Why general knowledge is not a trivial pursuit

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

A TV producer friend once told me that he was learning Icelandic to keep his brain active because his job wasn’t intellectually stimulating enough. I found this astonishing, as it’s not a problem we editorial professionals report very often. This itself is probably astonishing to certain people outside our industry, who like to tell us that all we do is spot typos and otherwise engage our brains very little. Of course, we need to know grammatical rules well enough to apply them to our projects – and also well enough to be confident about when to break those rules. But, as is made obvious each year at the conference quiz, many editors have a vast and varied general knowledge. Not even my extensive familiarity with obscure song lyrics has been enough to beat certain erudite colleagues to the coveted title of Winning Team.

It’s often the quirky, stylistic anomalies that stick in our minds; for example, it’s Spider-Man but Batman and Iron Man (you’d be surprised how often knowing that has been useful in my work).
But we also represent that unfashionable but, in my opinion, vital concept – gatekeepers of quality. Many of us are subject specialists, perhaps as a result of previous jobs, often with as much in-depth understanding of our area as our authors – and sometimes more.

But a good general knowledge is also a valuable asset in our line of work. We editors are an inquisitive bunch, always interested in learning something new. If we don’t understand an argument or trust a fact in a manuscript, neither will our readers. We might raise an author query, but frequently, we don’t have enough time or access to the author to await their response, so we simply need to check for ourselves.

On a day-to-day basis then, as far as essential editorial tools go, Google is right up there with PerfectIt. Other search engines are, of course, available, but ‘to google’ is now a transitive verb sufficiently common to be an effective, lowercase shorthand for ‘carrying out an internet search’. Google itself reportedly discourages the term, preferring ‘to search with Google’. I fear, however, that it is far too late to retrieve that particular phrase from the black hole of the internet.

While thinking about all this, I realised just how often I google words and phrases in the course of my work, so I started to keep a log of what I’d searched for, and what I’d found out. The list that follows is just a taster – I’ve omitted or slightly changed some examples to maintain client confidentiality. Note too that these days even editors accept that normal capitalisation and punctuation don’t apply to internet searches.


Term: turn on word spell check

Why? Mental block. I’m updating a brochure about my town, Fakenham, for a friend. I’m using last year’s text as a basis, but on a previous project I’d switched off Word’s functionality for checking spelling as I type. Now I can’t remember how to turn it back on!

Outcome: The top link is from Microsoft, the horse’s mouth, and all the information I need appears on the search page. It’s File/Options/Proofing/Check spelling as I type. The red squiggles reappear. Hoorah!


Term: james beck auctions

Why? I need to increase the number of attractions in the brochure from 15 to 20 (my friend wants ‘20 attractions for 2020’), so I’m splitting up the market and auction entry and want to lengthen the auction text by about 20 words.

Outcome: The search took me straight to the auction house’s website, which confirmed the numbers and types of items typically up for auction. New text covered. Success!


Term: hempton bell

Why? I’m checking the name of the local pub known for its folk jam sessions.

Outcome: Its URL is thehemptonbell.co.uk but the text on the website is The Bell Public House. I’ll go with The Hempton Bell, which is what locals call it, to avoid the current wordiness of ‘the Bell Public House in nearby Hempton’ …


Term: fakenham christmas tree festival 2020

Why? Last year’s text states last year’s Christmas Tree Festival dates. Fakenham established one of the first Christmas tree festivals in the country about 20 years ago, and now it makes thousands of pounds for charities and the church, so I want to ensure this year’s dates are correct.

Outcome: Rare Google fail. The parish church website doesn’t state this year’s dates yet, and nor does anywhere else, so I’ll add a query to the text.


Term: arts and crafts fakenham

Why? I need another entry to make it a round 20. How about art? I know there’s a ‘have a go’ crafts shop, and an annual Norfolk and Norwich art trail, but is there anything else?

Outcome: Hmm, the results reveal only the shop I was thinking of, plus (inevitably) The Works chain for art supplies, and a picture framer. That’s not enough.


Term: norfolk and norwich open studios

Why? This is my favourite event of year but not many artists participate in my town.

Outcome: It takes me to the event’s website but the search mechanism there doesn’t allow me to search by location so I have to download last year’s brochure. I search the PDF for ‘Fakenham’ but only one artist was based in the town. Forget that idea, then! What else does Fakenham offer?


Term: pensthorpe norfolk

Why? I read the brief again and my friend had suggested including Pensthorpe Natural Park,
a tourist attraction on the outskirts of town.

Outcome: The search takes me directly to the website, where there’s plenty to fill 50 words.
I’d forgotten that BBC’s Springwatch was filmed there a few years ago. Job done.


Term: Neprajzi Muzeum artefacts

Why? A client with whom I’m working on a new edition of a travel guide to Budapest has heard that one of the main attractions, which we knew was relocating, won’t reopen until 2022. No photos of the new building are available. We only have photos of the original building, which are now wrong.

