Thursday, October 10, 2013

Useful Things of the Week

I don't know if I'm actually going to make this a weekly post, but I suppose it depends on how much cool and useful stuff I find over the course of the week.

An excellent quote from Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's Airman's Odyssey comes to mind as I revise another article:  "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” 

Deleting excess words, trimming a piece down to its essentials, can be a very calming exercise. Although I naturally run long, that only makes me more appreciative of simplicity. A message is most effective when it's been pared down to nothing but its core meaning. 

A sort of jobs board for federal employees, consultants, and others affected by the US Government shutdown. It's struck DC hard (although we had a few good days for retail, as furloughed employees and stranded tourists hit the shops October 2 & 3rd. Even this past weekend at a farmer's market I saw a sign offering 20% discounts to anyone on furlough). Since my part-time work is in consulting, my job search has gotten even stickier than anticipated.

In the meantime, this website has been built by veteran-owned tech firm Blen and the 1776 platform using Drupal open-source software to host 'gig's (temp jobs) and available freelancers' information and resumes. Apparently the whole thing started as a Google Doc!

So if you or anyone you know is affected by the shutdown, consider uploading your resume and taking a look at the gigs.

Software & website:
I read onscreen a lot. You probably do, too. Beeline Reader's software claims to make reading onscreen faster by applying a color gradient to lines of text, allowing the eyes to follow along without skipping or backtracking. You can install the extension to use on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, and use it to read on websites, or you can copy & paste from a document or email to their online Pasteboard. I've read a few chapters of my latest PDF review copy on it, and I don't know if it's gone much faster but if nothing else the novelty of the shaded lines kept me entertained. And I don't remember even once rereading the same line, so it does work as advertised.

The Autocrit Wizard is not a substitute for a skillful human editor, nor indeed for your own wordcraft. However, it is an excellent way to get a quick overlook of some common mistakes in your manuscript. It catches commonly overused words (it, had, see, felt, was/were, that), cliches, use of initial pronouns ("He did..." "She did..."), and sentence length (*coughs, shuffles feet*). Sentence length actually includes a cool visual 'map' of the sentences compared to each other. Lots of long lines in a row signals a problem (*shuffles feet harder*). One thing it doesn't seem to do is catch grammar errors, which is a pity because Microsoft Word's grammar check remains unreliable. As does the grammar of pretty much every writer.

Getting on my soapbox here:

"This is how you write dialogue," she said. "Notice the comma goes on the inside of the quotation marks. Furthermore, the 's' in she is lowercase, because it comes after a comma and not a period." She sighed heavily. "This is a mistake everyone makes at first--it took me a full year of writing to figure it out. But the sooner you memorize this rule, the faster all subsequent revisions of your story will be."

(If it helps, take out the quotation marks. It becomes much clearer that This is how you write dialogue, she said is a full sentence.)

Now, even once we figure that out, there are lots of other problems awaiting us--I continue to use comma splices, in a manner I think is stylistic but quickly proves when another person reads it to be just confusing. And sometimes the only way to figure out how the grammar in your sentence should work (especially when you're doing something stylistically creative) is to have another human being read it. Autocrit will not do that for you. On the other hand, human beings may not be as quick to spot repeated words and almost certainly are not going to count the number of words in each sentence for you. The Wizard is a useful part of a toolkit. Even if you don't run your entire manuscript through it--and even if you stick with the freebie package of basic tools--analyzing a few thousand words of your text should be enough to draw some conclusions of your own.