Classically Inclined

May 20, 2011

The challenges and trials of writing for an encyclopedia

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
Tags: , ,

One of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is a set of encyclopedia entries for one of the big encyclopedia projects that seem to be doing the rounds at the moment – it seems only a couple of years since everyone was working on the last Ancient History encyclopedia, and now I’m involved with the latest incarnation of this project. (I shall be discreet and not mention what the topic is, as this is still a work in progress, but you might be able to guess – indeed, you might be writing an entry yourself!) Encyclopedias are often invaluable to the classical community. The most widespread and popular is The Oxford Classical Dictionary, while for the more academically inclined, the Pauly–Wissowa  Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft is the sine qua non of the encyclopedia world.

Being involved in writing an encyclopedia is a strange process, because so many people are working on the same thing, and the editors are trying to marshall everyone’s efforts and go through all the submitted material and deal with publishers and generally keep the project on track. I’m working on four articles, and just got my edits back from the editors. When you write the first entry, you’re given a very tight word limit to keep to – for instance, my entry on “stepmothers” had an 150 word limit. Now the editors have seen it, of course, they think it needs more material in it for it to make sense, which will be easy to include – but I would never have included the material they’ve asked for in my original word count. This is particularly apparent in one article I’m doing that deals with theory. I originally had 250 words to compress the topic into, and I really shouldn’t be surprised that they have come back to ask for considerable expansion, but I must admit that I was originally quite proud of my conciseness!

Another issue is that it has been about six months since I submitted these articles to the editors, which means that I have forgotten all of the material from the style guide that I need to make my edits! For instance, if I quote a Latin word, do they want it italicised? (Answer: yes, which is what I would have assumed, but one never knows.) Are you giving titles of ancient works in Latin or English? Does the word count include the headword, bibliography and ‘see also’s, or some mysterious combination thereof?

The final problem, which always surfaces when revisiting things you wrote a while ago, is wondering what on earth was in your head when you wrote a particular sentence which, for the life of you, you cannot reconstruct the reasoning for. This is particularly problematic when the editor asks you to expand or clarify the point you were making. This is particularly particularly problematic when dealing with a theoretical topic, where you were quite clear precisely what your carefully hoarded words meant at the time, but now for the life of you cannot remember what you were aiming for, and it takes considerable mental archaeology to reconstruct what your line of thinking was. I really should take better notes about my process of reasoning for something this compressed. But never mind – after an afternoon of scratching my head and going back through various half-remembered e-mails, I think I’ve finally worked it out. So now I get to see what the editors think of my revisions.

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