Saturday, 28 January 2012

10 Tips for Failsafe Proofreading

As a professional writer, editor and communications guy, I've done a hell of a lot of proofreading over the years. I've proofread just about every kind of document there is, from gigantic government policy papers to tiny event invitations and everything in between. I proofread my wife's writings, my current public relations class assignments, these blog posts and even my Facebook and Twitter posts before I press 'Send'.

This is not to say that I'm necessarily the world's most brilliant proofreader. Actually I'm not. I've had bad days or even weeks when I've let all kinds of egregious mistakes slip the net, sometimes in other people's work but more often in my own. There have been times when I've had to go back and edit my own blog posts after finding spelling mistakes and I've even deleted and reposted Facebook posts after that 'egad' moment where you catch a glaring typo a split second too late. I've even deleted misspelled Tweets ('Twuckups' as they're known), although you can never truly 'delete' a Tweet. Once it's out there, it's out there for good.

Nor do I particularly enjoy proofreading. Actually, it's one of my least favourite activities, down there with scraping frost off the car windows, cleaning the fridge and pulling the drawstring out from inside my swimsuit after a particularly rough journey through the washing machine. No, it's a pretty annoying job but I resign myself to it because the alternative is shoddy writing full of typos, syntax errors and dropped prepositions. It's not fun but it is worth it. Missed typos are like that big honking zit in the middle of your forehead that you know everyone is staring at but you can't do anything about.

Anybody who does a lot of proofreading is bound to have their own list of proofing tips. Here are my top ten, for what they're worth.

1)      Print it out first.

Trust me on this one - you'll catch more mistakes on paper than you will on the screen. Firstly, a printed copy is easier on the eyes - not to mention a faster read. And secondly, that shift in perspective from the screen to the page helps jog your mind and helps you focus on the actual words on the page. By all means do a first sweep on your computer with the changes tracked to catch the big stuff, but when it comes to spotting missing commas, dropped articles and spelling mistakes that your spellchecker won't find, you'll want it on paper.

2)      Proofread in a different room from where you usually work.

You may remember the famous scene in the movie Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) commands his students to stand atop their desks in order to see the world around them from a different perspective. The same idea applies to proofreading. When I'm at work I will print the document and take it to a vacant office or the cafeteria (any room without a computer screen will do), which helps give me fresh perspective on my own work. If I'm editing freelance stuff at home, I'll go to a different room in the house - usually the kitchen table.

3)      Use a fine-tipped pen with a comfortable grip.

Nothing sets you off to a bad start at proofreading than having your first red mark soak through the page and slowly saturate the paper like an oil spill. A fine-tipped pen will help you avoid this problem, and if you're doing a lot of proofing you're going to want to invest in an ergonomic, easy-on-the-hand pen for the job.

4)      Read every single word to yourself.

Eventually the Devil will whisper into your ear that nothing is wrong, that there's no reason not to skip a word or two here and there. Don't do it. 

5)      Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

The result of this will be that none of what you've written will make sense. That's kind of the point. Reading your work backwards sentence by sentence will help divorce the words from their intended meaning, leaving you with nothing but words and grammatical underpinnings, which is exactly what you're supposed to be focusing on. When I was working as a full-time English language copy editor in Tokyo, there would be days when I would finish my work day with absolutely no recollection of anything I had read that day because I was reading solely for grammar and not for content.

6)      If you listen to music, make it instrumental and non-intrusive.

Some people advise against listening to music at all while proofreading. Personally I find it helps relieve the tedium, but only if we're talking about non-intrusive ambient music. For proofreading listening, I personally like Brian Eno's Music for Airports, Ryuichi Sakamoto's solo piano music, electronic ear candy à la Boards of Canada and Autechre and anything by Bach, Erik Satie or Philip Glass. Music with lyrics is going to be distracting and suffice it to say, anything by a band with a misspelled name (i.e. Megadeth, Korn, Mötley Crüe) is a recipe for disaster.

7)      Give yourself little rewards.

If you're at work, promise yourself a coffee break, 10 minutes on Facebook or a round of Angry Birds after you're done. If you're at home, promise yourself a beer after you've finished. If you're looking at an entire afternoon proofreading heavy legal or financial documents, trust me - you'll need a drink afterwards!

(Note: Do not - I repeat - do NOT try to proofread while under the influence of alcohol! By all means drink while you write, as many of history's greatest wordsmiths have been fond of doing, but trying to proofread under any condition other than stone-cold sobriety is a complete waste of time.)

