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Saturday, Jul. 03, 2004 - 2:16 p.m.

What follows is pretty nerdy. If you are not in academia, publishing, or freelance prescriptivism, you may sit this one out.


Yesterday was my first day of work, and I think it’s going to be okay. I’ve never wandered into the middle of something like this, though – I’ve been hired as a temporary technical editor to help revise a giant batch of training manuals, thousands of pages of outdated guides all in different formats and with conflicting information. The hard copies are piled several feet high on a desk, and the shared office drive has hundreds of document bits, projects started and abandoned as temps have come and gone. Nobody there is being very clear about what I am supposed to do; I’ve never had so little direction at the beginning of a job.

Here is the extent to which they have little idea what they’re doing: There is someone at the next desk over with the same job title as me, though she is permanent; yesterday I asked a few basic questions, namely, where I could find a dictionary and what style manual they used. She looked at me blankly and recommended dictionary.com. She then asked what I meant by a style manual.

I waded into the section they’d asked me to start with. It was a jargon-ridden nightmare written by about eighty different people. Besides the most recent electronic version, there were two hard copies covered with the red ink of a supervisor and a recent temp, and in most cases the edits were in direct conflict with each other. Change this to a semicolon. No, change it to a comma.

I leaned over to the next desk again and asked whether, even though they hadn’t chosen a standard style, they’d made decisions about such things as serial commas; I was finding conflicting uses throughout the section. I then had to explain what a serial comma was. “Which way is right?” she asked.

“You’re always supposed to use a comma there,” said the temp behind her. “That’s what all the grammar books say.” Indeed?

A company style guide actually does exist. It is based on AP style. I know this because L works far away in another branch of this same company. I also know that AP does not use the serial comma.

The news of a company style guide trickled up from me to one of the supervisors, who announced that she’d look into this important development right away; perhaps someday we could have a look at the sacred text. “Oh, for god’s sake,” said L later that night, “The whole thing’s online.”

So I am carefully planning my coup de temp: I will arrive Tuesday morning with two of my own dictionaries and an AP manual checked out from the library. I will print out copies of the company style guide and lovingly distribute them. I have already begun my own list of proposed standardizations: “underpads” should be one word, not two; “recertification” needs no hyphen.

I feel diabolical. I am already plotting how to take over operations and bend them to my will. But I also feel they might be amenable to a takeover. One of the supervisors stormed in yesterday annoyed that the client for whom the manuals are being revised didn’t like a particular sentence in the latest section they’d sent her. I looked at the long, awkward sentence and calmly suggested we use the active voice, shifting the verb from the last slot to the third. I read her a proposed revision, and she immediately called the client representative to read it to her, gushing over the splendid suggestion of her new temp. I was flattered, but if everyone is going to lose their shit every time I shift a subject out of a by-phrase, there will be a department-wide nervous breakdown by the end of next week. If there’s anyone I thought I could depend on to be unimpressed by the standard tricks of revision, it’s a bunch of people hired to do some editing.


It’s cloudy here, as usual, with heavy, gloomy air and the rotten smell that fills the city every summer. I miss my friends far away. I miss the desert. And I already miss the midmorning tea I’ve become accustomed to drinking on my couch with the cat this past month. But it's good to feel again like I have a mission.

And my final bike part has just arrived from England! I'm almost there.

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