Story: Te Ara – a history

Tessa Copland, editor

Tessa Copland, editor

Tessa Copland is shown in a relaxed mood during the time that she was an editor at Te Ara.

What\'s you story?

Contributed by Tessa Copland

Scarp. Ultic. Chitin. Not the sort of words you can casually throw into a dinner-party conversation. But every now and then I haul up treasures like this for the cryptic crosswords I’m addicted to. Scraps of the lexicon I acquired at Te Ara still migrate upwards from the benthos (ha!) of memory. [Ed's note: I'm not sure this meets our standards for plain English, Tessa.]

Of course, the job of the crossword compiler is to obscure meaning, although a definition must lurk within the darkness, like a hagfish. For the editor bent on revealing the facts plainly to a broad audience, it’s the opposite – definitions are the starting point. In an entry on earthquakes, you must ground your terms in explanation, or they will soon topple and crush the reader: you need to say what a plate is before you talk about subduction.

It was the Earth, Sea and Sky stories that really widened my vocabulary. Not being a science type, I was constantly checking the dictionary to grasp basic terms and processes. Magnetic field. Chemosynthesis. Next I’d trawl the thesaurus for familiar words to explain them. Only then could I write the ‘easy-to-read’ short story for each entry. It was a bonus to work with talented designers on diagrams that would instantly illuminate a dense topic, the words in the graphic (pig iron, elver) tallying with those in its caption, so readers didn’t have to decode anything. Revealing a perspective beyond words, a tiny boat bobs above the ocean’s depths.

Many entries evoked this sense of wonder. When I recently pencilled ‘sinter’ into the crossword grid, I remembered the shock of reading that this ‘rock made of fine-grained silica’ could answer questions about the origins of life. The solution to my clue holds another, possibly momentous, clue.

The work was fascinating, and my colleagues were knowledgeable and great fun. What better context for learning new words, however I might end up using them?

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Photograph by John Shaw

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How to cite this page:

the Te Ara team, 'Te Ara – a history - Writing and editing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2022)

Story by the Te Ara team