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Use An Adjustable Spanner Not A Swiss Army Knife (1 Viewer)

TheMightyAz

Mentor
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, trying to wrap my head around the concept and understanding other people's mindsets when it comes to writing. I'm not against specific questions, I do it all the time myself, but there are some questions I see asked that are simply a matter of adjusting the answers you've already got.

Problems with craft aren't specific to each individual sentence/paragraph/story, so you don't find a problem and then seek out that specific answer, you take what you already know and adjust it to the problem you're faced with now and in the future. When it comes down to it, once you realise it's just a matter of adjustment, there aren't really that many problems to solve. There are only basic things like word choice, sentence structure, paragraph structure, story structure, character development and so forth. If you've been given the solution to one sentence or paragraph or story structure, then it's simply a matter of adjusting that advice/answer and applying it yourself to subsequent rewrites or stories. If you're not doing that, you're not 'learning'. All you are doing is having your work edited.

This is the single reason I will not (most times) go through the whole piece when it's posted in the workshop area, unless I feel there are many things to point out that I would expect the poster to then take on board and apply themselves to rewrites (if they think I'm worthy of listening to of course). Usually, you can see standout problems in the first few paragraphs. I don't critique those problems expecting the writer to then adjust accordingly, I critique those problems in the hope the writer takes them on board and applies the answers to the rest of the piece themselves. This encourages 'learning'.

I started the craft thread for this very reason. The idea being that you could post sentences/paragraphs and get craft help to then be applied (by yourself) to the rest of the work. The question some people need to ask themselves is: do I want an editor or do I want to learn? If it's the former then perhaps your best bet is to finish the piece and post it in the beta reading section, if it's the latter, then don't just adjust in accordance with what's suggested, ask further questions about that problem, or if you understand already, apply the suggestion yourself to the rest of the work. This is the only way you're going to improve.

If you're here just for fun or to be part of this wonderful community, then ignore the above. :)

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bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I wonder ... I wonder if people request this advice from people partly because it's social. No-one wants to google in isolation when you can talk online to an actual real life writer. I mean, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from there to a café on the Left Bank in the Beat era, and maybe that's what people want. They want that Chilling-with-Ginsberg, Hanging-with-Hemingway experience.

That's what I want, anyway ;)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
I wonder ... I wonder if people request this advice from people partly because it's social. No-one wants to google in isolation when you can talk online to an actual real life writer. I mean, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from there to a café on the Left Bank in the Beat era, and maybe that's what people want. They want that Chilling-with-Ginsberg, Hanging-with-Hemingway experience.

That's what I want, anyway ;)
I'd say so, yeah. That's why I added that line at the end. One would think on a 'writing forum' any advice to 'google it' is counter to the reason they joined the forum in the first place. If google was the answer, I'd probably not join a writing forum.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I wonder ... I wonder if people request this advice from people partly because it's social. No-one wants to google in isolation when you can talk online to an actual real life writer. I mean, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from there to a café on the Left Bank in the Beat era, and maybe that's what people want. They want that Chilling-with-Ginsberg, Hanging-with-Hemingway experience.

That's what I want, anyway ;)
Yeah man, groovy... I can dig it. Wowey zowie, Maui-wowey.
-
With writers and and the Irish, everything is a story. So -
When I was 10 years my kickboxing instructor passed on, and I enrolled in a formal martial art school. It was a new style for me, and as I tend to be (overly) analytical, I was trying to figure out how the moves worked as we ran through some basic strikes. Master Long watched and probably figured out what I was doing, so he strolled over and stood in front of me as I continued to workout - he then cracked me right between the eyes with the first knuckle of his index finger, and said: You think too much.

In writing and life, I believe that an over abundance of preparation and thought and consideration will result in never the starting gate. To steal from Bradbury, at some point we must jump off a cliff and build our wings on the way down.
 

Phil Istine

WF Veterans
I gave up on that video after two and a half minutes; I'm not doubting she has something useful to say but maybe she needs to make notes so that she can say it more concisely without jumping around and confusing people.
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
If you're here just for fun or to be part of this wonderful community, then ignore the above. :)
Yup. Chuck me into the 'just for fun or part of' stew. I come here to simmer and baste in the experience along with all the other tomatoes as we muse upon what we will serve our readers.

