Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Editing and Intimacy

This post of Aunt B's, over at Tiny Cat Pants, struck a chord.

Close editing, as distinguished from scanning-for-typos, is an intensely intimate enterprise. (Just to head off any misunderstandings -- the folks at IHE have taken a blessedly light touch to editing my pieces there, mostly confining it to scanning-for-libel.) Really close editing requires not only seeing what's there, but seeing what isn't there and should be, or what is but is in the wrong place. It requires putting aside "how I would have said it" to be able to come up with something like "how you, at your best, might have said it."

A really good close editor is a rare bird. Candidly, I don't think I've ever had one.

Part of that, I think, is from not usually having been prepared for one. Many of my undergraduate papers (and graduate papers, honestly) were too muddled to benefit from close editing. A really attentive editor would have recommended simply putting the papers out of their misery. My college girlfriend and I once tried closely editing each other's stuff, only to realize, quickly and with sickening clarity, that neither of us had sufficient powers of compartmentalization for it to work. Since then, I've held to a strong church/state division on relationships and editing.

Professors, of course, were completely useless. They didn't read drafts, and when they read finished products, it wasn't unusual to get a summary comment like "good work." Okay, thanks. That's helpful.

Years of faithful blogging have accustomed me to a sort of frontier justice style of mass editing, in which it's made clear to me quickly when I've chosen a wrong word, or failed to provide sufficient context. Some comments are less helpful (or fair) than others, but in the aggregate and over time, they've helped tremendously. The day-in, day-out nature of blogging amounts to a vague parallel to reading drafts, and occasionally I'm caught off-guard when an especially attentive reader notices a shift in tone from something I wrote a couple of years ago. (I'm thinking of you, Dictyranger...) Over time, as my pet obsessions have become clearer, I've noticed that some faithful readers actually defend me when a particular sentence or word seems off-key. I'm more grateful for that than I usually express, so for those who've done that, thank you.

I used to think I was a pretty good editor for other people. I used to volunteer to proofread other students' stuff in grad school, but it became clear that when I went beyond basic grammar-and-typo stuff, I didn't have much to offer. Good close editing isn't something you can dash off quickly, or without a solid grasp of the underlying material. And then there's the pesky issue of different writing styles...

Judging by the quality of much of the popular press, most of what gets published these days doesn't get edited in any meaningful way. Some of that is probably the fruit of cost cuts over the years, but I worry that some of it is a loss of the sense that it's supposed to happen at all. With just-in-time writing becoming normal -- and yes, I'm aware that I'm a blogger writing this -- expectations for the usual courtesies to readers seem to be sliding. If we don't even expect reasonably consistent grammar anymore, then the odds of content-sensitive close editing are even worse.

Wise and worldly readers, I need hope. Have you found a good source for good close editors? Can close editing be taught?

I always did close editing for my grad students. The added benefit is that my editing is instructive, not just corrective.

I don't do this for undergrads because there are so many errors that it would be extremely time consuming and, as evidenced by previous endeavors, they just don't study and learn from the instructive editing.

I strongly suggest that all students use Writers Workbench and learn to edit their own writing.

Can this type of editing be taught? Not really. Unless one uses a tool such as Writers Workbench. And then the issue becomes why waste the time running papers through WW when students can do that for themselves?

Too much handholding going on in college classes these days. Students should learn to write competently before they take content courses. They can learn. They just won't take the time and effort to do so and no one makes it a requirement for a college education.
Part of what makes good editors hard to find is that to perform a close edit requires not just basic copy editing skills and a strong sense of clear writing, which are more uncommon than you'd expect, but also specific knowledge of the domain in which the piece is written. After all, an editor can't know what's missing if she doesn't know what's supposed to be there. As a result, a very good editor for one area may be only decent in another. That lack of portability restricts the supply of really good editors.

Even controlling for that, editing is a distinct skill that's difficult to teach. I think it can be. It's like teaching someone how to write -- there are certain basic elements that are easy enough to teach, like "check spelling," and some that are moderately difficult to teach, like "put like things together and make sure the piece flows." Then there's the advanced stuff, which I think you have to learn by extensive practice.

Also keeping the supply of editors small is that it's dreary work, and no child says, "Mommy, when I grow up, I wanna be an editor." Not many folks will, or even can, put in the hours it takes to become a really good one.
Talk to someone who works on the copy desk of a (really good) large newspaper. Many of them are exceptional editors (albeit not of very lengthy material) and work under very tight timelines. Also, The New Yorker is famous for its editorial process.

What I've read about editorial processes suggests that really good editing is a lot less common at commercial publishers than it used to be, and has also siminished at scholarly presses. I will say that my own experience with publication in scholarly journals has not been particularly edifying in this respect.

My guess is that a lot of people have sort of wandered into the job and have learned-by-doing, which means learned-by-making-mistakes.
my dissertation director is a fantastic close editor. he expended a huge amount of energy on my early chapter drafts, mostly focusing on a few key problems/issues/mistakes that showed up over and over. My written work has really improved as a result, and he doesn't have to edit me quite so closely anymore--although I'm sure there's more he could do if the situation warranted.

As compared to my previous director, I appreciate the care he takes to try to get a hold of what I'm trying to do, so he can diagnose where and why I've failed. That, to me, is the distinguishing quality. My previous director would scan the pages, not immediately see the point, and tell me start over. Not that my work didn't need some clarification, but simply telling me to start over was not ultimately helping me fix the issue.
My advisor is also a really fabulous close editor. It helps a lot that we have a really similar way of thinking (even if we are pretty different in our theoretical approaches) so that we can follow each other's train of thought well. Even that aside, he is great because (as he tells us) he assumes that we wouldn't be in grad school if we didn't have great ideas, and that it's his job to help get those ideas on paper and in a way that will convince everyone else they are great. That sort of intrinsic faith in my ideas has made a huge difference in my ability to work well with him, and lets me, as a writer, accept even the harshest editing.

