Saturday, January 12, 2008

Audience Alienation

I mentioned that the Open Lab 2007 proofs were out. I stopped reading when I started making my measurements for the latest project, but I really am very impressed with the contributions. There is a mailing list that includes judges and contributors and has dealt with some details of submission and revision. Dr. Rohn wrote to the group and I tried to let it go (I really did!), but I can’t. My feelings were hurt and I continue to get defensive when I think about it so I’m going to what I do and write about it on my blog.

Her message read as follows:

“For those of you who have dialogue in your essays, some of you are getting the punctuation wrong. The rest of you can disregard this email, and sorry for the clutter.

The rule is a comma replaces a period in a complete sentence, and the first letter of the 'beat' (he said/she said) is NOT capitalized. This holds true in both US and UK dialogue writing.

"Here is a complete sentence," said Jane.
or, "Here is a complete sentence," she said.
"Is this a question?" she asked.
"I called," she said, "but you didn't answer."

Not: "Here is a complete sentence." Said X.
"Is the a question?" She asked.
"I called," She said. "But you didn't answer."

I know there are UK/US differences in whether punctuation goes in or out of quotes for direct quotes (as in scholarly text or press articles), but for dialogue beats in passages of speech, the punctuation always goes inside the quotes on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Here is a complete sentence," he said.

Not: "Here is a complete sentence", he said.

Open up any novel and you can see how to do it. I know it's a minor thing but it will make a huge difference in how it reads.

In a quick flip-through, I noticed in particular that the first problem noted above was happening most every time in the MinorRevisions blog entry.”

First, she’s absolutely correct. I do dialogue wrong and am consistently incorrect about it. There is also a difference between something that appears in a blog online and what will be presented in print. But here’s what I took from her remarks.

1. I don’t read well and though it isn’t even due to the fact that I’m an American. (Hence the capitalized NOT that might help my tiny brain understand that sentence is somehow important.)
2. I’m very slow and need important points repeated at least twice, and ideally ad nauseum. There are five (5) examples of how to correctly punctuate conversation. There are two (2) points of how it doesn’t matter what version of English one is using.
3. I was actually OK until the end though. She does have a point. She edits and does so quite well. But was “Open up any novel and you can see how to do it” necessary? Really? And a “huge difference” in how it reads? I disagree. Friend pointed out the problem when she read my entry before I submitted it. But I was tired and wanted to get this done before I moved on to something else and so I decided to leave it. I didn’t think it’s that big a deal.

Her point, I think, was that the problem should be corrected. Upon further reflection, I agree though we clearly vary in our opinions of the severity of the problem. But I even acknowledge that I should have made the corrections before handing in my final version. Yet after reading her email, I was initially hurt. I quickly grew defensive and irritated. I read books! A lot of books! I’m educated and bright and resent the condescending tone of this correction.

I decided that it was my problem. I’m overly sensitive and feeling vulnerable with papers out for review and the job search. I just took her email really badly. But I’m not so sure that’s the entire problem when speaking in a general sense.

When Dawn was part of our group, she presented once at a group meeting. We walk a line between formal and friendly when we gather. A trainee will bring slides and turn down the lights and present the material as clearly as she is able, always realizing she'll be interrupted with questions. Dawn had been part of the group for a couple of months, seeing 4 or 5 presentations made before it was her turn.

“I’m going to go over some basic biology,” she said to start, “since most of you don’t know much about that.”

I raised my eyebrows at the end of her sentence and grinned when I saw glances exchanged around the table by various faculty members. About 40% of the upper-level attendees are MDs. Those who aren’t deal with clinical projects nearly exclusively. Even I took two years of biology in undergrad. But we all sat to listen while she started from the very beginning and explained things very slowly. By the end of her hour, she’d barely touched on the premise of her project and had come nowhere close to showing us any of her initial results.

“I know that was a lot of review, but I felt it was important for you to know,” she said, pleased with herself, at the end. (It's killing me to do those quotes correctly - I shall likely soon revert to my comfortable but wrong method.)

I watched a particularly impatient faculty member shake his head and we dispersed without having asked many questions at all. I decided that there can be a vast difference between my style - which was developed in research meetings and though giving seminars - and Dawn’s, having been refined while teaching undergraduates. To give a more balanced example, Friend has taught and done many research presentations. I’d venture a guess that her preparation varied depending on her audience.

