Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 25, 2021
A writer's toolbox
A magazine article about Roget, the one of thesaurus fame, caught my eye. The May 2021 Smithsonian piece made me
think of my recently asking husband Art, "What’s another word for 'memory'?"
Writing is a creative endeavor, yet a huge amount of it is just mechanics. If we writers ignore the rules of grammar, we seem uneducated and the text will not "flow" for the reader. But we also have to keep an eye on other things as well. I could sprinkle "and"s or "the"s willy-nilly, and those repetitions would probably go unnoticed. Yet if I were to place three sentences with the word "memory" one after another, the reader would probably yell, "Enough, already!"
Back in my newspaper days, a hard copy of Roget's International Thesaurus was always within reach to help with such a problem. Other books of synonyms had been published long before his, but over time, Roget's became the standard. But except for the book, I knew nothing about Peter Mark Roget until I read the article.
Born in 1779, Roget was a British physician and inventor. In 1814, he created an improved slide rule, something that engineers like Art relied on until hand-held calculators came along. Roget was a contributor to the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of books published in the 1830s that considered science in the context of theology. He also designed a pocket-sized chess board.
But a passion for words had developed in childhood. He filled a notebook with English translations of Latin phrases. In his 20s, during "off" hours, he compiled a list of some 15,000 synonyms, his "little collection” as he called it. In 1849, he retired from medicine and science to order his words into categories. This culminatrd in 1853 with his publishing "Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition."
During his lifetime, more than two dozen updated editions were published. After his death, his work was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget.
While the thesaurus is an invaluable tool, readers aren't just sensitive to repetition of certain words and phrases, but also respond to an individual writer's style. Anyone who has ever served on a committee charged with creating a document has experienced a final product that seems somehow disjointed when written by several authors, even if all have perfect mechanics. Newspapers are particularly sensitive to this problem as they want news articles to "read" as if they had been written by one person.
Perhaps the most famous book devoted to that end is the Associated Press Stylebook - an everyday tool for a reporter, and one I continue to use today. That same Smithsonian issue had an article that filled in a few blanks about its origin I was unfamiliar with. In May 1846, Moses Yale Beach, the publisher of the New York Sun, wanted to get news about the Mexican-American War to his readers. He convinced four other New York newspaper publishers to help him in this regard. Their network of couriers rode horseback from the front lines to Montgomery, Alabama. From there, the news went by stagecoach to Richmond, Virginia, where it was transmitted via telegraph to New York. Multiple papers joining in a news-gathering effort such as this cast the mold for what eventually became the Associated Press.
Today, more than half the world's population has access to news from the AP. The organization has 248 bureaus in 99 countries. Often, AP reporters are the only journalists covering regional news events. The AP Stylebook, now in its 55th edition, is what makes their stories appear to have come from the mind of a single author.
For a columnist, not all of the AP rules are a good fit. An important rule for a reporter is to leave his or her opinion at the door. But a columnist is expected to present a personal point of view. AP style requires the most important facts be presented first so the reader can get the main points quickly and an editor can trim the story easily if there is limited space. Such an approach can scuttle a column's personal aspect. Think of telling a joke's punch line first and then following up with the rest. That's just not going to work.
Although not as important as the previous two, John Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" was also a reference available anywhere I worked. Space is always a problem in a newspaper, so condensing a complex idea into a few words helps and there is a good likelihood someone has already done it.
First published in 1855, it's now in its 18th edition. The first had 258 pages by 169 authors, mainly from the Bible, William Shakespeare and English poets. Entries are arranged by an author's date of birth. Bartlett acknowledged in his 1855 preface that his collection "... has been considerably enlarged by additions from an English work on a similar plan." Some reviewers feel that "similar plan" was Isabella Rushton Preston's "The Handbook of Familiar Quotations from English Authors."
While I usually turn to the internet to find quotes today, I have the 11th print edition of Bartlett's I bought at a local shop. It was being used as a support for another item, and the owner only wanted $5 for it. I snapped it up because I loved the red cover and spine and the thick feel of it in my hands.
Winston Churchill was purported to have once said: "It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more."
Ah, yes, synonyms, styles and quotations - all essential tools for a writer. Now if I just had something to say!
Working at Kansas State University's Collegian newspaper (left), the Associated Press teletype machine behind me was our principal link to news outside of Manhattan. Holding my "rescued" Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" and my AP Stylebook.