Notes for a talk with an undergraduate editing class
If you like the work as you understand it so far and you’re wondering whether this might be the career for you, you’ll want to know something about the range of possibilities in the marketplace. I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch of some of the roles I’ve worked and talk briefly about where you might go from here to further prepare. Then we’ll get into a Q&A.
THE ABILITY TO SPOT A FEW CLASSES OF ERROR IS NOT NEARLY CREDENTIAL ENOUGH
When I was at a startup in the early ’90s and we were building our department, we took on as editor someone very new to the profession. She had studied design in school, and the portfolio she brought us was filled with visual pieces. But she had an ear for the language, she had a passion for reading and could parse a sentence, she was sharp and analytical, and she soon picked things up.
Consistently, the problem I see with novice editors is, on the one hand, not knowing when they should limit themselves to strictly mechanical copyediting, and on the other, not knowing when — and how — to intervene more deeply.
In response to the claim that no two editors will edit alike, the unstated corollary being that all editorial decisions must be equally good
Well, it’s true that no two editors will come up with exactly the same solutions. Each editor will bring individual sensibilities to the work, as well as different ranges of experience, different schooling.
The skills an editor develops over a lifetime of editing are the tools in her toolkit. Integral to developing and honing those skills are the books in her life. The books she reads for pleasure, making the rhythms of the language (or languages) intuitively her own. And the books she reads and studies specifically to learn more about how the language works.
You know this already, even as novice writer or editor: some text needs only a minor bit of tweaking to ready it for publication; other text might need progressively more intervention before it goes before an audience. The categories of editorial intervention — from deeper to lighter, and the tasks involved—are known as the levels of edit.
Early fMRI studies suggest expertise has a physical correlate
The results are preliminary and certainly (as has been remarked) inconclusive, but an intriguing functional MRI (fMRI) study done a couple of years back suggests that novice and experienced writers approach writing — the writing of fiction at any rate — very differently. It seems that novices think in pictures, while experienced writers think in words.
THE MASTER CRITIC OF DRAMA IN CLASSICAL GREECE HAS A THING OR TWO TO SAY ABOUT STORY, STILL.
We bundle the dog into the car, my husband and I, and fill up the trunk: books for one sister, the teapot my mother wanted, an article for my father, something for the baby. The trip down will take us two hours, three in heavy traffic, and the familiar terrain — the cattle on the hillsides, the billboards, the iron-worked toll bridge — slips by as we play our versions of Botticelli and Ghosts.
A meditation on thinking through ideas and presenting them
In the Poetics, his treatise on the drama of his day, Aristotle said that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This deceptively simple starting point is only to say that stories are shaped compositions, and that the shape matters.
What sort of writing calls to you? Read widely in a range of genres, but of the writing you yourself hope one day to do, read the undisputed masters. And then compare that work with the work of lesser writers. Learn to see where the finest excel, and others fall short.
Something there is, in us, that seems always to seek narrative. Outside, the children play and as they play they tell stories, adapting those character roles they have observed in their own lives (the mommy, the daddy, the little girl, the baby), as well as those they’ve heard and seen in books and movies, weaving new scripts for their characters, trying on roles and identities, writing their lives. Their play is in this sense not formless: they cast it within the bounds of a narrative, though their narratives tend to be episodic. Children’s play is all about stories.
If you’re still relatively new to writing, you may not yet have developed strategies for getting past those temporary blocks. If you’re an editor, you’ll want to have a store of suggestions such as these to help your novice writers unblock.
Unless someone has just walked in your door and handed you a few pages to “look over” (which also happens), you should get into the habit of doing some preliminary investigating and evaluating before you sit down to edit.
Without writers there would of course be nothing to edit. Their task is not an enviable one: schedules are compressed, engineers (or other SMEs) are often too busy to supply information or adequately review materials, and when the document is flawed, it’s the writer who hears about it. Adopting a positive attitude, maintaining perspective, and having compassion will help ensure a smoother working relationship. Be a kindred soul, not just a critic.
Perhaps the hardest thing for beginning editors to feel confident about is when to make the change, and when to query the writer about making the change. Even experienced editors can lose sight of this distinction.