I changed my major from EE as a college freshman because of a C++ class I took. The professor decided that since so many of us had previous programming experience that we should start well into the text and hit the ground running. In his attempt to prevent boredom from some of the students, he absolutely lost me. The idea of programming - already a little intimidating - seemed impossible when I had no idea how one started to write code or how to debug. I felt hopelessly lost from the beginning and though I ended up with a B, I decided engineering couldn’t be for me - I’d suffered too much trying to keep up with my peers. Our teacher assumed experience and knowledge that I didn’t have and I abandoned any interest (until grad school - I now program relatively well) I initially felt.

Dawn, conversely, set up a situation where she felt more knowledgeable and therefore had to correct the group’s ignorance. In doing so, she wasted time - not necessarily for the faculty members of other post-docs, but for herself. The beauty of presenting in that atmosphere is that you get ideas and corrections and guidance. Most of us give a bit of background then hit the results and potential interpretations hard. When allocating time thusly, I walk out with ideas and explanations and possible confounds. I get invitations to collaborate when someone has an idea for what to do with data. People email me pdfs of relevant literature. It works out very well for me. So most of us follow that sort of model.

Upon further consideration, I believe I'm moving forward with this faculty position application process because the chair of the department liked me. I can remember two specific people being underwhelmed by my performance and answers to their questions. But Chair beamed at me after my seminar and said they would definitely be in touch. I am excited about the results from my project, not arrogant. I’ll tell you what I know in a way that has been carefully prepared and rehearsed, is visually appealing and easy to follow. I’m happy to pause for interruptions and answer whatever questions I can. I also have a pen ready to make notes if someone makes a point I hadn’t considered and can’t address immediately.

Now I think presentation styles vary as much as how people approach research questions. And that’s good. No one style is consistently ideal just as no one person is right for every job out there. It’s a matter of either finding people who like the way you talk to them or altering your approach with a good understanding of your audience. The starting point and pace should be dictated by what they already know. Repetition should be used carefully - I want my audience to get my point, not feel battered by it. Most importantly, I want anyone - from the 5th graders I used to tutor to the man who’ll decide whether I get a job - to know that I respect what they bring to the table. I want to understand their points as much as I crave their interest in mine. I want an atmosphere where we feel comfortable with each other and that encourages future contact.

So what would I have said in response to my editing error? I start with a compliment if one can be found, then I address the error as concisely as possible.

“The Minor Revisions entry, while obviously delightful, has a few errors with the use of punctuation in dialogue. For example, about halfway down on page 39, the sentence should read as follows: “Start writing,” he said. Corrections of that type can be made throughout. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

So, in conclusion, I know I'm not the easiest person to read. I also admit that this dialogue punctuation thing wouldn't even make the top 10 reasons of why I annoy many people. It's why I'm filled with love and appreciation for long-time readers. They cope with a lot from me, bless them. So thank you for being my audience. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.


TitleTroubles said...

I wrote a comment. It didn't really fit in the comment box anymore. I moved it here:

Propter Doc said...

I would have found that email bloody offensive and probably written back to tell her to shove it up her "butt". Now should the period be in or out of the punctuation? I think she's got a damn cheek singling out your entry in such a public manner. Because you are clearly a child who needs admonished. Bah! I'm cross now for you. I would have taken the email in the same way, with hurt and defensiveness

I think you are just fine to read and I look forward to your posts. I couldn't care less where you shove your punctuation when you write dialogue.
I also struggle with group meetings and knowing how much background to give out. I think in the last meeting I was pretty insulting with the basic chemistry, but that was my intention. Sometimes it is a good weapon to be condescending with basic science.

Pink Shoes said...

Love your example of a much more appropriate edit suggestion.
And this whole post led me along and kept me reading to the end -- fabulous.

doc-in-training said...

I agree with propter doc. I say, "screw her!" That was very rude of her.

saxifraga said...

Let me just say that I think you are a wonderful and eloquent writer and I love your posts. I also think it's rude for an editor to point directly to a specific author in an email that is going out to a mailing list. I read lots of novels too and have never thought for one second about punctuation in dialogue.

Anonymous said...

agreeing with everyone, and think singling out in front of the group is just mean.

Amelie said...

What would it have cost her to leave out that last sentence? Oh dear, I'm sorry, Katie, I would have been annoyed for sure. But hey, at least I learned something today, because I had no idea of punctuation of dialogues...

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