8)      Get all your proofing done before you input your changes.

A whole lot of back and forth will not only slow you down but it will also increase the likelihood of fresh errors. Get it all done on the page before you take it back to the computer. Treat your proofreading assignment like a crime scene - cordon it off and then comb the entire scene for evidence before you take it back to your crime lab for study.

9)      For the love of God, save your work!

This should go without saying, but I've been there and (not) done that.

10)   Write a blog post purporting to teach people how to do better proofreading.

Because you're really going to look like a total doofus if you purport to be an expert on proofreading and then commit conspicuous word bloopers of your own. As reader of this post, you're doubtless going to be looking extra hard for errors here. Good luck with that.

For further resources on proofreading, editing and wordsmithing in general, I highly recommend the site Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Four Animals of Tohoku

A magnificent allegory for recovery in Japan's ravaged northeast

Six months after the most devastating earthquake in Japanese recorded history (and the resulting tsunami) laid siege to Japan's northeastern coastal region, the barely recovered city of Sendai (the Tohoku region's largest city) held a TEDx Conference at Tohoku University, centred around the theme 'Asking the 3.11 Generation'.

Among the speakers at TEDx Tohoku was Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer of the global design consultancy IDEO, a company dedicated to designing and bringing to market new products, services, and experiences. He spoke on the concept of ‘human-centered design’ and how it might be applied in post-3.11 Tohoku.

His talk was one of the most captivating TED lectures I've ever heard. He related the story of the resilience and determination of the people of the Tohoku region in the form of a fable starring four animals. Remember the Four Town Musicians of Bremen - the donkey, the dog, the cat and the rooster? Meet the Four Disaster Recovery Critters of Tohoku. They are as follows:

Go to 1:25    Go to 1:31
Go to 1:35Go to 13:40

  • The Canary - The sentinel, the warning bell, the figurative 'canary in the coalmine', representative of the quest for better disaster warning systems;
  • The Sea Otter - The keystone species, the harbinger of new life and new ecosystems, representative of the creativity necessary for recovery from total devastation;
  • The Wild Goose - The ultimate team players, taking turns leading and following and pushing one another ahead in a spirit of collaboration;
  • The Frog - The one none of us want to be, the metaphorical frog in the boiling pot, who we hope will have the wherewithal to learn from the past and jump into action before it's too late.
In one of the most poetic TED talks ever, Bennett applauds the people of Tohoku for their extraordinary show of resolve and resourcefulness in the aftermath of the disaster and shows how Japan should be - and will be - an example to the rest of the world in how to move forward from the worst tragedy imaginable.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Choosing A Blog Name That Doesn't Suck

A look at the best blog names and why they work

I've been asked more than once why I chose the name 'Brush Talk' for this blog. To be perfectly honest, in contrast to some of the agonizing I've done in the past over titles for things, the name for this blog came to me without a whole lot of thought.

Calligraphy created with writing brush
The blogging of yesteryear
'Brush Talk' refers to the practice whereby Confucian scholars in Classical China engaged in written conversations with their counterparts from Japan, Korea and Vietnam - all of whom shared the classical written Chinese language in spite of having completely dissimilar spoken languages - with calligraphy brushes and ink. This type of conversation (筆談, pronounced bitan in Mandarin and hitsudan in Japanese) was essentially a premodern form of social media that connected scholars from far away lands, although unlike today's social media, the participants did have to be in the same room as one another.

Why did I choose this as my blog name? It's short. It's punchy. It's easy to spell. It's sums up in primary themes covered in this blog, namely words, writing, communication and international relations. It also hearkens to Asian culture, which is a longstanding interest of mine and something that comes up frequently here. And, well, I just think it sounds nice. The only potential problem with the name is that it kind of makes the blog sound like a forum for makeup artists, and to date my Google searches of 'brush talk' bring up countless cosmetic-related sites. But all things considered, the name seems to be working well and I've thus far been happy with it.

So what does make for a good blog name? There are no hard and fast rules but most self-appointed blogging gurus seem to agree on the same basic criteria, to which I've added a couple of extras:
  • Make it relevant.
  • Make it memorable.
  • Keep it short.
  • Make sure it's easy to spell.
  • Make sure it matches your domain name.
  • Don't make it too niche.
  • Avoid airy-fairy descriptive adjectives like 'whimsical', 'effervescent' and 'sensual'. Actually, just sticking to nouns and verbs is a good policy overall.
  • Avoid all references to cupcakes.
Granted, there are always exceptions to these rules. I have no idea what the word 'Etsy' means but it seems to work and everybody knows about it. There is a US political blog by the name of 'Sadly, No!', a name that breaks rules #1 and and #4 (with its use of punctuation marks) but it scores so highly on #2 that it perhaps cancels the others out. And then there's a blog by some guy in Australia named 'The Man With No Blog', a name which I personally find irritating for its pointless irony but the weird blog connoisseur community seems to like. In the end I suppose it's personal taste.

