Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The editor's hand

The reputation of editors, particularly copy editors, has not been enviable. There is a long tradition of writers affecting to believe that if we were only rid of these petty, pedantic, literal-minded, comma-chopping drones, we would experience an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. But all parties should grasp that writers, editors and copy editors alike work toward a common goal: accuracy, clarity, and precision of expression  perhaps even elegance. It is essentially a communal and collaborative activity.

Christopher Ricks, reviewing Johnson on the English Language for The New Criterion in 2005, said: "The meaning of a word is neither a matter of opinion, nor a matter of fact, neither subjective nor objective, but an exercise of communal judgment. ... A language is a body of agreements (not opinion or facts but agreements, judgments that are at once personal and impersonal, individual and social), agreements not only between people who are alive but also between those who are alive and those who are dead, It is by courtesy of the dead that we are able to communicate at all, and this is one of the many reasons why those of us who are (for now) alive should treat with courtesy the dead." 

Mutual respect among the parties —  the editor for the writer’s primacy of imagination and invention, the writer for the editor’s sharpness of eye and sense of precision, the respect of both for the language we have inherited and of which we are custodians — is necessary for the formation of reliable judgments. For the writer, understanding the editor’s role and methods will sharpen perceptions during the first crucial editing, the writer's self-editing of the text. For the editor, improving the techniques of editing will better serve for the writer — and the reader. D'you remember there's a reader?

The reader’s interests transcend the preoccupations and vanities of both writer and editor. All readers demand clarity and order, and when they do not find it, they turn aside without compunction. Particularly the informed reader, the literate reader offers the greatest promise for appreciation of the writer’s effort; for them, precision in the use of words shows that the writer is to be honored for having mastered the craft.

Though the perspectives and skills, not to speak of the temperament, of writing and editing are distinct, what they have in common is what John Updike said of The New Yorker’s Katherine White in an essay reprinted in Odd Jobs: “To the born editor, it must be, the mass of manuscripts looms as nature and experience do to the writer — as a superabundance to be selected from and refined, and made shapely and meaningful.”

Let us be clear: Writing is a primary function, editing a secondary one, and no one should pretend otherwise. Editors must also realize that their task is to bring out and clarify what is inherent in the text, to make it shapely and meaningful, but they cannot go beyond what they are given. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.” 

The personal element, always present, cannot be ignored. However much writers tell themselves that they are professionals, that the text they have written is an artifact rather than an extension of themselves, that criticism of the text is not a reflection on their selves, very few really believe that. No one enjoys being edited. This is what editing looks like to the writer: After the vividly recalled circumstances of the conception of the article, the prolonged gestation, the sweat and pain of the labor that brought it forth into the world, the writer murmurs, “This is my child.” And then: “Here comes some editor, saying, " 'Mmmm-MMMMPH, that is one ugly baby.' "

Disarming the writer’s psychological reaction is an editor's crucial responsibility if anything useful is to be accomplished. When a discussion of editing issues turns instead into a struggle over who will prevail, on who has say-so, editing turns into a battle. The loser leaves the field smarting from defeat and vowing to be a victor in the next round, guaranteeing a continual cycle of conflict in which the reader is the ultimate loser.  

A writer might consider a different metaphor. Imagine that you, the writer, are about to receive an award at a formal banquet. You are wearing your best clothes and have taken trouble with your grooming. Just as you are about to walk into the bright light to claim the plaque or the trophy and savor the applause, a person standing beside you points out that you have a foot-long streamer of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. You do not want to hear that. You feel foolish and embarrassed — but not nearly as much as you would have been had you walked out before an entire audience with a length of toilet paper flapping at your foot. The person who warned you is a friend who has performed a useful service for you. An editor is, or can be, that kind of friend, who spares you public embarrassment.   

You as a writer are, of course, perfectly free to ignore your editor, just as you are free to check out of the hospital against medical advice. But do you want to take the chance? 

Learning on your own, without an editor’s advice, is learning the hard way. Russell Baker describes the method in The Good Times, explaining the relationship between reporter and copy editor (copyreader) at The Sun in Baltimore more than half a century ago: "The Sun believed in learning by doing. … Copyreaders rarely changed anything you wrote, no matter how dreadful it might be. Once promoted to the big time, you were given a lot of rope. A reporter could also learn by making a fool of himself. So went the theory, and the Sun dared to live by it until it became obvious the offender would never learn anything, in which case he was tucked away in an inconspicuous niche where he could no longer embarrass the paper."

