Tag Archives: literacy

Everyone Needs an Editor

Who hasn’t read something, including this blog, only to find a sudden and apparently unplanned descent into verbal mayhem?  Perhaps the author didn’t notice his elbow resting on the keyboard. Perhaps the four-legged family member decided to add a few keystrokes.

Creating sentences on paper or with pixels poses lifelong challenges.  Even accomplished writers usually demur if you tell them they are masters of their craft. Most will admit to writing in drafts that number in the double digits, and most share the almost universal experience of re-reading old material with the nagging feeling that it could have been better. Writing is one skill that is rarely mastered.  Full literacy is a lifelong project. Even so, an occasional stray word left in the wrong neighborhood is not the largest problem. Difficulties arise at the other end of the continuum, where what appears “finished” to a novice is only a pale version of what could be.  Early drafts deserve to be thoroughly marked up.

Everyone needs an editor. Two sets of eyes will improve almost any text.  And why not? Academic presses often send a manuscript out to three experts for review before they green-light a book. Good surgeons often welcome another set of eyes to review scans and x-rays.  Playwrights do workshop readings to discover dead passages or weak third acts.  And advertisers use illustrators to ‘mock up’ storyboards for television commercials before they commit to a full-scale film shoot.  Rare is a  writer like John McPhee, who is so thorough in his research and phrasing that an editor seems unnecessary.

Everyone needs an editor. Two sets of eyes will improve almost any text.

I plead with my students to try out their work on others they know. This is perhaps the single best reason to have a college roommate.  But I still get projects that describe Washington and Jefferson as “too pivotal presidents,” or analyses of “communication problems that defy easy remededeys.”  And woe to folks who count on being bailed out by a computer spell-check program.  My computer was fine with the word “dissent” in the original pull-quote at the top of this piece.

These cases may sound like this need is limited to professionals. But recall the last time you read a family’s holiday letter that revealed more about one of its members than better judgment would allow. Johnny may not want everyone to know that he’s been “challenged” to complete his remedial math course. Such a letter should have been vetted by someone else with a more protective instinct.

The need for an outsider’s input is also apparent for missives that come from a manager who says too much or includes too little.  For example, it would be helpful to know the day and time for that important meeting that she has just announced. And every person mentioned in such a piece has the right to expect that their name will be spelled correctly. Smart managers will usually welcome a second pair of eyes on a document planned for wide distribution.  But certainly not all. The most insecure may not appreciate being saved from errors by more literate underlings.

Who hasn’t read this blog only to find passages where the best explanations for the sudden disintegration of a sentence is that the writer experienced an errant brain synapse?  It’s the curse of blogging that pieces are let loose in the world too soon, with the equivalent of seams gaping open, buttons missing and tags still attached.

Sorry about those slip-ups.  I need an editor.

Media Matters

wikipedia.org
                                        wikipedia.org

The long view of media effects reminds us that we are never left untouched by new communication forms.

Few ideas are as evocative in communication analysis as those that argue that big social changes are driven as much by particular media forms as by the ideas carried in those forms. The conventional view of communication is that we have ideas, information or thoughts, and then we choose the medium to deliver them, concluding that a given  choice is not that consequential.

A media determinist sees things differently.  Most clearly laid out by Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1970s, media theory argues that the vessel turns out to be as important as what it is carrying.  McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message” doesn’t quite get it right.  But a panoramic “big picture” view of communication effects certainly justifies the conclusion that dominant media forms usually create unanticipated and sometimes huge social changes.

Madonna and Child,1284 wikipedia.org
           Madonna and Child,1284                                wikipedia.org

For example, academician Neil Postman and others have argued that television has transformed the idea of childhood, mostly by ending it.1  There’s a little hyperbole here, but also a valid point embedded in the observation.  In the Middle Ages, for example, children were thought of as incipient workers: more or less adults in training.  Even in their first decade the young were expected to take up the burdens of the working world; there was often no particular interest in isolating them from the secrets and challenges of adulthood.  We see hints of this in paintings of children from this period, which often portray the young as just smaller versions of everyone else.

Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne Wikiart.org
Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne                            Wikiart.org

Many generations later the idea of childhood was especially nurtured by the Victorians, helped by more affluence and the spread of age-graded literacy.  They saw the young as a vulnerable and innocent group to be sequestered from the perils and problems of adulthood.  Look at the children portrayed by painter Mary Cassatt or other artists in the last few centuries and you get the idea. The goal of creating a protected world for children  was also supported by the growth of children’s literature, which used age-appropriate language to support adventurous but “safe” narratives.

Yet television imposes no literacy requirements.  Electronic media are nearly as accessible to children as to adults.  Think of a news report that includes an interview with a mother who has just lost her son in a shooting.  There are obviously limits to what children viewing such a news item can understand.  But the raw emotion of the mother is apparent even to a five-year-old.  They will experience the cues of distress directly.  Obviously, that would not be the case if the account existed only as a written news story.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.

Most parents sense the difference. The pervasiveness of visual/presentational media means there are very few safe refuges from the dark corners of the culture.  As media determinists sometimes put it, there is really no such thing as children’s television.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.  A few more examples:

  • The Enlightenment and an emerging belief in human rights was abetted by the development of printed texts. Printing decentralizes the control of information and ideas, ultimately weakening the informational monopoly of the church after the 16th Century.
  • The invention of the telegraph hastened the development of news wire services and the journalistic principle of objectivity. Objectivity was needed if the services were going to sell stories to different parts of the country.
  • The photocopier contributed to the downfall of the old Soviet Union. Cheap copies of political tracts made in private countered the power of government-sanctioned printers.
  • Civil stability in one-party states like China and North Korea is continually threatened by the internet and social media. The online content crosses these political borders with difficulty.   But even with government-imposed electronic firewalls isolation from digital content is no longer possible.
  • Our growing obsessions with all kinds of screens is undermining our social intelligence. Heavy personal media use in the young seems connected to their rising social anxieties about engaging in face to face interaction.

Of course attributing large social changes to just one dimension of a complex culture can be risky.  Even so, a macro-view of media effects can be a timely reminder that new ways to connect to the world always change us. They continue to redefine new forms of daily behavior that start with early adopters before they are acquired by the broad center. The cycle completes itself when a new norm is accepted without much notice.  So walking alone and apparently talking to no one no longer suggests schizophrenia.  We now assume a phone is their link to another.

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1Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, Revised (Vintage, 1994).

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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