I've been swamped lately, but I will try to find time to contribute more as soon as I can.


Fictional Blog Entries
English language textbook
Targeted for adult beginner ELL audience
English language textbook for advanced students of English as a second language
The story of three young people during the Second World War.
Textbook Excerpt
Reading passage

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Barbara's Virtual Pen

And They Call This Airport Security

December 1, 2013

Tags: airport, security, Denver, pat down

When I got to the Denver airport for my return to New York, I allowed enough time for the security check, arriving almost two hours before flight time. But after going through the initial check, I was told that "the machine had randomly selected me for a fuller check." I think I stood there with a perplexed look n my face. A machine had selected me at random for a closer security check? Is this how security is done at Denver airport? After rubbing something in my palms, I was informed that their little procedure had revealed a dangerous chemical on my hands (perhaps something to do with making a bomb?). I protested that this whole procedure was ridiculous, but remarked that I would change my hand lotion if I ever made it back to Denver.

Did no one have any sense there? I had the impression that I was the only unfortunate pick that day to get a fuller check. And check they did. My boots came off, my coat came off, and everything, including my handbag, was kept from me. And I was ordered not to touch anything—even if they were finished checking it. They rummaged through all the dirty laundry in my suitcase, they opened and peered into the computer in my backpack, they ran something over the phone in my purse, and they scrounged around any of my belongings they could find. Looking for what, I couldn’t imagine. Everything had been through the x-ray machine, and nothing remarkable had emerged. But they took my coat, my shoes, boots, slippers, and a few other things to check them through three different machines. I think what annoyed me most was their obvious desire to find something incriminating and their treatment of me as a “suspect.”

When I said I had a plane to catch, one commented that “maybe I would make it.” With the implication that maybe I wouldn’t. And someone else said that I should have come earlier (they should have sent me a notice; after all I didn’t know I was to be put through this outrage). I had never been given even a second look at any airport before.

They saved the best for last—the complete pat down in a private room. Two women, one happily giving me a hands-on search from top of head to bottom of feet, making sure to cover every possible spot. She kept up a stream of talk supposedly telling me what she was doing as she did it, but since it was in their official lingo I had no idea what she was talking about, so I kept saying “Excuse me?” And the other woman would say “She’s telling you what she’s doing.” To which I responded, “I think I know what she’s doing, and telling me doesn’t make it any nicer. It is still totally disgusting.” When one finally nodded to the other, it seemed to be with some disappointment that I got the okay to go. Everything in my suitcase was in total disarray. I had no time for anything but to run to the gate so I could catch my plane. They were boarding and had already called my section, and I just got on with the last section. I had had no time to even buy a bottle of water. I immediately asked an attendant for water, but she told me that I had to wait until we were in flight. It took an hour and a half to get that water.

I think Denver should be grateful that terrorists do not seem very interested in the city. They trend to gravitate toward cities like New York, Washington, Boston, and the like. Denver seems more likely to spawn local, disturbed gunslingers who wreak havoc in their own horrible way. And none of them are older women either. Strangely enough, they all seem to be disturbed young men.

Working with Students on College Essays

July 29, 2012

Tags: student essays, college appliation essays, working with students

I adore helping students with college application essays, and I still sometimes do that when a friend or colleague asks me to work with their child or friend's child, etc. What I really find fascinating is helping these kids discover things about themselves, things they had no idea would be of interest to anyone.

There was the student with the rather average academic record despite one parent being a doctor and the other a lawyer. At first he stated that his only interest was sports, and I helped him with an essay on that. But in talking about his interests, it turned out that he had started an investment club with a group of friends; he had convinced them that by putting their money together, they could invest it and make more money. What is astounding is that they did (or rather I think he did since he did the actual investing). At a time when most people were losing money in the market, this group of kids made money! What a story.

A young woman had her family worried, because she had been diagnosed with childhood diabetes the year before. She had been having a difficult time adjusting to her new status and the precautions, rules, and care she now had about her health. The family already stretched thin because of all the extra attention that was expended on her older brother, who was autistic.

She sounded so dis heartened on the phone; it seemed she felt she was so ordinary and talentless that no decent college would want her. In addition, sShe had no idea what she wanted to study.

I couldn't figure out how she could be seen as ordinary considering that she was taking a couple of AP math classes, working for organizations involved with diabetes research, and helping her 23-year-old autistic brother study for his bar-mitzvah.

