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Divert, Test, Tease, and Challenge:
STET! Tricks of the Trade for Writers and Editors
Reviewed by Susan Maclean
Reading STET! is like attending a series of practical writing and editing conferences- only it's cheaper and takes less time. Although this isn't an essential reference book for editors, it is easy to read, concise, well written, comprehensive, fun, practical and at times even inspiring.
STET! is a compendium of reports of presentations at various editorial seminars and distillations or critiques of style guides and reference books issued by government and academia. It is a collection of articles published in the The Editorial Eye, a newsletter on publications standards and practices issued by the same publishers.
They have let stand (Latin: stet) articles that seem to have worn well. Categories include: editing, writing, publications management, indexing, proofreading, lexicography, and a kind of catch - all section dealing with spelling, grammar and points of usage. A subject index augments the extensive contents listing.
The goal of the book parallels that of the newsletter: "To help its readers produce publications of the highest quality in the most efficient and economical way... not just to inform and instruct but amuse, divert, tease, and challenge its readers." I would say it does.
Only occasionally were the articles of marginal interest to me. A series on proposal writing for firms looking for business and a selection for scientists writing technical papers are excellent but seem out of context.
A major flaw for Canadians is that it is oriented solely to Americans. For example, I found annoying the assumption that all readers would know what GPO (U.S.Government Printing Office) meant. A series of articles on government communications left me uninterested - except for one piece in plain English which should be read daily by every bureaucrat. The second last article in the book, Brush Up Your British, warns "adventurous editors who want to work overseas" that although "prevailing linguistic winds are westerly" there is a considerable divergence between American and British usage. Canada is neither mentioned nor, I suspect, considered.
Still, the article on U.S. grammar hotlines - where grammar advice is a phone call away - offers some ideas which could inspire some enterprising Canadians willing to provide such a service here.
I have two other criticisms. First, people cited as authorities are seldom identified as to their qualifications. Secondly, the folio line LOGO*PHILE appears frequently without any explanation and is a puzzling distraction to those, like me, who are unfamiliar with the newsletter. It isn't until page 247 that I pick up the hint that it is the editor's column.
(Those editorial columns, however, and other contributions by editor Bruce O. Boston, including the section introductions, are well written and frequently entertaining.)
Within the scope of the entire text, these are minor flaws in an otherwise exceptionally enjoyable and stimulating how-to-book. Sprinkled throughout are tests, quizzes and what the publishers call "Black Eyes". These are comical (aren't they always when someone else makes them?) printed errors.
STET! ranges from controversy on, for example, sexism, to trivia tests (Do you know what the symbol # is called?). Along the way the authors discuss a host of reference books, including Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobooblins, and many others more familiar to most of us.
Publications Management Lessons and Warnings, and Lessons from 50 Years' Editorial Experience are two entertaining and helpful selections bound to invoke knowing chuckles from experienced editors.
I found only one article unclear. Not bad considering there are
probably more than 150 selections.
Who would enjoy reading this book? Let me crib from one of the book reviews in STET!: "Editors of other people's writing will enjoy reading... as they would enjoy listening to a respected colleague who may confirm their convictions, offer new ideas on how to go about their wordwork, or both."
This book is not in itself an authority - especially for non-American English users. But it does contain practical suggestions and excellent tips on, for example, editing technical reports, getting along with authors, estimating editing time, crash editing, newsletter cost cutting and devising an editing test when hiring editorial staff.
STET! is contemporary. While there isn't a section specifically on desktop publishing, money-saving production tips include how to send clean copy electronically to a typesetter to cut typsetting costs by 40 per cent.
A section on standards invites interesting comparisons between your speed and accuracy (or that of your staff) to some suggested average speeds and accuracy levels. The average error rate in keyboarding is one or two errors in 1,000 keystrokes; the average in proofreading is one or two uncaught errors in 7,000 characters, according to the National Composition Association newsletter.
The book also has technical merits. The text typeface is 10/12 ITC Garamond, clean and easy to read. Lots of heads and sub-heads break up the copy. Articles probably average only two pages long. The writing is remarkably consistent considering the number of contributors. Those contributors seem expert at presenting ideas concisely and practically.
"As the years go by every editor needs to make a continuing effort to stay informed about changing trends and new techniques in production," writes 50-year veteran Lola Zook. "Your own niche may be comfortable and well worn and presumably safe from erosion. But the world changes, and organizations change, and needs change - and your niche might be worn away, or you may just get tired of it. When you poke your head up to look around, better be sure you know what's going on..."
STET!, with a light and breezy style, helps you know what's
Susan Maclean is owner of Sumac Communication, a writing/editing firm serving clients in southern Ontario.
This article originally appeared in Sources, 10th anniversary issue, Summer 1987.