I might not always agree with Bill Walsh, but I respect his work. And I agree with his modus operandi that copyeditors need to do more than mechanically search and replace; we need to think. I assign his Lapsing into a Comma book to my Copyediting II students for that reason.
That said, I was disappointed with his new book, Yes, I Could Care Less, due out on June 16.
My biggest complaint is that while Walsh advises readers to “know the issues, the things that may or may not be rules, and decide your position on them” (his italics), many times he doesn’t do a good job of explaining his position on the issues, leaving the reader to either follow blindly or remain unenlightened.
In chapter 17, readers are advised to use anniversary rather than birthday for recognizing a deceased person’s date of birth. “It’s the appropriate word” is the only explanation we get. Yet you’ll have a tough time finding a dictionary that doesn’t include some form of “the anniversary of one’s birth” as a definition for birthday. Why, then, would you choose the stilted “the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth” over “Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday”?
Near the anniversary entry is one for based out of. It’s an entertaining piece of writing. But by the end of it, I had no idea what I was supposed to do if I found based out of in copy. Sure, it’s the hip phrase, but should I change it? Is it acceptable in business writing? News stories? What is the advice here?
In chapter 8, readers are told, “If you can substitute representative and the sentence makes sense and is not redundant, use attorney; otherwise, use lawyer.” The reason given is that an attorney is a representative, so to say an attorney represented a client is redundant. Yet this is a distinction that, according to Bryan A. Garner, is not usually made even in the legal profession.
We’re not making this distinction in the publishing world, either. Searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and Google Books show roughly equal occurrences of attorney and lawyer paired with represented.
What is gained by making such a rule and sticking with it? Walsh calls them “tiny acts of elegance,” but I just don’t see the point of making a rule that creates a false distinction.
There are places, though, where the advised edits are elegant: they clarify meaning and improve the sentence’s rhythm. In chapter 9, readers are given several example sentences (“The Raw Copy”), bad fixes that follow a stylebook too closely (“The El Marko Fix”), and a better fix (“The Fine-Point Version”). The problem is explained, and we can see which fix works better. Even if you don’t agree with the advice, you can see the reasoning behind it.
Walsh clearly has an approach for how to write and edit, albeit with some invented or unnecessary rules. Readers are advised at the beginning of the book to take what they like and leave the rest. Many times, though, that advice includes belittling people who don’t agree with it, calling them “spoilsports” and “apologists.” This can make taking any advice at all difficult.
Too, Walsh advises readers, “Think, people, think!” I heartily agree, but when the advice is opaque, my only thought is to look elsewhere.
Yes, I Could Care Less is aimed at journalists and other users of the AP Stylebook. Unlike Walsh’s previous books, if you’re neither of those things, you can skip this book. And if those criteria do apply to you, you might still want to skip this book, for the reasons stated above.