She kept asking me, "Do you think they would think my essay at all interesting?" She didn't see herself as being at all special. Well, almost every school she applied to seemed to have a different idea.

These kids start out with a draft essay I tell them to throw it away, and we just start talking and finally get around to talking about what is unique about them. What they do or have done that is unusual in some way. Then I tell them to do another draft, and the work begins.

In Response to a Student's Wondering about her Career Choice

March 1, 2012

Tags: student, editing, editor, career choice, course

One of my students in my UC Berkeley Grammar Course sent me an e-mail asking me whether I thought she should become an editor. She was feeling very insecure about everything that day. Here is what I wrote to her.

I don't know whether you, or anyone, should be an editor. That is a personal choice as well as a professional one. But I cannot say you shouldn't. But consider this: when someone begins training to become a doctor, the first-year medical student cannot be expected to treat people. Neither can the first law student. Why should you, after several assignments, be ready to edit for Knopf?

Years ago, becoming an editor was a different process. At least for most editors I know. We went to work for a major publisher (or even a small independent press) as an editorial assistant, and basically learned "on the job." Every project taught you something new. I also found that working at several different places offered the opportunity to work under people who could give me something different.

The point at which you feel "I am really an editor" happens when somebody has given you editorial work, and they are very happy with it. When I first graduated college, and someone gave me something to edit, I felt totally at sea, and I had studied linguistics and gone to schools where they taught a great deal of grammar. I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do with what I was holding in my hands. I needed to go through at least some apprenticeship; at that point, I didn't even know how to mark up a manuscript!

These certificate programs are a wonderful thing. Not just because everyone cannot come to New York and work for a publisher, but because very few people in New York can do that any more. It's a different world. This is the apprenticeship. And at this moment, you have unrealistic expectations. There are a few people in the course who can edit right now. But they have been working at it for some years (we’ll keep that secret). But I’m glad they are conscientious enough to want to make their work even better. That’s dedication.

Don’t think about whether you should be an editor. Think about learning grammar. You see, learning grammar can do amazing things for you even if you become a lawyer, a community organizer, a teacher, or even an architect. That’s one of the great things about this program. It is actually useful to people in all occupations.

But what I love most about being an editor is that I am always learning.

Is Grammar Really Important?

June 9, 2011

Tags: Grammar, fiction, communication

Grammar is important, and it has not been taught in most American schools for many years for a very simple reasons: most teachers do not know enough grammar to be able to teach it. All prospective English teachers should have at least some linguistics as part of their curriculum; in fact, all English majors should, for without a strong background in the language it is difficult to really understand great literature. On the bright side, grammar is now being taken more seriously in the publishing world, and the evidence for this can be found in the proliferation of certificate programs in editing. Grammar is always a major component of these programs, and rightly so.

I keep hearing people say that "sticklers" spoil language; you have to "loosen" up. To them I would say that we have only language with which to communicate, and if we don't do our best to say what we mean and mean what we say, we are lost. Sloppy speech, whether written or spoken, starts a chain of miscommunication. Remember, at our best, nothing is totally communicated from one person to another. Never. Considering this, how can we do less than our best if we are ever to honestly say anything to each other?

In response to the comments of others, I would like to add that although fiction doesn't always follow the rules of standard English usage, it is important that the writer of fiction understand the rules before deviating from them. Picasso learned to draw before he went abstract; he didn't make all those funny little marks because he couldn't draw, but precisely because he could! That is what gives control.

The truth is that you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

Editors and Errors...

February 19, 2011

Tags: grammar, linguistics, teaching, editing, proofreading

An editor recently complained about a company he was thinking of working for with the following comments.

"Well, if you go to their sample of Level 1 proofreading, you will see that the sample of proofing did not do a very good job:"

[He should be careful about saying that the "sample” did not do…]

"This sentence, for example, was untouched: The CEO and/or President role is unlike any other role in a company.

"At the very least, shouldn't "President" be "President's" with an apostrophe "s?"

[Actually, what would be correct is: The CEO’s and/or President’s role is unlike any other in the company. Both need the possessive.(Actually, I think I might leave out the “or” and stay with the “and”)]

"I would question the legitimacy of the organization from it's own lack of proofreading in a sample that is meant to show proofreading..."

[it’s own lack of proofreading…! Yikes! it's!]