I wonder if we can use photos of some of the major artefacts, as they will probably still be on display when the museum does finally reopen.

Outcome: The image search revealed some distinctive artefacts so I suggest we include these, which would avoid having to restructure the book to accommodate a new (as-yet unspecified) attraction to fill the space. The updater of the book later copies me into an email to the client suggesting the same thing, and the client agrees. Success! Now it’s up to the poor picture researcher to source appropriate photos.


Term: karpatia restaurant budapest

Why? Are the accents correct in Kárpátia? It also appears as Kárpàtia in the text.

Outcome: Kárpátia is correct. I amend the text.

 


Term: musee picasso

Why? In a Paris guide this time, I need to amend a photo caption to something more meaningful. The image showed a gallery in the museum but the picture credit only includes the name of the museum, not the artwork that is featured.

Outcome: I can’t find any images of the exact gallery, but reviews and descriptions say it’s a calm and peaceful place to view Picasso’s art, so I incorporate that into the caption.


Term: THE Steak House Circus Circus

Why? Are those weird capitals correct in this Las Vegas travel guide?

Outcome: Apparently so. Hoorah for branding.


Term: edingburgh castle

Why? The source image seems to show the whole city, not the castle specifically.

Outcome: ‘Showing results for edinburgh castle. Search instead for edingburgh castle?’ Yes, thank you for patronising me, Google. But it was indeed an image of the whole city. I add a query to the PDF.


Term: personal care elderly frail

Why? I’m editing a report that contains this rather depersonalised phrase. Is it in common use?

Outcome: The search suggests not. I will change the text to ‘personal care for frail elderly people’ but will add a query to confirm whether the original phrase is acceptable.


Term: is bristol in north somerset

Why? I’m from Bristol originally and I’m pretty sure it’s a county in itself. I know it’s certainly not in the long-obsolete Avon, a common mistake that drives me crazy.

Outcome: Bristol is indeed a county (and/or a unitary authority), its population twice as large as the two bordering counties, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset (is the ampersand correct? Google doesn’t have a definitive answer to that).


Term: rail services patchway

Why? Is there a station in Patchway?

Outcome: Yes, there is.


Term: CrossCountry and GWR lines

Why? Is the brand for CrossCountry rail services one camelbacked word?

Outcome: Yes, it is.


Term: Supportive of or supportive to

Why? In a proofread, the text reads ‘the parents are supportive to the child’ but I would normally expect to see ‘supportive of’. Is ‘to’ common in such a context?

Outcome: I find a website that says ‘of’ is a much more common construction. However, another web forum suggests ‘towards’ as an alternative, which I think fits the context better. I change the text accordingly.


Term: IDE (Integrated Development Environment)

Why? I don’t think the definition should be capitalised but it might be a branded or copyright expression.

Outcome: It’s not. Lowercase.


Term: lower case

Why? Mental block – is lowercase one word?

Outcome: ‘According to The Associated Press Stylebook and the Microsoft Manual of Style, you should write “lowercase” as one word when being used as an adjective and as a noun.’ So there you go. I check my PDF mark-up.


Term: personal identification number

Why? Is this what PIN stands for, rather than ‘personal identity number’?

Outcome: Various sources say so. Wikipedia (which incidentally always needs to be backed up with another source) has an amusingly passive-aggressive answer: ‘A personal identification number, or sometimes redundantly a PIN number … ’


So what can we conclude from this little experiment? A few things, I think:

  • Although we’re rarely asked specifically to check facts, it’s always worthwhile maintaining an open, questioning approach so that we can pick up on anything that doesn’t quite ring true. Perhaps ironically, the more you know, the more you question and the more you find yourself verifying the text.
  • Taking 30 seconds to search the internet takes much less time and effort than reflexively raising an author query. As an occasional author myself, I’d much prefer my editor to proactively check something that doesn’t sound right instead of just asking me, as long as I have the chance to see any amendments afterwards.
  • That said, the internet doesn’t provide all the answers. Sometimes, we do need to use other sources, such as the CIEP forums, the client, the author or subject specialists.
  • Our work exposes us to a huge volume and variety of information. It’s a form of continuous professional development (CPD) – on-the-job learning with the side benefit of a mental library of interesting facts.
  • Fluency in Icelandic is optional.

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. Her team has twice won the Fakenham Library quiz; her quiz superpower is song lyrics.

 


Photo credits: jukebox – Alex Holyoake; Christmas tree Aurelio Arantes; Budapest – Lucas Davies; Clifton suspension bridge – Nathan Riley, all on Unsplash

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

1 thought on “Why general knowledge is not a trivial pursuit

  1. Hilary Hooper

    Great post, Julia – I don’t think I’ve ever seen an analysis of the process of googling before, and it’s fascinating. PLUS – I was working on a book yesterday and in all my typesetter instructions I had put ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’. I wasn’t at all sure at the time but didn’t bother to check! I can now correct them and I think I will remember for the future, too.

    Take care and stay well,

    Hilary x

    Reply

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