The Perils of Style Guides

Style guides can be handy tools when used properly, but their application should always be informed by context.

Case in point: take this article abstract from MDLinx, a medical journal abstracting service, which I found while researching recent publications for one of my clients:

“The authors must be aware that acute encephalopathy is an important complication in children with Dravet syndrome, and associated with fulminant clinical manifestations and a poor outcome.”

Huh? Is the abstractor editorializing here? Is one of the authors of the article publicly chastising himself and his colleagues for overlooking something in their study?

A quick glance at the original abstract from Epilepsia magazine:

“We must be aware that acute encephalopathy is an important complication in children with Dravet syndrome, and associated with fulminant clinical manifestations and a poor outcome.”

Ah, that makes sense now. The authors are saying that pediatric neurologists in general should be aware of this potential complication. The MDLinx style guide — whether it’s applied by a human editor or an algorithm, I don’t know — must call for replacing “we” with “the authors,” presumably on the (not unreasonable) assumption that that’s what it typically refers to.

Editors: when applying a style guide, whether its your own or your client’s, don’t forget to take context into account. Otherwise, you risk causing a misunderstanding — or worse.

“Don’t Quit Your Day Job”

Ten years ago, in January 2001, I hung out my shingle as a freelance writer and editor. I decided to leave a comfortable middle-management position in a small research firm because I wanted to take a chance on myself and my writing and business abilities.

When I announced in October 2000 that I would be departing at year’s end, I had sold all of one article and didn’t have any other prospects. Though I spent the next couple months hunting pretty aggressively, by the time Christmas vacation rolled around I still didn’t have anything lined up.

I broke the cardinal rule of writing: “Don’t quit your day job.” I felt like I had just jumped out of a plane while still stitching my parachute together.

A day or two after Christmas, I got a call from an editorial services firm where I had taken a pretty intensive writing test. They called to say that I had passed and, oh by the way, they had just had a big project come in that needed a writer, would I be interested?

Every writer needs a break when starting out. Quinn McDonald gave me mine. It was a privilege to work with Quinn for several years, and a pleasure to be able to call her a friend and colleague still. Every writer should be so lucky to have such a top-flight mentor. (It also seems cosmically appropriate that she had known and worked with my college advisor, Dr. Anne Millbrooke, who had had an equally profound influence on my academic trajectory.) Thank you, Quinn! Thank you, Anne!

When I started out, the deal I made with my wife Mary Jo was that I could do this as long as I made enough money to pay my share of the bills each month plus something for retirement at year’s end. Plus the occasional dinner out and presents, of course. If I couldn’t hold that end up, I’d stop and get another job. So far, so good. Thank you, Mary Jo!

I’ve worked for a lot of really terrific clients along the way, met some amazingly intelligent, smart, creative, and dedicated people, worked on an incredible array of projects, and learned something new on each one. Thank you, my wonderful clients!

Four years ago, I launched this blog. In that time, I’ve written about writing, reading, and editing; about managing your records and your goals; about paper, pens, and Circa planners. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with readers in the comments, on their blogs, and in other forums — and occasionally even in person. Thank you, my dedicated readers!

Occasionally when I tell people about how I got started, they ask me whether, if I had to do it again, would I take the same chance.


I wouldn’t trade a minute of the past ten years. It has been the most exhilarating, challenging, exciting thing I’ve done (professionally, that is) in my life. The daily balancing game of freedom and responsibility never gets old. Sure I’ve gotten tired many times, burned out more than once, stressed out quite a few more times than I’d like to admit. But I am a better writer, a better editor, and a better person for having taken the chance.

Yesterday, beginning my eleventh year as a self-employed writer/editor, I woke up feeling excited about what the day would bring. The morning that I wake up feeling otherwise, I’ll stop. Until then, let’s see what the next decade brings.


the wan piaba and the lan piaba

I was looking through some old files this morning when I stumbled on this bit of doggerel that I wrote a few years ago.

I had overheard my wife helping her mom with a Web browser problem, and the cadence of my wife’s voice as she spelled out a URL made the light bulb go off. And about twenty minutes later, I had it all written down.

As Sirius Cybernetics Corporation would say: “share and enjoy . . . ”

Continue reading “the wan piaba and the lan piaba”

solecism for april 1, 2008

From “Is Mike Myers’ new film asking for trouble?,”, via AP:

“In the context of Sacha Baron Cohen’s uncomfortable in-character interactions with unwitting Americans, Mike Myers’ parody of another cultural minority in the U.S. — as the oversexed, overly ambitious, American-born spiritual leader in the summer comedy “The Love Guru” — would hardly seem cause for complaint.”

Until the Oversexed and Overly-Ambitious American-Born Spiritual Leaders Anti-Defamation League got wind of it and called a press conference.

solecism for january 19

From “Reading has gone to the dogs,” Baltimore Examiner, Weekend Edition, January 19-20, 12 [not available online as of this writing]:

“Since February 2007, Karma Dogs has participated in HEARTS, a reading program in which kids are paired with canines to better increase their vocabulary and reading skills. The dogs appear weekly at a designated Baltimore County library.”