Responding to my cold reader

At this (quite advanced) stage in the book-publishing process, there is suddenly a lot to do, always urgently and usually without prior notice.

For instance, another dead-tree copy of the manuscript just landed on my desk, marked up in old-fashioned ink. Apparently, the cold reader had had his go.

The cold reader? Who knew? I normally prefer my readers warm.

It appears that Riverhead has sent the manuscript to someone who is anonymous to me (“cold”, I suppose) for perusal. His or her comments were not “large” (about the sweep of the story, or the logic of an argument, say), but very detailed queries about language.

All regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know me as a pedant (or word-lover, to be generous). I am rarely caught out in word matters. But it does happen, and I find that fun.

So here are a few things the cold reader pointed out, and then a few instances in which I overruled him/her.

  1. If something “ascends up to,” it actually simply “ascends to”.
  2. “Aquiline faces” are actually faces with “aquiline noses.”
  3. A “crevice” is not a “crevasse”, and Hannibal in the Alps better have passed the latter, or we would be mighty bored.
  4. “Projecting a perception of invincibility” is simply “projecting invincibility”. (Can’t believe that one happened to me!)
  5. A line of soldiers marching “only a couple of men deep” is actually marching “a couple of men wide.” Duh.
  6. Scipio could not have stood there, “his posture erect and lithe.” No, he stood there, “his posture erect, his body lithe.”
  7. If Scipio and Cato (or whoever) “mixed like oil and water”, then they did not mix, like oil and water.
  8. Being “suspicious” is not the same as being “suspect”. (Duh. Must have been late at night.)
  9. Do I really need to spend hours going through my books to find out whether Lucius was Scipio’s only brother? Oh yes, because, that determines whether it is “his brother Lucius” or “his brother, Lucius”.

Here are a few of the comments I overruled (getting a little frisson out of the STET every time):

  1. No, Meriwether Lewis’s father was not fighting “Native American” tribes. He was fighting “Indian” tribes. It’s about context.
  2. Hannibal might have contemplated a “bold evacuation of Italy.” But he could not have contemplated a “bold evacuation of his troops from Italy.” Why would he want to rip out the innards of his own soldiers?


28 thoughts on “Responding to my cold reader

  1. I would overrule the frigid critic on the oil and water issue as well. It’s like saying that something went over like a lead balloon. Of course this means it did not go over. That’s the whole fun of using the phrase.

    Can I cold-read your manuscript, too?

    • Yes. “Like a snowball in hell,” and so forth. Which makes me suspect that the entire phrase must go. As Philippe says below, we’re in cliche territory….

  2. You are too hard on yourself. It’s a bit of a stretch, but “aquiline faces” has a kind of literary quality (as in synechdoche). And I think the projecting a perception of invincibility and projecting invincibility can be distinct. You might march into your boss’s office to demand a raise and project a perception of invincibility because you think he won’t say no. But you may not be projecting de facto invincibility because he may very well say no.

    • Well, aquiline means “eagle-like”, as in “having a hooked beak”. You’re right, one could extend it to faces, but the precise context is beaks, avian and human.

      Re projecting: The verb already implies that the context is one of perception. So the word ‘perception’ becomes redundant, and redundancy in writing always = ‘noise’. It slows the reader down, lowers the meaning-to-wordcount ratio, dilutes.

      In general, this sort of nuance should be packed into verbs: You could walk into your boss’s office FEIGNING invincibility, or RADIATING it, or EMBODYING it, or whatever you intend to mean.

  3. In my last essay, I wrote that Menocchio (the 16th-century peasant from the Fruili who was burned at the stake and the subject of Carlo Ginzburg’s book The Cheese and the Worms) was a “high-level critical thinker.” The professor crossed out “high-level,” as if critical thinker means the same as high-level.

    But it doesn’t. There are critical thinkers and then there are high-level critical thinkers, but maybe I am wrong and my critical thinking ability isn’t high-level. 🙂

    I have printed out your list for my little grammar students. Thanks for sharing. I don’t know why, but I thought your book was D-O-N-E.

    • There are definitely low-level critical thinkers as opposed to high-level ones. Question is, which should be designated as the default for a critical thinker so that only the other kind requires an adjective?

      For instance, I’ve heard the term “broadband Internet,” but I’ve never heard “narrowband Internet,” as any connection not qualified as broad is assumed to be narrow by definition, just as there are high-speed railroads but no “low-speed” railroads. Low-speed railroads are simply railroads.

      Of course, we could introduce a medium level as the official default state for everything, in which case anything or anyone outside the medium range must be designated as high or low, broad or narrow, fat or emaciated, etc.

    • I thought it was D-O-N-E, too. But then I discover that right at the end of the process, they deluge you with lots of fiddly, unpleasant, uncreative stuff. Commas, indentation, endnotes, citations, permissions, lawyers……

  4. Do you mind explaining the ones you overruled a bit more: 1. The Native American/Indian distinction. 2. So places are evacuated, not people from places?