But about the rest, @TheMightyAz , don't you think the solution you've offered here isn't a bit...simplistic? Mechanical, even? Sure, much of what we see here only seems to require basic adjustments to meet the writer's goals. However, since joining I've read two outstandingly superior pieces of prose and a couple of poets who come close to swaying me away from my aversion to poetry. What those writers are looking for aren't simplistic, mechanical solutions but keen insight into their pieces to affirm they're communicating clearly with their readers. Or, so it seemed to me.

The basic problem here is that a competent level of basic English instruction isn't being taught, at least here in the U.S.A. So you end up with visionaries who want to succeed at something--writing--without what should have been given them in high school. Ever run through the enrollment lists of your local J.C.? If not, Google one and check out the pages of course offerings for the remedial level English courses. Then compare that against what's offered for the 101 & 102 courses. When I went to school, they offered one, just one remedial English course--and it was a mark of shame if anyone found themselves stuck in it. (And it shouldn't have been a mark of shame, but that's another story altogether.) But your post points to a much, much deeper issue, one no writing forum can address [and I regret not being able to watch the video tonight, as it seems instrumental to your point]. That problem is that students aren't being taught to learn, which is why you have the plethora of problems that may be solved with a wrench and not a utility tool. Sadly, while I agree with your premise, that writers should be motivated to learn, I am afraid our current cultural context of entitlement favors a demand for service rather than apprenticeship.

The solution may be to respond as though apprenticeship is what's asked for, by creating the space for the less experienced writer to step into where he can discover his answers on his own--something I do not yet see possible here, given the constraints set by a fully online medium lacking face-to-face dialogue.

I hope this pushback has been helpful. For a different point of view, if I am going to read something and offer a comment (as when I was judging), I read every piece twice. First, for the flow and wholeness of the piece, then again for the details. The first reading provides context, where context provides meaning; the second reading provides insight into the structural causes for the problems the piece may have. I would be very hesitant to offer editing advice if I didn't think I first had a handle on what it is the writer is trying to say. Line editing is great for a finished piece in preparation for publication, but for a work in progress, the solution has to come from within the message (i.e., story). Otherwise, any basic adjustment has the potential for misaligning the message the writer ultimately wants to communicate with the vehicle (or body) that message resides within.

Great thoughts, Az. I enjoyed being challenged by them.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Yup. Chuck me into the 'just for fun or part of' stew. I come here to simmer and baste in the experience along with all the other tomatoes as we muse upon what we will serve our readers.

But about the rest, @TheMightyAz , don't you think the solution you've offered here isn't a bit...simplistic? Mechanical, even? Sure, much of what we see here only seems to require basic adjustments to meet the writer's goals. However, since joining I've read two outstandingly superior pieces of prose and a couple of poets who come close to swaying me away from my aversion to poetry. What those writers are looking for aren't simplistic, mechanical solutions but keen insight into their pieces to affirm they're communicating clearly with their readers. Or, so it seemed to me.

The basic problem here is that a competent level of basic English instruction isn't being taught, at least here in the U.S.A. So you end up with visionaries who want to succeed at something--writing--without what should have been given them in high school. Ever run through the enrollment lists of your local J.C.? If not, Google one and check out the pages of course offerings for the remedial level English courses. Then compare that against what's offered for the 101 & 102 courses. When I went to school, they offered one, just one remedial English course--and it was a mark of shame if anyone found themselves stuck in it. (And it shouldn't have been a mark of shame, but that's another story altogether.) But your post points to a much, much deeper issue, one no writing forum can address [and I regret not being able to watch the video tonight, as it seems instrumental to your point]. That problem is that students aren't being taught to learn, which is why you have the plethora of problems that may be solved with a wrench and not a utility tool. Sadly, while I agree with your premise, that writers should be motivated to learn, I am afraid our current cultural context of entitlement favors a demand for service rather than apprenticeship.

The solution may be to respond as though apprenticeship is what's asked for, by creating the space for the less experienced writer to step into where he can discover his answers on his own--something I do not yet see possible here, given the constraints set by a fully online medium lacking face-to-face dialogue.

