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BOOK REVIEW: How Words Get Good: The Story of Making a Book

By Hector MacKenzie

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By Rebecca Lee

Profile Books £14.99 (hardback)

How Words Get Good.
How Words Get Good.

FROM blank paper and the spark of an idea to the finished product sitting on the bookshelf, Penguin Press editorial manager Rebecca Lee shares fascinating literary insights accrued over a lifetime into this wonderful labour of love.

The book has been written in three parts – How words get born; How words get better and How words get free – offering the reader an eye-opening insight into the world of authors and the role of agents, copy-editors, footnotes, text design, covers and blurbs.

Indeed she herself may have set some sort of record for footnotes which, in this case, are a fabulous and lovingly thought out addition to the main text.

It is a love letter to the army of people involved in making words good and then better – be they editor, agent, indexer, typographer, printer or designer.

The collaboration that goes into a good book is laid bare with the role of everyone from indexer to editor celebrated. For the copy-editor, she reveals, "no experience, ecam, training, pub quiz, round of trivial pursuit, obsession, drunken (or sober conversation) goes to waste". The "years of accumulated shards of knowledge piling up untidily on top of the other will find a use".

Rebecca Lee: When it comes to how books come together, she knows her stuff.
Rebecca Lee: When it comes to how books come together, she knows her stuff.

From the perspective of the copy-editor, she sums it up perfectly: "I don't think there is a word in the English language for the bubble of satisfaction you get when you're editing a book and are able to correct the spelling of the name of the cyclist who was the fourth British wearer of the yellow jersey in the Tour de France from 'David Miller' (INCORRECT) to 'David Millar' (CORRECT), but there should be one."

"A well-constructed line of words hums along; grammar and punctuation provide the rhythm", she explains at one point, revealing the nuts-and-bolts importance of language use. She invites us to consider the role of the ellipsis, quoting Katy Waldman who describes the three dots that "extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence". It "encourages us to fill the silence with our own thoughts..."

Italic words, on the other hand, "always look like they are rushing to catch the last train home" while the exclamation mark can be seen as "the selfie of grammar" (Philip Cowell and Caz Hildebrand) "which might explain its twenty-first century over-popularity".

Quote marks are also examined, Vladamir Putin's minimalist style noted though analysis of the complete absence of them in the 218-word dissertation he submitted to secure his advanced degree from St Petersburg Mining Institute. (It didn't feature any footnotes either though it did apparently contain 16 plagiarised pages).

The joy of Lee's book are the little nuggets of information generously scattered throughout on matters such as why typewriters don't have curly quote marks (to save a key) to terrible typo blunders.

When it comes to the starting point for the collaborative effort that follows, she quotes Ernest Hemingway: There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

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