However, there are some blog names that truly stand out for their perfection. They not only follow the seven rules I've outlined above but also do it with such style and character that they deserve special recognition. Here are my ten favourite blog names of all time (in no particular order).

1) Cake Wrecks - With the subtitle "When professional cakes go horribly, hilariously wrong", this gem of a blog is a perfect example of a perfect, punchy name that exactly encapsulates its raison-d'être.

2) I Blame The Patriarchy - The best radical feminist rant-fest on the whole wide web, with a title to match.

3) Green Shinto - This one does use an adjective, but it still works. A wonderful blog on Shinto spirituality and environmentalism.

4) Print Fetish - Exactly what you'd expect: a jarring, obnoxious blog about zine culture, alt magazines and print culture in general for people who are into that sort of thing. In a similar vein, check out Cover Junkie for people obsessed with cool magazine covers.

5) I Love Typography - Yes, I do, and yes, I love this blog - and the name thereof. And yes, I realize how geeky that makes me. Sigh.

6) Bug Girl's Blog - Bug Girl is a real-life entomologist with a wonderful blog dedicated to insect, offering, among other things, advice on controlling 'pests' without resorting to insecticides. Nice.

7) The Political Pastor - Kudos to my old pal Tyler Gingrich, pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Kelowna, BC, for this one. Again there's an adjective in it but in this case it's a very necessary one. Bonus points here for alliteration.

8) Look At This F*cking Hipster - Totally gratuitous name, but again that's kind of the point. No room for confusion with this one.

9) Turtle Talk - Those unfamiliar with the pan-Aboriginal name for the North American continent (Turtle Island) might find this confusing, but this great indigenous law blog is beautifully named.

10) Regretsy - With the brilliant catch-phrase 'Where DIY Meets WTF', this catalogue of Etsy disasters is one of the best blogs out there, with a brilliant name to match.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

FrankenWords: The Uses and Abuses of Portmanteaus

Darth = Dark + Death (?)
There’s something about portmanteaus – fabricated ‘frankenwords’ (and yes, ‘frankenword’ is one) consisting of two words put together – that both charm and repulse. Portmanteaus are to wordcraft what the atom is to science, either a force of great good or a force of great evil, depending on who’s at the controls.

The advent of social media has added a plethora of new words and phrases to the English languages (and to all other languages I know of), many of which are portmanteaus of one sort or another. Many of them are absolutely hideous. The food blogosphere has led to such linguistic eyesores as ‘foodtopia’, ‘foodgasm’ and ‘fooderati’. (In my opinion, there should be a moratorium on new words created with the suffixes –topia, -gasm and –erati.)

Vook is a horrible hybrid of the words ‘video’ and ‘book’ that I’ve seen in cyberspace. (You'd think a bunch of word geeks could do better than that!) And the business world is even worse. The word ‘manufactroversy’ makes my brain hurt. ‘Ideation’ makes me cringe. And ‘in-sourcing’ and ‘agreeance’ should be taken out and shot. And don't even get me started on 'Brangelina', 'Bennifer', 'Tomkat', 'Fisherwood' and other such celeb-manteaus.

But not all new-fangled word hybrids are annoying. Some are a joy. Words like ‘psychobabble’, ‘bromance’ and ‘stagflation’ have been around for a while now and have yet to grow tiresome. The word ‘podcast’ works nicely because it both perfectly characterizes what it is and it’s a perfect rhyme with ‘broadcast’ (as opposed to ‘webinar’, which I’ve never liked).

English, is should be known, has no monopoly in the portmanteau domain. The French language not only gave us the word portmanteau itself (from ‘porte-manteau’, a bag for carrying a coat) but also coined words like courriel, a shorthand for courrier électronique (for e-mail) and pourriel (spam), which is a double-portmanteau of the word courriel and poubelle (garbage).