So we can do it the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

I subscribe to The Baltimore Sun. For now

 For more than thirty-seven years, thirty-three of them on the staff, I have been a daily subscriber to The Baltimore Sun. The announcement that the newspaper has been purchased by a conservative crank with no experience, and apparently no interest, in newspaper publishing has led a number of people in my orbit to announce that they have canceled or plan to cancel their subscriptions. 

But I have friends and colleagues who, stunned and dismayed, are still there, working as professionals, trying to provide readers with accurate, reliable news about the city and the region. I am loath to abandon them. 

The Sun has undergone a painful decline over the past two decades because of corporate management that has been alternately incompetent and avaricious. (Occasionally both.) Everyone on the staff during that time understands how hard we worked to produce a reputable publication with fewer people and resources. The remaining staff members today face the greatest challenge yet. 

So I am still here, reading the print edition each morning and watching online during the day, waiting to see what can be done to salvage the work against great odds. Very likely there will come a point at which it is unbearable to look at a paper to which I have given half my life. Should that point arrive, I will make the call to circulation, and mourn the loss. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The plot against the copy desk

 It was the 1990s. I was chief of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.

One day a senior editor came into my office, closed the door, and sat down.

"What's up?" I asked. 

He said, "[Editor X] is compiling a list of the sins of the copy desk and inviting other editors to contribute."

"Ah," I said. 

"What do you want to do about it?"

I thought for a moment and said, "Nothing." 


"Nothing. They can't complain about our editing without showing what they send to the desk, and that stuff can't stand up under examination."

He got up, opened the door, and left without another word. 

Nothing further was ever heard about the sins of the copy desk. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Yeah, you probably need an editor

We know, because we have looked at the internet, that few people can write effectively, and we also know that all human beings are prone to error. Engaging an editor compensates for this state of affairs. 

First of all, your editor will catch lapses in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage. Trivial details as they are, they give readers an opportunity to discount your competence and dismiss your message. Your editor works to make your text clean. 

Then, do you actually know what you are trying to say? When we write, we have an idea in our heads of the meaning and importance of what we are attempting to say, but what appears on the page may not correspond. Your editor will keep asking what you mean here and whether you meant to say that and how you think the reader will understand this. Your editor works to make your text clear. 

Do you know how to shut up? First-draft writing tends to be slack, and revision may not fix it. An editor will know how to tighten your prose, identify rambling, drop verbiage, make your point more direct. Your editor works to make your text concise. 

The main thing is that your editor will weigh what is appropriate. Is what you say appropriate to the subject? To the situation? To the occasion? To the publication? To the audience (the party frequently disregarded in these operations)? Your editor may have to be the person to tell you, tactfully, that you are not as funny as you think you are, as elegant, as impressive. 

Your editor, if they are competent and professional, does not want to demonstrate superiority over you, but to assist you in accomplishing your purpose, to collaborate to make your text more efficient and effective, to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public. 

Yes, you need to pay for this. Expertise as an editor is acquired by study and apprenticeship in the craft. Your friend who got a passing grade in English in high school is not an equivalent.  

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Editor, control your crotchets

Editors are human beings, though you may have been told otherwise, as susceptible to idiosyncratic preferences about language as anyone else. Even the most scrupulous can be tempted to impose a crotchet on a text being edited. 

One of mine is to despise the term locals in writing about the members of a community. It is vaguely condescending, the eminent journalist looking from great height at the inhabitants going about their little lives. It echoes the expression local yokels. So I regularly change locals to local residents

But it is a slippery slope in choosing when to impose a personal preference, and, as usual, it is easier to spot a problem when someone else is doing it. We had a copy editor at The Sun who thought that the word how should not precede a clause. He would routinely change "how the copy editor approaches the text" to "the way the copy editor approaches the text." Where he got this notion I cannot say; it does not come up in any of the manuals I have consulted, nor does it achieve a significant gain in clarity. 

This is dangerous, principally because editors tend to find what they are looking for. If you have a set of arbitrary preferences in your head, you will find all that occur, at the hazard of missing something important. I wrote the other day about copy desk busywork, and the unreflective imposition of personal preferences is another example of time-wasting edits. 

So I try to examine my own preferences, consult with linguists, lexicographers, and usage experts to see whether there is justification. In the case of locals, I can explain my reasoning if challenged by the writer or another editor. In other cases, I can appeal to authority, such as Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins or Garner's Modern English Usage

You do not have enough time in editing to do everything that you need to do, much less everything that you would like to do. You need to examine very carefully how you are spending that time.