Thursday, July 16, 2009

Free style

It can be risky fishing for business in the uncharted waters of the internet. What may seem like a goldfish nibbling the bait dangling from your website may be a shark who'll savage your tasty offer and swim off without remorse.

In other words, whenever someone you don’t know approaches you through your website, asking for a free sample before committing to paying for your professional language services, be very cautious indeed.

Silly me, I let myself get bitten this week. The "shark" was a researcher in material sciences based somewhere in the Far East. As a rule I don’t do samples because I think the client recommendations on my business website let people know what they can expect from my copywriting or editing services. But the sun was shining, I’d just landed a huge book to edit over the summer and was in a generous mood so, why not?

I told Dr So Me-One (as I think of this "someone") that I’d be glad to do a sample one-page edit from the paper he intended submitting for publication in the Journal of Materials Processing Technology (JMPT).

The quality of Dr So Me-One’s English was generally fine. After checking that the paper complied with the JMPT submission guidelines, I whizzed through editing the sample. Then I sent off the corrected page with a comment pointing to the one and only confusing sentence I hadn’t managed to decipher. I offered an interpretation, and politely asked Dr So Me-One to let me know if I’d gotten his meaning right.

Well, dear Reader, it took another three sets of e-mails before that one sentence was clarified. And then, at the end of this lengthy exchange, Dr So Me-One dove back into the nether depths, never to surface near me again and leaving me ruefully aware that this shark had bitten off far more of my time than I’d ever intended to serve, certainly for free.

Live and learn, and on the upside, it was a useful little lesson. It reminded me (a) to be wary of strangers wanting something for nothing and (b) even better, it led me to the serendipitous discovery of one of the best style guides to academic writing I’ve ever come across. Writing a good paper for JMPT is clearly written for material scientists submitting to JMPT, but I think authors in any academic field would benefit from its free advice. Take a look at this sample:

"What readers like is clarity about the purpose of the work, clarity about how it fits into previous work, clarity about what was done and clear evaluation of the outcomes without any hint of ‘salesmanship’. Inexperienced writers often make statements of the type ‘the model and experiments showed perfect agreement’ where actually the statement ‘the model matched the experiments well within normal operating conditions, but was never less than 20% inaccurate outside of this range’ is both more honest and more useful."

Go read the rest of the article now. Or at least bookmark the link and check it out later. I’m trying to find out who wrote this epitome of lucidity so I can give the author proper credit. Watch this space!

Before I go, here’s another link for lovers of style, free or otherwise. Arts & Letters Daily is an old favourite of mine, updated six days a week and edited by Denis Dutton. Besides lecturing in philosophy at the University of Canterbury (NZ) and writing critically respected and popular books, Prof. Dutton is editor of Philosophy and Literature and, incidentally, was the driving force behind that scholarly journal’s notoriously funny Bad Writing Contest.

Let me leave you now with something at once free and stylish yet completely different: Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands riding the sublime Salinero in the freestyle dressage final of the World Equestrian Games. Enjoy, and see you next week!


  1. So glad and proud to see you took the hit on your chin; we do that sort of thing, don't we? Anything to do with the dressage we had to undergo when we were learning how to live right? We call it "positive thinking." Brava!

  2. Funny; and the solid reference tips much appreciated. (How on earth do you have time to do this with your huge book gig?) Saludos.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the post! As to how I find time to both write the blog and edit the book, the answer's simple: I'm a firm adherent of Nosnikrap’s Law: “Work contracts so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

  4. I really love your photos, and your creative acronym.

  5. lucid and clear guidelines...was astounded to see on whose website you found these! Might be able to do some detective work here if you haven't got someone else working on the case...

  6. @derek: any additional help in expediting this in-house exploration muchos gratefully received! Current 'tecs all seem to be out of town, or still out to lunch, or out of their heads, whichever comes first and lasts longest... :-)