I hope this pushback has been helpful. For a different point of view, if I am going to read something and offer a comment (as when I was judging), I read every piece twice. First, for the flow and wholeness of the piece, then again for the details. The first reading provides context, where context provides meaning; the second reading provides insight into the structural causes for the problems the piece may have. I would be very hesitant to offer editing advice if I didn't think I first had a handle on what it is the writer is trying to say. Line editing is great for a finished piece in preparation for publication, but for a work in progress, the solution has to come from within the message (i.e., story). Otherwise, any basic adjustment has the potential for misaligning the message the writer ultimately wants to communicate with the vehicle (or body) that message resides within.

Great thoughts, Az. I enjoyed being challenged by them.
I can agree with a lot of your points but not the last. If a person is making fundamental crafting mistakes in the first few paragraphs then they're going to be making those fundamental crafting mistakes throughout the piece, and no matter what they're trying to say, it will be buried and won't be heard as intended.

I do find it odd that I get pushback on this subject. If we're talking grammar then people have no problem picking up on those mistakes and pointing them out. If the piece is riddled with grammatical errors it stops the enjoyment of reading it and so it doesn't get read. And yet, when it comes to craft, a lot of people have a different view.

There's no getting away from the fact there are dos and don'ts in writing craft, regardless of the wiggle room for style and voice. For instance, if someone is constantly using 'very' in their work, would you say you'd need to read the whole thing in order to justify pointing that out? Let's say someone embarks on a longer piece ... a novel, and within the first few paragraphs they use 'very' five times. If you don't point that out to them and explain it's likely because they're not picking a strong enough verb then that habit is going to be cemented into their approach. It's going to be even more difficult for them to break that habit. It is far better for them that you point them in the right direction before they make a habit of it.

My point is, if they simply take those instances of 'very' and change them in accordance with the advice but then don't apply that rule to the rest of the piece themselves, then all they are doing is using the forum as an editor and not learning. Once the basic rules are learned and fully understood, then they're in a position to break them purposely for style/voice reasons. Some can be bent for effect but most are simply the sign of a beginner and an editor/publisher will spot it immediately. Readers may not notice exactly what it is about a piece that jars but they'll stop reading eventually too.

The fundamentals of writing are craft. They can be worked at and taught. Once those craft elements are learned THEN you can perhaps strike out more artistically. You need the bedrock before you set about building that cathedral. The approach to craft should be exactly the same as it is with grammar. Here's the rules, learn the rules, now feel free to play with them.
 
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JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
The question some people need to ask themselves is: do I want an editor or do I want to learn?

That depends where a given writer is on their climb.

Beginning writers are going to need more mechanical help as a general rule. In a sense this is a coarse kind of advice, and heavier on the SPAG. How do sentences fit together? How do you break up conversations? How do you describe your characters occupying a space without constant telling us what their hands are doing? This is the situation where having an editor (amateur or otherwise) will pay dividends.

Let's look at writing as a trade and break it down accordingly. Traditionally, there have been three levels of tradesman, each corresponding to a candidate's level of skill.

- Apprentice. This is the training wheel stage. The point at which a novice is just beginning to learn the ins and outs of this whole story thing. And they're going to screw up. A lot. Frankly, this kind of new writer might even need to brush up on basics before they worry about hammering out a readable work. They're probably going to be spending a lot of time thrashing around in the mire. It's frustrating for all concerned, both the beginner who just can't seem to make it work and their well-intentioned advisors who know recognize the agonies of neophyte suckdom as the price of admission.

Patient mentors are invaluable here. It takes a while to crawl out of the hole.

- Journeyman. Finally, the stage where they still have a lot of learn but don't completely suck. You could adequately call the results of this period 'serviceable' or 'workmanlike', meaning they write with enough purpose and clarity that their stories aren't an ordeal. A writer at this stage can handle most of their own editing and knows why the story works the way it does. Their style is solid - if unremarkable - but as they progress readers will begin to notice the stylistic touches and beginnings of a unique voice. When they screw up it's probably not catastrophic.

A journeyman will place significant importance on feedback, though they're generally comfortable in their skill and no longer accept criticism in its entirety as might an apprentice. Most writers who dedicate themselves wind up here.