    I find these types of things very interesting, yet when it comes down to it I might just be worried I’ll sound ignorant. Keep up these types of posts!

    • I wondered about the evacuation business as well–I thought it was a reference to evacuation of the bowels, which Hannibal’s troops figuratively did on the Roman army in some battles.

    • Well, I’ll answer Dan by recycling (as it were) Thomas’ usage case: the content of bowels, as opposed to the bowels themselves.

      You can, in fact, easily tell the correct and incorrect usage of ‘evacuate’ with this example. Ex = out, vacuus = empty. So to evacuate is to empty out, to make something empty.

      We all hope that you evacuate your bowels with some regularity, just as we all hope that the firemen evacuate (ie, empty) a burning building of its people.

      We hope that nobody evacuates the people themselves — or you, in THAT sense your bowels — because this would be an unspeakable atrocity. You need to keep your bowels inside of you to evacuate them properly.

      I am of course aware that the American school of language “whateverists” will now start screaming. Their argument is, well, whatever. If everybody says X, then X is OK. I’m simply staying true to the lineage of the word, which is something that SOME readers appreciate, and MOST won’t even notice, which is just as it should be.

      Re Indians and Native Americans: N.A, to me, is part of the sanitized, contemporary, bureaucratic vocabulary you might find in a government report or the New York Times. “Indian” is more ‘primitive’ (in the original sense of THAT word, ie ‘coming first’) and fits better in a story about a frontiersman around the year 1800.

    • You’re right Andreas–there’s a lot of talk about evacuating people from Libya. And some of those who have made it out have been described as “evacuated” or “evacuees.” I guess it’s time to buy stock in a colostomy bag company!

  5. “Mixed like oil and water” is, in any case, a cliche.

    How about “mixed like caviar and potash”? This is more arresting, don’t you think?

  6. Where does one sign up to be a cold reader? Does it pay? I know someone, let’s call her Mrs. C., who could ice my best story. “…there I was. I leaped from the space shuttle onto the orbiting satellite to prevent it from crashing into a puppy farm…” Mrs. C; “Wait, wait. No. It’s leapt. You leapt onto the satellite.” Luckily many publishers do not seek this level of detail so that my family have (has?) something to talk about at dinner.

    • Does it pay? Do bears….? Cold readers are practically swimming in it. I mean, they must be. If they’re reading books like mine! Plus, I’m pretty sure that almost all famous people started out as cold readers at some point, and just kept it secret.

      Since I have no idea who my cold reader is, I don’t know how he or she or it became one.

  7. Andreas,
    This is the nitty, nitty-gritty time. Hurray!

    When I read your book I will give special attention to pages 8, 28, and 46. 🙂

    • You sleuth, Geraldine. I’m sure you’re the only one who looked so closely at that picture. 😉

      You’d make a fine cold reader, I am extrapolating.

      Re the nitty, nitty-gritty time: Dang, you have no idea how I hate nitty-gritty-ness. And how I suck at it. I am happy and good at the biggie-sweepy-visiony thingies, even under pressure, but I cannot bear to check endnotes and citations and this stuff. Yuck.

  8. “…a writer is best off using no metaphor at all”, are you sure? I treasure them, specially when I come up with one than runs away from common grounds, don’t you?
    Cold readers are a necessary evil, but I tend to defend what I call a ‘literary licence’ such as ‘Aquiline faces’, an image that gets clearly and smoothly into our minds, so why change it?
    Congrats, anyhow.

    • Even though his brother, the suspicious Indian, had fallen into a suspect crevasse filled with oil and water a couple men deep and was unable to evacuate himself and ascend back out again, he kept his body erect, his posture lithe, and projected invincibility with his aquiline nose and eyes like an Igel.

  9. Cold Reader,
    He’s the man,
    The man with the Midas touch,
    A spider’s touch,
    Such a cold reader,
    Beckons you,
    To enter his web of sin,
    But don’t go in…..

    • I might better have said:

      Cold Reader,
      He’s the man,
      The man with the writer’s touch,
      A typist’s touch,
      Such a cold reader,
      Beckons you,
      To inhale his words of sin,
      But don’t buy in……..

  10. The word “evacuate” offers a good example of why it is difficult to program a computer to understand English.
    The phrase  

    “the general staff evacuated the army from Italy”

     can be shortened to
    “evacuated the army” 

    “evacuated Italy”


    “the general staff evacuated” 

    with no contradiction of the original meaning, even though in the first instance it is what they order removed that is said to be “evacuated”, whereas in the second it is what they order be left behind that is “evacuated”, whereas in the third it is “they” — the initiators themselves — who are “evacuated”.

    Common usage supports all three.

    • Before my morning coffee, it all blurred together and i read:

      “The army general evacuated a staff in Italy.”

      Another tourist done in by a famous cuisine.

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