Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An Editor

I critique people's writing. It's a mean thing to do, I know. I'm a freelance copy editor. I take pristine manuscripts and scrawl red pencil all over them, scribbling words like DELETE, REPLACE, REPETITIOUS across an author's dearly beloved creation. I have edited most of Dee's seventy books, and when I hand one back he always asks, "Is it bleeding very much?" He never wants to see his baby soaking in red ink.

I've operated on many documents authored by a variety of writers. Even professors, chemists and secretaries make pronoun mistakes. A copy editor is the person who checks the spelling, punctuation, grammar, tense, etc. I'm the one who makes sure the blond curly-headed girl on page 24 is not brunette and curly-headed on page 224. I get paid to look for flaws.

Ironically, it's almost impossible for me to edit my own work. It takes a different set of eyes to really see what I've written. It's difficult to recognize my own blatant errors, and since I know what I wanted to say, I can't re-read very effectively to see if I said it.

This week I'm working on a biography written by a lawyer. One subject of the book is a professor, who taught education at a university. He had the innovative idea of letting his prospective teachers "learn by doing." He instituted a student teaching program in 1887, and then traveled to conferences in San Francisco and Chicago to explain his new philosophy. It was soon introduced across the country and adopted as part of the regular curriculum. It seems so logical, yet someone needed to think of it, and then do it. I wonder how many people thought of it and didn't do it. I wonder how many times the idea was criticized and judged before it was tried. I wonder how many others were looking for flaws.

I think I'm pretty good at judging someone else's work. My red pencil comes out when I notice people making mistakes, and it's easier to scratch delete over another's bad habits than to recognize my own. Since I know what I meant to do, I can excuse myself, and give myself a pat on the back for my good intentions. When someone punctuates their life with too many question marks, or awkwardly constructs part of their personal story I'm quick to detect it. I can pick up a character flaw a chapter away, and the red ink starts flowing. It's impossible to edit my own life as scrupulously. I'm not so harsh on myself, because, after all, I'm just figuring out the plot as I go along, and my characters aren't yet fully developed...I'm still learning! And I don't need someone following me around with a sharp, bloody looking object!

I have my Thesaurus and Dictionary close at hand, and I've memorized Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. But there's a more authoritative resource that says, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Maybe underlining that line would be a good use for my red pencil.


rp said...

I love this post, as I have long thought myself a better editor than writer. It isn't an unwillingness to critique my own work (I am a very harsh critic there) it is, as you point out, a matter of not being able to see clearly what one writes until days later. I own both Shrunk & White as well as the Chicago Style Manual. I've read neither. I tend to fly (and die) by the seat of my pants.

MissKris said...

Oh mercy! You'd have a heyday editing my writing, wouldn't you? I think I break every rule in the book. But my daughter says to sit and read my blog is like sitting and having a conversation with me. That I write exactly like I speak. I know I use a bazillion too many "....." And I start my sentences with "And" and "But" and don't even use whole sentences. My fingers flit about trying to keep up with my mind. That's my only excuse. But I'm happy with it. I'm totally comfortable with it. And it's just me. What more can I say?

kenju said...

As an English major, I used to edit nearly everything I read, from the newspaper to mom's grocery lists. As an older woman, I have forgotten most of what I knew about grammar and I have never read the "elements of Style". Your last line here says it best. I think it must be hard for an editor not to feel like a god, but this reminds them not to act like one.