- Master Craftsman. Rarest of all writer types. The master writer knows at the gut level the story they want to tell, they way they mean to tell it, and the how and why of the execution. Their work has a passable chance of becoming 'literature' as opposed to 'fiction'. With minimal need for improvement they turn out quality work that stands apart and make it look easy - and to them, it probably is. Which is good, because cocaine is expensive.

...I think. I've never actually seen one in the wild, so that last is mostly conjecture.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
That depends where a given writer is on their climb.

Beginning writers are going to need more mechanical help as a general rule. In a sense this is a coarse kind of advice, and heavier on the SPAG. How do sentences fit together? How do you break up conversations? How do you describe your characters occupying a space without constant telling us what their hands are doing? This is the situation where having an editor (amateur or otherwise) will pay dividends.

Let's look at writing as a trade and break it down accordingly. Traditionally, there have been three levels of tradesman, each corresponding to a candidate's level of skill.

- Apprentice. This is the training wheel stage. The point at which a novice is just beginning to learn the ins and outs of this whole story thing. And they're going to screw up. A lot. Frankly, this kind of new writer might even need to brush up on basics before they worry about hammering out a readable work. They're probably going to be spending a lot of time thrashing around in the mire. It's frustrating for all concerned, both the beginner who just can't seem to make it work and their well-intentioned advisors who know recognize the agonies of neophyte suckdom as the price of admission.

Patient mentors are invaluable here. It takes a while to crawl out of the hole.

- Journeyman. Finally, the stage where they still have a lot of learn but don't completely suck. You could adequately call the results of this period 'serviceable' or 'workmanlike', meaning they write with enough purpose and clarity that their stories aren't an ordeal. A writer at this stage can handle most of their own editing and knows why the story works the way it does. Their style is solid - if unremarkable - but as they progress readers will begin to notice the stylistic touches and beginnings of a unique voice. When they screw up it's probably not catastrophic.

A journeyman will place significant importance on feedback, though they're generally comfortable in their skill and no longer accept criticism in its entirety as might an apprentice. Most writers who dedicate themselves wind up here.

- Master Craftsman. Rarest of all writer types. The master writer knows at the gut level the story they want to tell, they way they mean to tell it, and the how and why of the execution. Their work has a passable chance of becoming 'literature' as opposed to 'fiction'. With minimal need for improvement they turn out quality work that stands apart and make it look easy - and to them, it probably is. Which is good, because cocaine is expensive.

...I think. I've never actually seen one in the wild, so that last is mostly conjecture.
Well, of course, yes. I don't write these for people like yourself, I write them for people like me. But you've broken it down nicely and I think shown what the problem is when discussing this issue. I'd say I was at the journeyman position right now, but I've still got the apprentice knocking around to make sure I don't get too comfortable with that assessment just yet. I'm competent in most areas but still not there.

I think there are some people who are journeymen and craftsmen who don't quite appreciate what it's like to be the apprentice. They think they do but they speak about the apprentice position as if it's a set level, when for someone like me, with no education and no social outlet that spoke fluent and grammatical English, is the journeyman position. What some take for granted, I had to work on hard. I'm not alone ... and those are the people I talk to with these posts.

The last thing someone like Stephen Fry had to worry about when he embarked on his writing career was grammar. He spoke good grammar already, mixed with people who spoke it too and so wrote it automatically when called upon to do so. That ain't me and that ain't most people. There's a barrier to entry and that's craft and it doesn't help anyone to pretend it doesn't exist. It does. I improved because I recognised it immediately and worked at catching up with the basics.

I always say I'll be satisfied with being a good hack. I've always said that but there's this inner me that is never satisfied and the further along the journey I travel, the more I think I'll want to push beyond that. Right now though, that's my goal. I think it's a good enough goal for anyone and a realistic one.
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
Well, of course, yes. I don't write these for people like yourself, I write them for people like me.

Who's myself, though? Some people like me (or at least the stuff I write) but in my own judgment I'm a hack with a keyboard. Put me in range of a panel of judges captained by Strunk & White and somebody's getting a keyboard to the face. Probably more than once until we run out of keyboards.

