11 thoughts on “Angels and Demons

  1. Among other things, Steyn is doing internet writing in print. On the blogosphere, we just insert a link to the cited post. Anyone can go sideways and instantly see the lift. If I want to use a bigger piece of someone’s writing, I just cut and paste as a blockquote, with the link, so it is absolutely obvious where it comes from.

    Part of the reason for this is to incite the reader to click to the other post and get the rest of the article.

    As soon as I am in print, I can’t do this, and I have to paraphrase the argument, and cite its origins at the same time, which tends to create a much more clotted and superficially academic style.

    It gets even worse when several positions are being worked quickly, because the attributions have to be flicked in and out.

    There is a cross-over point where writers are discussing general belief, or a generally held position. We see that over and over again in op-eds, which so rarely cite the origins of their arguments. The writers would just roll their eyes and say it is too difficult.

    Close readings of newspapers around common topics will show you how often ideas roll through the subject, picked up, transformed, turned into received wisdom. Uncited. Folk beliefs as a result. Of course, if you are playing the inner game of following an industry, you get the press releases that underline them. Then you need to take the anti-cynicism tablets.

    Steyn of course is simply stealing. He has not only taken an argument, he has not added anything else of his own. On top of that, the argument comes from the very particular perspective of a language specialist – which he doesn’t share in real life. If any of us had a student who cited references from the first page of several different books, and no other, we would take that as evidence that the writer hadn’t read the books. And Steyn makes no substantive remarks about anything else.

    But he is a useful pointer to more general issues.

    Damn. So much for the three para rule. And a first comment to boot.

  2. Many years ago, when I went to work part-time for a famous think-tank, I was solemnly informed by one of the leading policy wonks that it was useless to issue a press release which made the slightest intellectual demands on the reader. What was required – my wonk mentor assured me, whether accurately or not – was prose dumbed-down enough to be plagiarised word for word by journalists, who in turn would be plagiarised word for word by editorial-writers, who in turn would get the press release’s contents out into the mainstream. (This was of course the pre-Internet era.)

    Being at the time perhaps the youngest and most naive graduate this wonk had ever had to advise, I must have muttered something vaguely on the lines of “Um, isn’t plagiarism wrong?” As I recall, the answer was something like “Oh dear, you have got a lot to learn.”

    With a certain poetic justice, that think-tank long afterwards found itself (a) hauled into the media spotlight for plagiarism of its own, (b) having Mark Steyn come to speak. To do justice to this wonk, plagiarism was not then the passionate concern that it became later.

    I don’t know what the moral of this story is. Nor do I know what befell the wonk.

  3. You need to be more specific about Adams, Phil, if you want to convince me. He’s sometimes sloppy, but I don’t think he aims to win credit that isn’t his due. John discussed one controversial case two years ago.

  4. In case anyone didn’t follow the trail of links, the whole series of Language Log posts on Dan Brown’s writing is the best half-hour’s entertainment I’ve had in ages. They’re listed at the botom of this page. But possibly, as is often the case, I was the last person in the world to discover them.

  5. R.J. Stove: “prose dumbed-down enough to be plagiarised word for word by journalists, who in turn would be plagiarised word for word by editorial-writers, who in turn would get the press release’s contents out into the mainstream”

    This is still the conventional wisdom for “effective media release writing”. Unfortunately, I have direct and continuous evidence that it works.

    Just check out the random mainstream rag financial pages any day of the week.

    I don’t know how reliably internet channels reproduce media releases. Or what alternative effective strategies for launching a “proposition” into the ether are.

    Lurking on blogs?

    Targeted phone calls to shock jocks?

  6. Derick Cullen writes:

    “I don’t know how reliably internet channels reproduce media releases. Or what alternative effective strategies for launching a “propositionâ€? into the ether are.

    Lurking on blogs?

    Targeted phone calls to shock jocks?”

    No, alas, I don’t know either. Sorry to learn that things are just as bad as ever with mainstream rag financial pages. I’d hoped that the Internet might’ve forced those to smarten up their act.

  7. Sorry to learn that things are just as bad as ever with mainstream rag financial pages.

    On the bright side, the AGE today has a good article by Ross Gittins (your mileage may vary, naturally, if your sympathies lie the other way) with a reference to Nicholas Gruen of Troppo.

  8. I lift direct quotes off press releases all the time, as they’re not only eaiser to get, but often better, than if I interview the quotee directly. However, I try to never repeat the wording from a media release that is not a quote from the subject.

    This sometimes leads to inferior writing – often a media release has used the best title around, and though I like to think I would have come up with it myslef, I have to use something depressingly inferior out of stubborn refusal to plagerise.

  9. Helen writes:
    On the bright side, the AGE today has a good article by Ross Gittins (your mileage may vary, naturally, if your sympathies lie the other way) …”
    Good. I’m glad to hear that Ross Gittins, who’s always struck me as an honest author, has a piece.

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