Monthly Archives: February 2016

Spaghetti Sauce

Malcolm Gladwell has a presentation on TED about spaghetti sauce. (https://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce#t-58130)

In this video, he talks about the work of Howard Moskowitz, a statistician. Years ago, a sauce maker hired him to research the question: “What is the best spaghetti sauce?” He found the data that emerged wasn’t ‘useful’ in the traditional sense. A single sauce didn’t win out as ‘the best.’ Instead, people’s preferences varied. For some time the results troubled him. He kept trying to come up with a way of identifying ‘the best.’
One night while he was having dinner in a restaurant, the answer hit him. There is no ‘best’ spaghetti sauce. There were clumps of people who had different tastes in their sauce choice. That’s why the data didn’t coalesce into a single peak.

He went back to the company executives and urged them to give up the quest for a ‘best sauce.’

Instead, he counseled them to several choices under their brand name. That is why, when you go to the super market, you find several types of sauce for each brand name. They’re no longer trying to produce the single best. Now they market to different tastes.

Other marketers caught on to Moskowitz’ marketing plan. After that many product offerings popped up on every aisle in all stores. For many, the good ole days when there were two choices for bread or milk are longed for. But, they will never return.

You could say the same thing about music. Music is divided into many categories. People listen to the music they like and ignore the types they don’t like. There’s no accounting for taste, as the Romans were wont to say. It isn’t long ago that you could go from one region of the country to another and hear a different style of music. That still exists, but in pockets. I’m sometimes surprised to hear a song I’ve never heard before that has been around for decades. Often, it’s in a genre I don’t listen to much.

Likewise, fiction comes in various packages and appeals to different tastes. There is no better genre when it comes to music, food, or fiction. That’s why the best science fiction novel might be laid aside by a true detective reader. They may think it as boring.

Now, e-publishing is biting into what’s published. Small groups of men, often in New York, determined the public’s tastes. With the emergence of e-publishing, the experts are often wrong about reader’s choices. They need to be introduced to Moskowitz.

Using Correctional Software

I discovered when spell checkers became ubiquitous I liked computer corrections software.
Let me tell you my story about my spelling errors. I’m from the South. I use diphthongs when I speak (elongated vowels). I also use what is called the ‘schwa.’ That’s a vowel sound that’s lightly pronounced and unaccented in words of more than one syllable. (In dictionaries it is signified by an upside-down e. It us pronounced ‘uh’ no matter which vowel is represented.) These two features of my regional accent make spelling some words difficult for me. I can’t sound them out. I neither pronounce or hear the sounds correctly. When I try sounding them out, I put in the vowel I think is there. The schwa makes getting it right a one in seven shot.
For example. When I hear myself say the word, ‘together,’ I hear the words to-gather—the first e is so soft it sounds like an a to me. (When people speak with some other accents, I can hear the ‘gether’ said said. When I spell it like I hear it, I get it wrong. So, I had to memorize the words that I get wrong because of my accent.
Often when humans correct, they have a holier-than-thou attitude. The computer has no attitude, just a sign that it thinks the word is misspelled.
Later, grammar checkers appeared. The built-in grammar checker in Word, Grammarly, and Ginger are examples of those. At times I will use more than one grammar checker.
Recently, a piece of software appeared called Hemingway came to my attention. Hemingway is different. It checks for readability, sentences that are hard to read, sentences that are very hard to read, phrases that have simpler forms, adverbs and passive voice. You can import files from word, or write on the fly while it edits.
I would never slavishly follow any software’s ‘corrections.’ Sometimes they are wrong. For example, if you go to the second paragraph in this blog, the third sentence from the end, you will find the word sound. I used it correctly. Ginger suggests changing the word to ‘send,’ as in, ‘send them out.’ That makes some sense, but it would change the meaning of my sentence to something I didn’t intend. That’s why you have to check what the software recommends. Even if you accept the change, you have to reread your sentence to make sure everything agrees with the new sentence construction.
The element I like the best about Hemingway are the two that suggest your sentences are too difficult. When I first used a readability scale, I was in graduate school. The first paper I used to check my readability turned out to be on the 26th grade level. Graduating college is on the 14th level, add a master’s and you have a 15th, add a Ph.D. and you have a 19th… You get the picture. Let’s say it took someone with two Ph.D.s to read my paper. (Not two people, one person with two Ph.D.s.)
That’s not good. Writing is supposed to communicate with the reader. No one could read my writing and make sense of it—at times, not even me. It’s the writer’s job to make their prose readable, not the readers. So, if I wanted to keep my audience, I had to learn to write on a readable level.
One of my professors suggested I work on my papers until they were at an 8th grade level. That’s about the level of a good newspaper. I was able to do that. Now, most of my works of fiction are on a 4th or 5th grade level. It takes work for me to get there.
Using interactive editing software has another advantage. When you are required to go back through your text, even several times, you find those things that we skip over. Many people, myself included, often read their own text for what they think is saying. We anticipate where a sentence is going and read what we think is there. For example, there is a popular ‘test’ on social media that goes like this. See if you can find the error in the following sentence:
“Approximately 85% cannot find the the error in this sentence.”
Many don’t see the double the on their own. The computer is not fooled by anticipating what’s going to be said, it’s literal. It knows having a double the is unlikely, so it’s highlighted.
Editing software will never replace creativity (I hope), or uniqueness of expression. Used with care, it can help you to avoid mistakes that detract from your creative work’s readability.