Then its folding chairs.


I think there are some people who are journeymen and craftsmen who don't quite appreciate what it's like to be the apprentice.

Arguably. How to address that...that's the trick. For better or worse, I don't tend to care if a new writer overuses adverbs or suffers an infestation of copula spiders. That's all fixable. Most can be coaxed out of it. If there's a good story under the flaws its worth chasing.

I'm just not sure beating noobs about the head is the way to go about it.


They think they do but they speak about the apprentice position as if it's a set level, when for someone like me, with no education and no social outlet that spoke fluent and grammatical English, is the journeyman position. What some take for granted, I had to work on hard. I'm not alone ... and those are the people I talk to with these posts.

I used to get yelled at a lot as a kid. Mostly by people who assumed I understood the material they were supposed to be teaching. Who, incidentally, failed to realize there's more to learning than xerox handouts and lectures. A lot of people learn by breaking things and making mistakes. It's an ugly way to do it, and repulsive to some, but that's how it goes. Masterpieces are built on mountains of scrap.


There's a barrier to entry and that's craft and it doesn't help anyone to pretend it doesn't exist. It does. I improved because I recognised it immediately and worked at catching up with the basics.

Fair...though looking through the local bookstore, it would seem the barrier is not so high as one might expect.


I always say I'll be satisfied with being a good hack. I've always said that but there's this inner me that is never satisfied and the further along the journey I travel, the more I think I'll want to push beyond that. Right now though, that's my goal. I think it's a good enough goal for anyone and a realistic one.

I will fight you for hack supremacy.

Somebody get the folding chairs. :p
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
Hey, @TheMightyAz, sorry it's taken a while to get back to you. It's a good concern you're bringing up.

I can agree with a lot of your points but not the last. If a person is making fundamental crafting mistakes in the first few paragraphs then they're going to be making those fundamental crafting mistakes throughout the piece, and no matter what they're trying to say, it will be buried and won't be heard as intended.
Okay, so you've brought up two points. First, that the evidence presented first indicates the evidence to follow. Its argumentative form is the same saying, the sun rose today so it's going to rise tomorrow. But, what if its rate of fusion drops off and the sun begins to die? (Premise of the movie Sunshine.) In this inductive argument, you're asking that the strength of the evidence presented first be used to predict the evidence that follows. And while there may indeed be a strong correlation, it's a false assumption to say that in every case this happens because no causation exists between the first evidence and the evidence that follows. The first evidence didn't cause the second evidence. The person whose writing is evidenced by the text may make very different choices later on in his text.

And, you're right. The writer probably is not being heard as intended. I know for myself I've turned in work I've written and rewritten, only to receive comments that have baffled me. How in the world did the instructor read it like that? It's when I come back to it later, and I read it with the instructor's comments in hand, that I can pick up what he's seeing in my work. I don't always agree, but sometimes I do. (When your instructor says, "why'd I make that comment?", it's just a reminder that he's only human, too.) It does take an effort to come to a piece and read just what's there. Sometimes we get in our own way.

I do find it odd that I get pushback on this subject.
I would find it a compliment if I got pushback. I like talking about things and ideas with people. 'Yes men' make me wary.
There is a lot I don't provide comment on--here or irl--so I hope you take this as a compliment.

If we're talking grammar then people have no problem picking up on those mistakes and pointing them out. If the piece is riddled with grammatical errors it stops the enjoyment of reading it and so it doesn't get read. And yet, when it comes to craft, a lot of people have a different view.
Yes & yes. (Should I be wary of myself?)

There's no getting away from the fact there are dos and don'ts in writing craft, regardless of the wiggle room for style and voice. For instance, if someone is constantly using 'very' in their work, would you say you'd need to read the whole thing in order to justify pointing that out? Let's say someone embarks on a longer piece ... a novel, and within the first few paragraphs they use 'very' five times. If you don't point that out to them and explain it's likely because they're not picking a strong enough verb then that habit is going to be cemented into their approach. It's going to be even more difficult for them to break that habit. It is far better for them that you point them in the right direction before they make a habit of it.
I can see how teaching at a certain level or with a certain intentionality may certainly be needed to help resolve those craft issues. But being aware of it can also make this stuff stand out more and more. Lately, I've been reading for the unity of a piece, so while this stuff hasn't been bothering me, I do know what you're saying. But my husband? Oh boy, he should have been a line editor. He can't read Cormac McCarthy for beans! (In case you haven't read him, McCarthy's bad grammar is a stylistic convention, one I think helps convey the character and mood of the story--but I am in the minority in that.)