This fellow’s complaint about the proofreading sample has merit in that the sample is incorrect, but his “correction” not only did not fix the problem, but evinced his own poor grasp on grammar. And then to compound that, his comment, most glaringly with that awful “it’s” being used as a possessive, reflects rather poorly on his candidacy as an editor/proofreader!

Why would I bother to post the above, which I hope is not read by the person who made the comment? My motive is to point out that even working editors often do not have sufficient background in English grammar to adequately do their work. Having a degree in English does not mean that someone has learned the mechanics of the language. Grammar deals with the structure of the language and as such is never dealt with in literature classes or, alas, even in most writing classes, although it should be. This will not change until English majors, and particularly anyone considering becoming an English teacher, must take at least ne, better two, linguistics classes in order to teach. Such courses would be invaluable for journalists, writers, and editors as well.

If you want students to learn, you first have to teach the teachers. “

Tests Are for Students, not Professional Editors and Writers

December 16, 2010

Tags: Tests, writer, editor, Professionals, scams, phony gigs, phony freelance work

It's becoming too depressing to hear about the increasing number of people out there in cyberspace ready to offer phony freelance work. At this point I have received so many e-mails regarding scams I think I see a pattern. There appear to be two types, and some people who are scammed are well aware of it while others actually may not be.

The first, and more obvious, one is an offer of work, an inquiry in very poor English. Often, too much money is offered, particularly in light of no vetting. You can almost do no wrong, as they keep assuring you, "I want you.” It would be more accurate to say, "I want your money" because that's what they're after, and those of you who have been approached may know by now that the game is to declare they are sending you a very large check, and you need to send part of it to someone else, since it is more than the "agreed upon" fee for the gig. Some people believe the check they've been sent is good because it looks very good. In fact, it would take weeks to bounce because it has a legitimate bank routing number as well as a real account number. Not theirs. People get taken as soon as they send out that requested check---the good one!

The more subtle scam is to seek writers or editors (as many as possible), informing them all they must first write a two-page article or edit a chapter. The point is that the work is divvied up among the many people who have responded or who are contacted. If you agree to do the "sample, that is the work. I know of several people who actually kept contacting the person about the "real" work that was supposed to be coming. But they already did it! Just this morning someone contacted me out of the blue to write an article. I was asked to select from a list, given guidelines, etc., and they told me that regular work would then flow in. I was feeling kind of annoyed, so I responded that I was a professional writer and as such always worked for a fee.

The point is that in today's world most of us are "out there." We have social media pages, Web sites, blogs, and certainly sample work that can be shown. There is no reason for an experienced writer or editor to do a "test" or a "sample." Even in legitimate companies I believe only someone who doesn't know how to hire would dream of asking for such a thing. I have to say that in thirty years of doing this, I have never been asked to do freebies for any project. Long ago, sometimes we were told the work was conditional. But all the writers (or editors) were paid for all work done, even when it was unacceptable. When I was a project editor in several places, that was always the way it was. If the work of one of the writers or editors was unsatisfactory, that writer or editor was still paid but never used again. We always felt it was unfair to not pay them for their time, no matter what we thought of their work.

A Language For Our Times

September 20, 2010

Tags: language, grammar, linguistics, errors

Lately, I've been hearing a great many gripes about errors in published books, and it is a valid complaint. But then a subsequent discussion about it in a LinkedIn disussion group set me thinking, and I decided to voice some of my musings.

A living language is a changing language. As such, if “wrong” usage becomes widespread, it eventually is no longer considered “wrong.” Living languages see changes in spelling, grammar, and usage. For example, the lead / led confusion may seem straightforward to those who adhere to current rules of verb conjugation, and yet I can see the confusion, as many think of read / read, and recall how in school irregular verbs were grouped together. It is easy for someone to imagine that read and lead were in the same group of irregular verbs. If the trend continues, they may eventually be. But for now, they are not.

I read the book aloud to the child.
Yesterday I read the book to him for half an hour!

We lead many groups on hikes. Last year we led at least fifty!

As for they’re and their, there is no excuse for confusion among the educated, and yet I’ve gotten e-mails from editors confusing the two! It seems that some people do not understand the use of the apostrophe, and that they’re means they are. Same with it’s and its, not seeming to understand that it’s is a contraction of it is, while the possessive of it is its, without the apostrophe.

