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The players often mention it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.'” –Ben Jonson

Stephen Minch, owner of The Hermetic Press, publisher of fine books about conjuring, must have blotted out hundreds of thousands of words by now. Enough, anyway, so that he can write authoritative and amusing advice to the players in his Hermetic Press Stylebook.

Minch’s 11-page Stylebook is a fascinating little read for anyone interested in magic, reading, or writing. Even if you are a writer who is not at all interested in magic,  I still urge you to take at look at this booklet. You can download it for free here. I was lead to this book by a review in Genii, The Conjurer’s Magazine, where the reviewer, Eric Mead, no slouch himself in either the writing or the magishing department, makes a very good case for the stylebook’s necessity. “Writing about magic,” Mead says, “is technical work, extremely demanding, and requires a clarity and precision with words that few seem to be able to master.”

As someone who has spent some time proofreading magic and other kinds of books, I can attest to this. The issues involved in writing about magic are sometimes magic specific: should we capitalize the names of cards? Should the names of sleights be capitalized? If a deck is face up (hyphen or no?) where is the top of the deck? And here’s one that Minch doesn’t take on: should we call the people for whom we do effects (tricks? experiments?) spectators, participants, subjects?

But since magic is a hands-on art, its description must also share similarities with other hands-on how-to books. Mead points to the following instructive example:

“Here is one sentence one might find in a magic book: ‘Pick up the deck with your right hand, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Minch suggests this sentence is more effective if written, ‘With your right hand, pick up the deck, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Not only does the second version avoid an ugly dangling phrase, it delivers the reader information in the most useful order.” [italics mine]

Useful really, when you think about it, for so many kinds of description. If a reader is trying to follow along, s/he doesn’t want to pick up the deck, and only then, afterward, find that the deck was picked up by the wrong hand. Order matters!

There are some issues, however, which Minch tackles, with which I disagree; he dislikes “(s)he” and “s/he,” pleading that “When someone comes up with a new non-gender specific pronoun that is as functional as “he”, I’ll consider it; but for now I think it best to follow traditional usage. Especially when you consider that ninety-eight percent of the readers of magic books are male.” This seems to me to be dead wrong on two counts: “s/he” is just as functional as “he”; and even if 100% of magic readers were male, it’s still sexist to default to the male pronoun. These kinds of things matter, too, in my opinion.

But for the most part, there is much sound advice. I have to admit, I had never thought before about why “put the deck on the table,” was poor usage. If you don’t know why, then you, like me, especially need to read this stylebook. 🙂 )

I like proofreading. It really makes me think a lot about how writing, not the least, my own, can be improved. It’s a low-risk way to get to be a better writer. So, thanks to the people who have given me the opportunity to revise their work, and thanks to Stephen Minch of Hermetic Press for bringing clarity to his criteria for good magic writing.