I realized the other day in talking to some friends that I use a few more pieces of software than other writers. I use, or instance, FreeMind (a great opensource Java mindmaping tool). I’m kind of curious, what do you use?
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I posted some thoughts on the uniqueness of author names given Google and the importance of having a name that can be found on the internet if you think potential readers may enter your name into Google to find your books.
Writers have often deliberated over their names. They might take up pen names to protect their identity or names to conceal their gender. Lewis Carroll is really Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. George Eliot is really Mary Ann Evans. It is less common I think these days to do this. I imagine that sometime soon writers will consider the unique string (the sequence of characters) to create a unique online handle. A Google alert for the writer Fred Smith would be useless among the hundreds of Smith’s busy posting blog entries and photos to Flickr. A writer named, Dog11&Tree, would at least have the knowledge that she is the only one with that name on the Web.
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This is an exercise that poet David Romtvedt gave to my class at the Centrum high school writing workshop in 1989. The result of that exercise became my first published story, “Does I Owning?” in a zine in 1992. The story appears in my collection Misplaced Alice. I’ve used this exercise from time to time over the years. I used it this last friday at the Puget Sound Community School. I’ll include the my result from the exercise below, and then the exercise I’ll call “Alien Translation Exercise.”
I am a very poor speller, but I write a lot. I often think of myself not so much as a writer, but as a manufacturer of typos. I have found word processors to be a blessing and curse on this front. I can’t imagine writing a book-length work without one. And yet, even though word processors have built-in spellcheckers they often silently correct mistyped words. Many of these corrections, although correctly spelled words, are not the correct word in context. That is, they are homophone errors, words that are spelled correctly but do not mean what I intended them to mean. To make matters worse, if you are like me, these words often resemble the correct word and in some cases I can’t even really tell them apart without carefully scrutinizing them. In trying to help me, word processors have actually compounded the problem by incorrectly ordering my jumbled typing into errors that are invisible to me. Can’t live with/without them….
I’ve become aware that among writers and editors there are two types of people. Those who can naturally spell and those who cannot spell. The natural spellers can see these errors. Each error is like jabbing them in the eye with an unfolded paper clip. They will say things, “How can you be so careless to write something full of words that jab me in the eye with a tiny, sharp object? Don’t you feel the pain?” Actually no. I don’t. They don’t bother me. It’s not that I ignore them; I can’t see them. But, I do not want people reading my books to suddenly feel like I’ve jabbed them in the eye with an unfolded paper clip.
The solutions to this is an easy yet elusive one. I can pay a copy editor who has this ability to get wounded by homophone errors to identify them. It is elusive, not to mention expensive, because I have no idea if they have caught the errors. I can’t tell. It is expensive for me because a good copy editor earns about 21 US Dollars an hour and can at most check about 1,500 words in that time. (Of course a good editor comes with all kinds of other abilities than purely catching homophone errors, but for me that is the biggest deal, but fact checking, name checking, and just plain re-parsing weird phrasings is totally great but expensive when you consider that I typically earn zero dollars on a published short story.)
Homophone checking would seem to be something that computers would be good at it. It is based on a defined word list. Natural language processing should be able to determine if the word has been used correctly or not. And yet, most grammar checkers and spell checkers, even those that promise homophone checking such as Grammatik (now part of Word Perfect) do a lousy job of checking them except for the most common ones such as “Their/there/they’re” and “its/it’s.”
In fact the standard spellchecker or autocorrecter tends to conceal homophones.
At the risk of seeming completely simplistic, I’m posting a schematic for making a plot. I find this about as useful as knowing that a sentence has a subject / verb / complement. It’s helpful, but plenty of writers do not know a subject from a complement. But knowing can help write sentences as far as that kind of thing goes. I have a couple of these proscriptive things that I’m going to post over the next couple of weeks.
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