And then there’s the Japanese language, which is a treasure trove of great portmanteaus. The standard Japanese word for PC is pāsokon (パーソコン), which is an amalgam of pāsonaru konpyūtā (personal computer). Pokémon is of course a hybrid of poketto monsutā (pocket monster). And my all-time favourite portmanteau in any language is narikon (なりこん), a now-popular term for leaving your spouse by fleeing the country, a hybrid of the words rikon (離婚, divorce) and Narita (成田), as in Tokyo’s international airport.

Leaving other languages aside for a moment, however, here are my ten favourite portmanteaus in the English language:

1)      Floordrobe – something we’ve all had one at one point or another

2)      Lupper – like brunch except for people too hung-over to make it out of the house before 3:00 pm

3)      Bromance – setting a new standard for male friendships

4)      Momniscience – because mother really does always know

5)      Botax – because staying youthful looking really does cost a lot of money

6)      Backronym – because there’s always a better meaning for our existing acronyms (etc. SUV – silly urban vanity; CIA – conspirators, instigators and assassins; NDP – not destined for power etc.)

7)      Guesstimate – a bit redundant perhaps, but it slips off the tongue nicely

8)      Pornado – Only just discovered this one; the cyclone of desperate, frenzied activity of a person who’s about to be walked in on while watching Internet porn

9)      Twuck-up – A Tweet gone egregiously wrong

10)   Manscaping – Because pretty much any portmanteau with the prefix ‘man’ (i.e. mansiere, manties etc.) is funny, and this one is the best of the lot

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #1: 'Radicals'

On January 9, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver warned that 'radical' groups were trying to derail the Canadian economy by delaying oilsands development proposals.

Those of you familiar with this blog know that this is not a 'political' blog. There are many other bloggers who do politics far better than I do and I would just as soon leave this domain to the professionals. However, as words and wordcraft concern me greatly, I felt the need to air my longstanding bone to pick with the constant misuse of the word 'radical' both within and outside the political realm.

What exactly does radical mean? Like many English words, this one comes to us most directly from French, which in turn comes from the Latin word radicalis, which means 'of or pertaining to the root' (or radix in Latin).

In other words, the common usage of the word 'radical' to refer to people on the fringe of whatever movement is being denounced is in fact the exact opposite of the true meaning of the word. A 'radical' in the true sense of the word is a person who adheres to the true roots of a movement or philosophy. A radical conservative would be a true-blue adherent to the principles espoused by Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre as opposed to the empire-hungry expansionist Neoconservatism of George W. Bush and others like him. A radical socialist in the true sense of the term would in fact be a more conservative individual than his or her fringier colleagues.

The radical feminism espoused by authors such as Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Phyllis Chesler and others scared a lot of people, especially men, as its position was interpreted as a literal declaration of war on the male gender. At the core of this mischaracterization was a misunderstanding of the word 'radical' as being a synonym for 'extremist', which saw the movement linked to militant wing-nuts like Valerie 'I Shot Andy Warhol' Solanas. But what exactly is radical feminism? In sum, it's the fundamental belief in the existence of overarching patriarchial social structures that relegate women to second-class status, with men as the default human being. Not exactly an 'extreme' position.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau liked to refer to his Liberal Party's political position as the 'radical middle'. This may have struck many as an oxymoron, but in fact he was one of the few politicians to actually use the term correctly. While one might disagree with Trudeau's characterization of his political proclivities (and indeed many declared him a 'radical' in the common, incorrect sense), a true adherence to the centrist orientation espoused by Canada's Liberal Party is, in fact, a 'radical' position.

All this begs the question of whether Oliver was inadvertently accurate in his characterization of the anti-oil sands movement as 'radical'. In all probability the answer is yes. The majority of anti-oil sands activitists, including the likes of David Suzuki and David Schindler, are adherents to the fundamentals of the environmentalist movement and are a miles apart from the Earth Liberation Foundation other eco-terrorist organizations who advocate the use of sabotage and violence in their advancement of ecological causes.

Regrettably, in invoking the dread word 'radical', the minister was clearly trying to cast the aforementioned activists in the same light as their more extremist counterparts. Perhaps it's time for non-extremist but committed people, regardless of their cause, to reclaim the word 'radical' and return it to its 'root'. In other words, we could all be radical radicals.

