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.