word limit of 750 words.

In the days of totally printed publications, word limits, the equivalent of what constitutes space limitations, were particularly important. The number of pages in a newspaper or magazine was more of less fixed and there had to be lots of room for advertising.

I experienced this. I worked for a while as an intern and, subsequently, a freelancer on a daily metropolitan newspaper. And, I also wrote reference book entries as a freelancer. The length of the reference book articles was strictly set, with some variation among entries depending upon how important the subject of the entry (article) was.

Later, I was a freelance book reviewer, Same thing. There was strict word limit. In the case of a newspaper, it was usually something like 600 or 750 words. My review in the Indianapolis Star of Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life, a book over 1,000 pages long, was 600 words long (the review, that is).
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In my post

 

 

“the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)”

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/28/the-importance-of-professionalism-as-seen-by-a-writer/

 

I wrote that a professional writer has “to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and … to ‘shoehorn’ in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space.”
The key idea here, the required skill — it’s one that sets professionals apart from amateurs — is what Russell Baker termed a “ballet in a telephone booth.” His coinage gets across the idea of skill or grace under pressure: the pressure being the constraints of a space limitation. It’s the same thing I meant by shoehorning in ideas and information.

 

One wants to be clear and concise. One has to cover the subject. Yet one doesn’t want to be dull. The writer wants the piece to be readable, and to have its own slant or edge: an authorial voice, a tone.
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Here are two examples of book reviews of mine where I achieved this — if I may say so — admirably.

 

o’connor

 

Roger W. Smith, review of A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor by Charles F. Duffy, The New York Sun, January 8, 2004

 

rws review of edwin o’connor bio by charles f. duffy

 

roger-w-smith-review-of-link-the-vast-and-terrible-drama-dreiser-studies-2004

 

Roger W. Smith, review of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century by Eric Carl Link, Dreiser Studies, winter 2004

 

 

 

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What I would say about these book reviews — in praise of myself, and in the interests of demonstrating elements of good writing — is that they were written with strict requirements regarding length and, to some extent, a tone suitable for the type of publication and its readership. Yet, within these parameters, there is a clear authorial voice (mine), a definite slant. (One can see that a “critical thinking cap” is being worn.) And, in addition, interesting sidelights or digressions and pieces of information as well as related ideas, writings, or topics that occurred to me, which the reader might not have thought of, but are thought provoking, are worked in, all within the tight confines that any op-ed writer or book reviewer faces.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

when is a dash not a dash?

I got an email from a reader of several of my posts the other day.

I was wondering why do you use double dash in your posts? Is it followed by the rule or a personal style?

I responded as follows.

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Dear _______,

Thanks for the email. I can explain with an example or two.

“It was a fast-moving storm system.”

People think it’s a dash (between fast and moving). It’s actually a hyphen (-).

I think — but I’m not sure — that the L train should not be shut down this April.

The two hyphens (–) are what is actually, in printed matter, a dash — more specifically what a printer would call an em-dash. (The term em-dash comes from the days of typesetting. An em-dash was equivalent to the length of a capital M.) Two hyphens (–) in printed matter (such as a book) are set as a dash (—).

You can make an em-dash with word processing programs such as Word

or

you can just use the two hyphens, which, from the old days of typewriters, are understood to mean a dash.

So, a hyphen and a dash are not the same thing.

He told a side-splitting joke. (hyphen used)

I realized — I couldn’t quite believe it — that I had won the grand prize. (dash used)

Hyphens are used for compound words.

Dashes are used for an interpolated thought in a sentence.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2019