Note: I would like to dedicate this post to my dear sister, Valerie Freeland, who coined the term 'Inigo Montoya Principle' in reference to words so chronically misused that their 'incorrect' meaning becomes vernacular. Valerie is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, where she studies the politics of truth commissions, international tribunals and International Criminal Court referrals in places like Sierra Leone and Uganda and is a, dare I say, 'radical' proponent of proper word usage.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Strathcona Centennial

A look at five of Old Strathcona's most iconic buildings

February 1, 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the absorption of the former City of Strathcona into the City of Edmonton. A sad occasion for the residents of Old Strathcona? I somehow doubt it. While Strathcona may have ceded political authority to the City of Edmonton in 1912, Strathcona’s past century has been one characterized by passionate commitment to preserving the neighbourhood’s distinct historical character.

There have been numerous challenges to the neighbourhood over the decades, including a proposed freeway in the early 1970s that would have demolished much of the neighbourhood. But the residents of Edmonton-Strathcona and the area’s civic and business leaders have always been there to protect the neighbourhood and the result has been that Old Strathcona is perhaps Edmonton’s best-known neighbourhood to people outside the city. This surely makes this anniversary an auspicious one.

What’s truly remarkable about the former City of Strathcona is how fast it grew in such a short time. Strathcona was only incorporated as a town in 1899 and didn’t become an actual ‘city’ until March 1907 – less than five years before it was absorbed by Edmonton. Nevertheless, those 13 years of autonomy saw a massive influx of people (thanks to the historical Calgary & Edmonton Railway and its Strathcona terminus) and a frenzy of construction that gave the neighbourhood its trademark turn-of-the-century feel. The University of Alberta was inaugurated in Strathcona in 1908, making the city western Canada’s original ‘college town’. And by 1912, Strathcona was already a vibrant municipality that would end up becoming one of Edmonton’s most defining neighbourhoods.

A full list of Strathcona’s historic buildings would probably run into the hundreds. Here are five favourites—in no particular order.

1) Strathcona Public Library (1913)

Strathcona has always been known as a bookish, intellectual place that has long valued education and a thriving civil society. As such, it is fitting that one of the neighbourhood’s most iconic buildings is its venerable public library - Edmonton's oldest.

Built the year after amalgamation, the building is characterized by a restrained classical style, with intricate limestone detailing and a wide stone staircase framed with Ionic columns. A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the Strathcona Public Library still functions as a library within the EPL network while also serving as a venue for community events.

2) Princess Theatre (1914)

The Princess Theatre was designed by the local architectural firm of Wilson and Herrald for John McKernan, son of Robert McKernan, the builder of the Dominion Hotel. Opened with the promise of hosting “high-class moving pictures varied occasionally with high-class musical vaudeville or musical concerts,” the Princess was considered western Canada’s premiere movie venue and was Edmonton’s only cinema until the opening of the Varscona and Garneau Theatres in 1940.

A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the cinema that once brought the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Edmonton audiences still entertains crowds today with offbeat cinematic offerings of all sorts.

3) Strathcona Hotel (1891)
Built a full eight years before Strathcona was officially a ‘town’, the Strathcona Hotel is a true ‘frontier’ building and is the oldest wood-frame building on Whyte Avenue. Originally named the Hotel Edmonton, the hotel has served a variety of functions over the decades.

The building briefly hosted Strathcona’s first public school and Presbyterian church services, and during Prohibition served as the home of the Westminster Ladies College to compensate for its loss of alcohol revenue. A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the Strat’ still draws crowds today with its mix of historical allure and blue-collar nightlife atmosphere.

4) Fire Hall #1 (1908)

Strathcona’s original fire hall was (don’t laugh) a wooden structure, which was replaced by the still-standing historical structure following a 1902 city ordinance requiring that buildings be constructed with fire-resistant materials – hence the proliferation of brick buildings dating from the City of Strathcona era.

The present building was completed in 1910 and was in continuous use until a newer, more modern fire hall was built across the street in the 1950s. The only surviving fire hall of that era in Edmonton (and one of very few in Alberta), the building has for the past half-century been home to the Walterdale Playhouse, one of western Canada’s oldest and most acclaimed amateur theatre companies.

5) Strathcona Public Building (1913)

One of Old Strathcona’s best-known landmarks, this exemplar of Edwardian Classical Revival architecture was originally built as a home for the local post office and various offices of the Customs and Internal Revenue Bureau. Designed by David Ewart, the Chief Architect of the Canadian Department of Public Works, the building became the South Edmonton Post Office while also housing various federal government offices.

Designated a Provincial Historical Resource in 1985, the building now hosts Chianti Café, the Billiard Club and Squires Pub – and serves as one of the neighbourhood’s most popular (and memorable) rendezvous points.

Happy anniversary, Strathcona!