They’re minding their own business.
Their minds are made up; they’re taking their trip in August.

It’s a well-known fact that a dog may chase its own tail.
It’s been snowing so heavily that the group lost its way.

I don’t blame text messaging for these problems as they predate TMs. The truth is that very few people really learn grammar and fewer bother to teach it. How can they if they’ve not learned it themselves? When I told my graduate school advisor that I wanted to take linguistics, he told me not to bother. I was shocked at his attitude (at an Ivy school, no less), and decided to ignore him. I wound up taking a number of linguistics courses. I am grateful for my decision. It was crucial in my career both as an English teacher and an editor/writer. I couldn’t understand how someone could study “English” and not learn the language itself.

With the rise of the Internet, neologisms today are multiplying as never before due to the rapid explosion of social media and the need to communicate in different ways, and particularly with an emphasis on brevity. After all, what are you thinking in 140 characters or less is an inducement to many to create new words altogether, if not abbreviations. Grasping the fluid spelling variations has been a challenge to those who attempt to keep up with this communication phenomenon. But it does not excuse blatant assaults on accepted grammar and usage.

English is a dynamic modern language, really a bastard language, but nonetheless one that reflects our times. It will continue to change with our society, and we should embrace the changes, keep an open mind, and not be too unyielding about trying to hold back the surge.

Working on a Manuscript

July 2, 2010

Tags: editing, editor, manuscript

Unless other preferences are indicated, my editorial references are: Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. and Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, 11th ed. All manuscripts should be in a 12-point font, double spaced with all margins at least one inch. The manuscript should be electronically transmitted. If a manuscript is submitted with chapters in separate files, the final edited manuscript will be one file with consecutive page numbering. Front and back matter may be included, or in separate file, as preferred. Scholarly works are the exception, as separate files for each chapter, title page, front matter, back matter, bibliography, etc. are mandatory in some cases. Nonetheless, even in scholarly works, page numbers for the entire work run consecutively although citations and illustrations renumber with each chapter.

If a book has been signed for publication, and I’m dealing with an in-house editor, it is up to that editor as to the level of author contact. However, since it is becoming increasingly more common to have manuscripts edited before being submitted, the issue of an in-house editor as liaison has become more common for proofreading. When an agent is hiring the editor, the specific roles are stipulated in each case by the agent.

The editing process begins with an initial reading of the entire manuscript. The preliminary reading is necessary to note organization and content as well as elements that may require special attention such as footnotes, bibliography, images. Global problems may be noted at this time (for example, spelling inconsistencies). The second reading is the major editing read, and this is the slowest read in which anything (and everything) is looked up, confirmed, changed or queried. The final reading is to resolve any unanswered queries and to catch any discrepancies that may have been missed on the first pass. Ideally, this is done reading straight through. Inconsistencies are more clearly discerned if there is no interruption in the reading. The Style Sheet created during the first read is most useful at this time.

While working on the manuscript on the first editing pass, a Style Sheet is created, to note consistency on usage, punctuation, spelling, etc., as for example, whether to use the final series comma, capitalize certain words, hyphenate others, and so on. The Style Sheet, in the case of a novel or nonfiction story, is used to keep track of characters and events. In a work of nonfiction, it may also keep track of figures, tables, charts, illustrations as well as citations. Sometimes a time chart is kept, or even a map, depending on the material.

During the editing process, I may insert Comments. The Comments tool is on the drop down menu under Insert, and are usually transmitted with the manuscript. In order to view Comments, you can put the manuscript into Print Preview and go from comment to comment and accept each change or not. The process can be done manually by putting the cursor on each comment, and right click the mouse for a drop down menu and click on Edit to read and then Delete. But please do not answer with another comment! It will only have to be deleted later. Some clients prefer to have all Comments written right in the text, highlighted in yellow. That also works.

At the beginning of the editing process, the author will be sent a few pages for examination in order to ascertain that author and editor are “on the same page.” The Track Changes element in Word may be used for these few pages. Some clients want all the editing to be done in Track Changes. I can do that although I find it distracting to use Track Changes for an entire manuscript. However, the same result can be achieved by doing a “Compare Documents,” available in the Tools menu, between the original and final edited version. On the other hand, if you read through the edited version and you “don’t miss anything,” it is probably all right. If a question arises, you can always check the redlined version at that point or go back to the original to note whether it is as remembered, and whether there was a good reason to make any change. And I am always available for questions.

