John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Not a gut course

In about half an hour I will walk into a classroom at Loyola and tell a group of students what they are in for in CM 361 Copy Editing. For those of you who have tuned in since last year's opening harangue, I repeat it here. 


This is not a gut course. Writing is difficult. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder. We can write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.
But before we can even get to the analytical aspect, we will have to work on grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the six hundred students who have preceded you in this class, you will be shaky on the fundamentals. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught.
I must also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly dull. A student from a previous term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.
I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can escape.

Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I will explain basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I will advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I will show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.
You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.
Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft. One learns it by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.
I can’t make you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters? But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by semester’s end be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.
So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. One previous semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.
One more thing. You may not care for my manner or my sense of humor. Not every student has. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to sharpen your coping skills.
Now, shall we get down to the particulars?