As an editor who once misspelled the surname of the former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan (1985–1987) by adding in an extra “a” (he served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, dang it), I’m writing this blog entry from experience. Yes, it happened a long time ago, but it still makes me wince.
Fact-checking and copyediting go hand in hand, so I spend a lot of time each day verifying the accuracy of names, dates, historical facts, and assorted trivia. This should be a routine practice for writers, too. Even if you’re 99 percent sure of the spelling of someone’s name, it’s worth the extra minute or two it will take to bring your degree of certainty up to 100 percent.
I visit a lot of websites on an average workday, and many of my favorites (not surprisingly) are popular in publishing circles. In a recent article on a very reliable site for writers and editors, I noticed that the actor Nicolas Cage’s name was spelled incorrectly. Cage doesn’t spell his given name as one might expect: It’s Nicolas, without the “h.” Why would I know this? Believe it or not, my first published piece was a profile of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose film Raising Arizona featured Cage in the male lead. I remember reading that Cage’s name was misspelled as “Nicholas” on the back of a chair on the set of that film. It bugged Cage so much that one of the Coens put a bandaid over the “h” to smooth hurt feelings.
Weird trivia like that sticks with you.
Another commonly misspelled name is the middle name of the great American poet Edgar Allan Poe. (“Allen” and “Alan” are among the most common variations.) Just because “Allan” looks wrong doesn’t mean it is.
In addition to misspellings, names are vulnerable to variations in spacing and capitalization. Perhaps the best example of this is the surname of the renowned African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. Quite a few spacing and capping possibilities exist in this case: There’s “Du Bois” (with a space between the two parts of the surname), “DuBois” (no space), “duBois” (the lowercase/uppercase combo without the space), and “Dubois” (initial cap only with no space). You’re getting the idea, right?
If you search the Library of Congress Online Catalog by the title of one of Du Bois’s books—say, The Souls of Black Folk—you’ll find his name spelled this way: Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). But if you go to Amazon.com and check out the cover art for the array of paperback and hardcover versions of the same title, you’ll see that the citation of the author’s name varies according to publishing house and edition.
And now that we’ve broached the topic of name variations, let’s look at a transliterated name that’s been spelled about six dozen different ways in English (and I’m not exaggerating): It’s the name of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.
In the 1999 pilot of my all-time favorite television show The West Wing, White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (played by the inimitable John Spencer) has a near conniption while trying to solve a crossword puzzle that uses “the wrong” spelling of Gaddafi’s name. In 2011, when Gaddafi was ousted from power and later killed, news commentators expressed ongoing frustration with the multiple spellings of his name. Does it start with a “Q,” a “K,” or a “G”? In a quick online search, I found stories on the Libyan leader that cited his name six different ways, listed alphabetically here for lack of any other system: “Gaddafi,” “Gadhafi,” “Ghaddafi,” “Kadafi,” “Khaddafi,” and “Qaddafi.”
Consistency is key. If you’re dealing with a transliterated name, pick a spelling that’s accepted by a leading newspaper or magazine and go with it. It should be spelled the same way every time it appears in your work.
Fiction writers should take note of this consistency message as well. A character named “Marguerite,” for instance, should not morph into “Margarite,” “Margarita,” or “Margaret” by book’s end. Think of it as the literary equivalent of a cinematic gaffe in which an actor’s scarf is open before a cutaway but winds up in a slip knot in the time it takes to cut back to the original shot. Someone’s going to notice.
Granted, we can’t get everything right, but a little bit of double-checking goes a long way in publishing.
Writers have something to say; editors like me make sure the words on the page (or, in this case, on the cereal box) convey the writer’s intended meaning.
I’ve been reading the backs of cereal boxes since I was a kid. One morning not too long ago, my breakfast ritual was turned upside down by, of all things, a convoluted blurb on the back of my cereal box. Here’s how it reads:
Essentially Balanced! Today’s busy lifestyle is full of complicated elements. It takes expert skill to balance all of it successfully—work, home, play and everything that goes with and between them.
A balanced diet including Essential M® is one less thing you have to worry about—leaving you more room to focus on all of the other things important to being . . . you.
Okay, let’s start by “uncomplicating” things. Blurbs on cereal boxes should be short, simple, and snappy. This one is none of the above. Why does this bother me? The main reason is that it violates the most basic rule of writing, which is to write for your target audience.
The target reader for cereal box copy is likely in a fog. Trying to read anything before 6:00 am is a challenge in itself, but must we deal with “complicated elements,” “with and between,” two em-dashes and an ellipsis? All in a few sentences? And the sun isn’t even up yet? No, the reader was not the top priority here.
One of my first college writing courses was taught by the inimitable Dr. Ray Adler, aka the “King of Concision.” He began his class with three simple words (and, yes, I realize I’m dating myself): “Bayer Works Wonders.” Vintage ad copy? Maybe, but there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here. Those three short words speak volumes to someone who’s in pain. Whether you’re a writer of fiction or nonfiction, of long works or short, of self-published e-books or peer-reviewed articles, your number one priority should be your reader.
Whenever I get bogged down in wordy copy, I think of Dr. Adler and his mantra. I’ll bet my Swarovski crystalline copper ballpoint pen he’d approve of a clean and simple alternative to the first three sentences of that cereal box copy—something like “Life’s a Balancing Act.” It’s short, it’s snappy, and it provides a nice segue into a line about how “essential” a balanced diet is to a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the moral of this story? Always put your reader first. Oh, and don’t expect tired people to read anything twice.