Publishers usually want a completed, edited manuscript sent on a CD. I can send the client the edited manuscript on CD, as well as electronically, or some authors prefer to do it themselves after a final reading.

The author is responsible for the content and its accuracy, originality of ideas and use of language as well as fair use of published material or trademarks. For nonfiction works, the publisher must determine the integrity of a manuscript. As an editor, any available backup is often helpful in working with the text. (more…)

Before They Ban Those Books

January 30, 2010

Tags: banned books

Children are sent to school for an education, not to be kept from becoming educated because of the prejudices of parents. If a parent objects to a book, they have the right to say they don't want their own child to read it, but they should not have the power the keep that book from other people's children! When I was teaching, I cannot recall one single instance of anyone wanting a book taken from a reading list, etc. where the reason made any sense except that we had an ignorant parent with preconceived notions.

For instance, I recall a parent objecting quite vociferously to Bernard Malamud's "The Fixer," insisting that she didn't want her daughter reading about "drug dealers." When she finally caught a breath, I asked her the big question: had she ever read the book? Of course not, she screamed, she would never read such a book! I calmly told her that the book actually took place in a Russian prison and had nothing to do with drugs. She just stared at me (how difficult it is to find you are screaming with no sense of reality). I've never yet met anyone who objected to a book and in fact had read the book.

And, by the way, what if the book had been about drug dealers? The real issue is not the subject matter so much as whether it was a good enough book. Does it have literary merit or is it a piece of junk?

Looking at banned books from the historical perspective, to be banned puts a book in excellent company for the most part: Huckleberry Finn, Lady Chatterley, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye and Jude the Obscure are just a few of the novels regularly banned throughout the years from libraries and school lists.

My suggestion is that anyone who wants to ban a book should be instructed that they must first read the book and then present a written report on it, pointing out why no one else should have free access to reading that book. Would certainly cut down on book banning.

The Writer and the Editor

December 21, 2009

Tags: editor, writer, editing, developmental editing, copyediting, freelance

It is clear that writers sometimes have bad experiences with editors and others good experiences. I have had both. First, let me make it clear that I am both a published writer and a professional editor—a trained professional editor, not someone who decided she could edit because she was a writer or had been an English teacher. But although I am now freelance—and a great many of the best editors today are freelance—I also worked at major publishing houses, starting as an editorial assistant. I also studied linguistics. But for the most part publishing houses in recent years, in their restructuring and acquisition phases, streamlined editorial departments to a bare minimum, if even that.

Thus, most freelance work is better than what you may find working in-house today since publishers think bottom line these days, being managed by marketing and not editorial. That usually means that they hire young inexperienced people and unfortunately often do not bother to train them. As one young thing said to me one day while I was working on-site, “Oh, I am so excited to do this, it’s my first real editing, and I am so nervous because grammar is my weak area.” And she became an editor? I was dumbfounded, and still wonder about that.

But for many, there is also the confusion of what an editor does. Many people are not aware that some editors do only copyediting while others are primarily involved in line editing or developmental editing. The first thing a writer has to know is what his or needs are in terms of the manuscript, or at least seek advice. Many seasoned writers turn in manuscripts that only need copyediting, and don’t need developmental work. But that may also be because it has become customary these days to have a manuscript edited before submission, and I wonder if that began as a result of the dearth of real editors in-house these days. Most first-time authors absolutely need to work with a developmental editor.

That thought reminds me of another misconception. I still recall one writer handing in a manuscript, assuring the editor that the “book needed no editing because he had already edited it.” A writer cannot “edit” his own book, he can only revise it. We all need editing. Maybe some more than others, but generally we become so lost in the thought that we often forget the mechanics, and words we expect to be on the page appear before us whether they’re there or not. We become mired in using the same words repeatedly in the effort to get the ideas out, and that fresh, professional eye catches what we missed. It is true that a bad editor can make a mess of good writing but, on the other hand, a good editor can add that final polish that gives the work that professional quality. The critical goal of the editor is to make the writer look good.

In today’s market many agents and publishers insist that an author have the manuscript edited before submission. They may even indicate that developmental editing is called for. Publishing has changed greatly from the days of Bennett Cerf, who kept a well-staffed company and proved you could make money publishing literature.