In case you missed it and want to join in, there was a thread here a couple of months back addressing this very issue of meaningless repetitive words.

My point is, if they simply take those instances of 'very' and change them in accordance with the advice but then don't apply that rule to the rest of the piece themselves, then all they are doing is using the forum as an editor and not learning. Once the basic rules are learned and fully understood, then they're in a position to break them purposely for style/voice reasons. Some can be bent for effect but most are simply the sign of a beginner and an editor/publisher will spot it immediately. Readers may not notice exactly what it is about a piece that jars but they'll stop reading eventually too.
You know, you have great compassion and concern for what people take away from here. Have you ever considered being a teacher?

The fundamentals of writing are craft. They can be worked at and taught. Once those craft elements are learned THEN you can perhaps strike out more artistically. You need the bedrock before you set about building that cathedral. The approach to craft should be exactly the same as it is with grammar. Here's the rules, learn the rules, now feel free to play with them.
Well, yes and no. As someone who can't follow a cookie dough recipe, I find rules hard to follow. I need the concept first and then I deconstruct it into its parts. Marshall McLuhan--whose work I really need to read in full someday--argued the now-famous phrase, "the medium is the message." his argument is that the concept--i.e., the message--is primary in any area of communication studies, writing included. Let's apply your argument to reading. According to your premise, you first have to learn the rules before you can understand what you read. If that were so, then how come little children can speak or read before they come to school to learn the rules? At some level, we learn rules vicariously through our environment as concepts, even if we can't articulate what they are--which is why encouraging new writers to be readers is so very important.

On the other hand, you are also right. Once we learn the rules to any skill, we can excel past the mediocrity we had been socially taught to expect. The child is made to study the piano, but to him, it is a chore. By high school, if he stays with his lessons, maybe it becomes less of a chore and more of a love as he begins to play more of what he wants and to explore with his own compositions. And if he studies piano in college, he learns more rules, theoretical rules the child could not have understood. And finally, he becomes a concert pianist, shaped by the rules yet fully free in his creativity because of those rules. I am not sure we can be truly passionate about a thing unless we know it inside and out--something the rules are good at unleashing from within us.

So, it's a very complicated case you've brought up. Again, great discussion!
 

apocalypsegal

Senior Member
I think we can partially lay the blame for a lot on the American school system. Today, the children are taught just enough to pass end of year tests. Too far ahead? You get left out. Too far behind? You get left out. Only the middle ground counts.

But, that said, there's something I see a lot that doesn't seem to have to do totally with a lack of education, but rather the idea that writing is easy, and all you need to do is get someone to tell you the steps (bullet list with less than five items preferred) and you'll be outselling Stephen King and James Patterson together. All it will take is one book, and you're set.

People simply won't read, either. If they would, they'd use Google, probably the single most amazing thing invented since electricity, and find the answers themselves. I noticed it in a big way back about fifteen years ago, when I worked for an institute of higher learning. Kids coming out of highschool with absolutely no clue how to do anything. Even worse were the homeschooled kids. They had less than half a clue.

The adults weren't much better, wanting you to hold their hand and walk them through the simplest of things. They couldn't understand how to do the paperwork to get enrolled, how to get a parking pass, how to read the student handbook which explained it all in detail. Just tell me how to do it, or better still, do it for me.

And it's only getting worse. But my feeling is, I'm not going to explain, over and over and over again, how to learn to write. I'll tell people to get books, or search the web, or, gods help us, read the fifteen other posts about exactly the same thing, all posted right before they posted. People seem to think their situation is unique, but it's not. SSDD, as we used to say in the USAF. (Same shit, different day.) This attitude of "I'm a special snowflake, kneel to my needs" isn't going to get this world much further (farther? I never remember which). We're all going to go down because people can't think, and worse yet, they don't want to.
 
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