30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 17: Quick tips for preparing your written materials: A guide for performing classical musicians.

Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.

They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.

In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).

1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections  that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.

2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.

3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t.  Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version).  Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.

4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.

CMOS_16thed
“Chicago,” not the musical, the authoritative style guide.

5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc.  Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)

6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.

6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).

7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.

7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.

Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.

Reasonable Words: The Linotype

Just finished Keith Houston’s informative and droll Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a book teeming with a lot of news about such creatures as the pilcrow, interrobang, octothorpe, and the surprisingly complicated history of the hyphen.

This last is of course related to the rules for word division, which once upon a time, long before computer word processing programs relieved us from this task, writers (even mere typers, like myself) were supposed to master. I took typing in high school and I doubt ever correctly applied the 10 rules for word hyphenation–not sure I even learned them.

While illuminating the hyphen, Houston takes us on a side trip to the Linotype and Monotype machines, nearly mythic to me–as both my parents started in journalism in the era of hot type. These wildly complicated contraptions automated the setting of type, but they still left hyphenation up to the operators. This was least of their worries, as Houston relates:

A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.
A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

“For all the speed gained over hand composition, there were dangers inherent in the machines that required their users to work beside bubbling crucibles of molten lead. The joy of mechanically setting line after line o’ type came with the added frisson that a “squirt” might occur at any time: any detritus caught between two adjacent Linotype matrices would allow molten type metal to jet through the gap. And aside from the immediate dangers of seared flesh, operators of both Linotype and Monotypes ran the more insidious risk of poisoning from the (highly flammable) benzene used to clean matrices, the natural gas that some machines burned to melt the type metal, and the fumes emitted by the molten type metal itself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makes my regular carping about the annoyances of WordPress seem a little silly! Updating versions has not, as yet, required me to dodge squirts of molten lead, but God knows what they are thinking up for the next release.

BTW, Houston has a blog on the same topic–also charming, but somehow this topic seems to really twinkle in book form.

Surprising Words: Fact Checking in Books

When I was a news researcher, it was surprising to me that you were allowed to cite a fact previously reported in our own pages to resolve a query. But at least the effort to get things right was serious; if this Atlantic piece is correct, book publishers don’t bother now, and never really did.

One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece...fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most  editorial "gatekeepers," the few that are left, don't attempt all three.
One of the most notorious and colorful publishing frauds. One quibble with the Atlantic piece…fact-checking and fraud detection are distinct tasks. As is rooting out bias. Most editorial “gatekeepers,” the few that are left, don’t attempt all three.

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/why-books-still-arent-fact-checked/378789/

“When I was working on my book, I did an anecdotal survey asking people: Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?” explained Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, a book on media accuracy, and founder of a blog by the same name. Almost inevitably, the people Silverman spoke with guessed books.

“A lot of readers have the perception that when something arrives as a book, it’s gone through a more rigorous fact-checking process than a magazine or a newspaper or a website, and that’s simply not that case,” Silverman said. He attributes this in part to the physical nature of a book: Its ink and weight imbue it with a sense of significance unlike that of other mediums.Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong

tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. “Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,” he said. “Arguably, they slow it.”

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.

Commonplace Book: Meg Greenfield

Finally getting to Washington, the hybrid memoir and take down of Washington, DC, which Meg Greenfield, the late editor of the op-ed page of the Post, wrote in secret as she was battling cancer. Having read This Town a few months back, it’s clear that Greenfield was diagnosing many of the same ills as Leibovich is, with fewer wisecracks but a sharper scalpel.

Like him, she doesn’t excuse herself from playing a role in perpetuating aspects of a system she finds baleful in many ways. But she’s has an interesting view of the “two-track” language of Washington (which she acknowledges she learned to decode, even if not to speak, early in her career.)

Here’s a representative excerpt; Greenfield on politics and lying:

Reflecting on what had taken me by surprise at the outset, and on so much like it that I observed in Washington and politics generally over the years, I was eventually to conclude that there is a two-part truth that just about every one of us knows and has always known but that practically none of us will admit for fear of being seen as an accomplice. It is, first, that the basic linguistic unit of speech in politics–all politics, not just the Washington kind–is a statement that is already somewhere between one-eighth and one-fourth of the way to being a lie. (I will leave it to others to decide whether this is any different from the basic speech of either commerce or love and, if so, in what degree and with what moral difference.)

The other part of the proposition is that such deception appears to be built into the process, a function of what we demand and expect and what they feel is required to stay alive and get anything whatever to happen. Politics, in other words–and not just politics practiced by people you don’t like, but politics across the board–pretty much rests on a foundation of fractional lies, justified by some commonly shared if rarely acknowledged presumptions of necessity. The phenomena, after all, has long been copiously in evidence from the White House briefing room to the debate among candidates for city council and every other office to the solemn pronouncements of State Department spokesmen to the ocean of near parody gibbledy-gabble that engulfs the pages of the Congressional Record.

Our preferred way of dealing with this discomfiting truth seems to be to add one more smallish-to medium lie of our own. We grouse or look the other way or pretend to be shocked, even though at some level we have known all along that what is being asserted as truth really didn’t happen that way and never was going to.

We know that are our elected representatives were not acting out of the unalloyed high purpose they solemnly claimed. And we knew that likely as not when they promised tireless, strong, conclusive action on something we cared about deeply, the odds were that more than a few of them were already shopping around for a respectable looking cop-out in which to take shelter and pretend they had done their utmost but that the bad guys had stopped them or, even more contemptuous of our intelligence, that the cop-out was the great deal they had promised.

Yet whenever one of these implausible fictions that we never took seriously to begin with hits the news for some reason and is exposed for what it is, we manage to project heart-wrenching disillusion all over again. More reckless, in my opinion, we leap to endorse and thus encourage what must be the most tiresome strain of commentary running through the nation’s op-ed pages–and that is saying something–namely, that if the politicians don’t cut it out, we the people will become cynical. Yes, we say, you are making us cynical, awful you–ignoring the fact that America and Americans were born cynical, or at least profoundly skeptical, about politicians, which is perhaps why we have survived as long as we have.

 

Ground zero of 'gibbledy-gabble,'  aka the Government Printing Office.
Ground zero of ‘gibbledy-gabble,’ aka the Government Printing Office.

It’s still worth a read, for, among other things, a reminder that the political culture we so avidly deplore in Washington now is hardly new. The book also casts a sometimes hard to read shadow narrative about Greenfield’s personal life, including the price paid for breaking through barriers–although she’d probably cringe at that term–in the all boys world of newspapering in mid-century.