My other really fabulous close editor is actually one of my oldest friends--I've known him since I was five or six. We've been reading and responding to each other's work for more than a decade now. Though I can't do much editing for him anymore--he's a PhD student in philosophy, and I just can't follow his arguments well enough to add anything--he still reads a fair amount of my stuff and he's great at helping me clarify what I mean and work out logical problems in my argument.

If it weren't for these two people, I wouldn't have managed to just get my first publication acceptance yesterday. =)

I don't know if close editing can be taught. I do think it can be learned, however. I didn't use to be a good close editor, but I've gotten better the more I teach (and I do give comments on drafts) and the more conscious I become about my own writing process. And the more I practice with my peers.
What I appreciate most in a close editor is that she can *teach* me something about my (bad) writing habits.

I had one excellent editor who quickly found three or four bad habits in the way I construct sentences. She explained them clearly, and it has been easy for me to “export” her comments to my later work.

On the other hand, I remember one very thorough editor who had no such skill: his corrections were exhaustive, but I couldn’t find common threads.

“Teach me to fish…”
I learned to edit -- and found my close editors -- at a newspaper. And I absolutely HATED when I was writing columns and my usual editor, who knew my style backwards and forwards, wasn't available to edit. With news stories it wasn't so bad -- any competent editor could fix me up -- but with something as personal as a column there's both a skill set and a personality match that's needed. I still e-mail really important stuff to those folks years later.

I actually don't typically close edit my students' work except in unusual circumstances, because that amount of green pen makes them cry. I try to focus on helping them improve one or two areas of writing (typically organization and clarity) and send them to the writing lab for spelling, grammar, basic style, etc.

I close edit some of my husband's work. And close editing often takes nearly as long as writing the original piece.
Of course editing can be taught!

I actually believe that I am an excellent developmental editor, and a competent copy editor. [[As she casually tosses her hair over her shoulder, she realizes the pressure on this post is high. Ah well.]] I'm simply not smart enough for me to believe that I acquired such skills without the extensive support from many teachers--including some in classes geared only to editing skills.

That said, when I teach university courses (undergrad and grad, STEM and liberal arts), I expect, demand and receive high quality writing. (Correlation? Causation?) Though I too wish that students entered my content courses with more than rudimentary writing skill, I have realized that many simply do not--and that I do them a disservice by suggesting that content mastery can occur without the ability to effectively communicate that content in speaking and writing.

To this end, I use a Grading Mastery paradigm when I teach; I allow assignments to be handed in and graded several times (up to a certain date) until the student is satisfied with his/her grade. Each version receives EXTENSIVE comments, and often an in-person meeting. Now all the teachers out there have realized that this comes with A LOT of grading work. I have been experimenting with ways to reduce this, and thus far have tried using a grader who only copy edits, and extensive use of peer-review in and out of class. I have found that peer-review can save HOURS of my time if it is instituted early in the course, and effectively. So far, the best method I've found is to edit an example piece on the screen in front of the students, with them contributing to the editing process. The examples I use are my own work (often from years ago, or an early draft of something), and I tell them so. It seems to be fun to rip into the teacher's work, and it helps me to demonstrate the severity with which I edit in a way that does not seem to be attacking anyone. We then talk about how to use the feedback to improve the assignment.

Beyond this, I have several key tenets that I communicate to my students throughout the quarter.
1) Every student in my class is capable of getting an A grade, though some students may have to work harder than others. (And I truly believe that this is possible.)
2) My classes are hard. Really hard. I do this on purpose because unlike many profs at my (public, state) school, I think the students are capable of difficult work. Furthermore, the students should be proud of their accomplishments in my course.
3) One can be a good writer/speaker without losing one's own style and voice. I have no interest in making clones of myself.
4) The quality of the writing does not necessarily reflect the quality of the thinking (though it is the only way I can evaluate the thinking) and it absolutely does NOT reflect the quality of thinker. Emphasizing this is hugely important to giving and receiving editorial feedback.

4a) From my own experience: a trusted faculty member recently edited a grant application for me. Her comment to the introductory paragraph: "This is the worst thing I've ever read. It's awful." Then there were a series of suggestions. When we met, she stated, "I love editing for you, because I don't waste any time sugar-coating my feedback. You know that I don't think you're stupid, just that the paragraph was. Now we can spend all that saved time improving it." Had I had such an explicit mentor early in my career, I'd have saved years of heartache reading negative comments.
Thank you for a great post. I did a lot of copy editing, and some close editing, for my fellow grad students. (Most of them did not return the favor.) I did not struggle much with those editing sessions and for the most part my colleagues were grateful.

Now I am working with a professor/mentor, serving as a second editor for a book that we wrote during one of the courses she taught. I have been struggling with just how much to 'edit'. It is this It requires putting aside "how I would have said it" to be able to come up with something like "how you, at your best, might have said it." concept that I have difficulty with. Will I get better with experience?

Feedback from the other editor would also be helpful. :) So I know what she is expecting.
Well, my advisor was a really good close editor, and I think that helped. I have close-edited for LDW, and he for me. I've also edited for some of my best blogfriends/colleagues, and they for me.

I think part of it is intimacy and trust. I think another very important part of it is also knowing what sort of editing needs to be done -- is it a conference paper? book? does it need cutting? just a read-through to make sure it makes sense? is it going too many places at once?

Most of us have some sense of where we are going wrong, I think, and are looking for not just another set of eyes, but for someone who isn't as invested in our words as we are. For me, knowing that I am reading and editing to make something clearer, tighter, etc., gives me the freedom to comment without worrying about hurt feelings (although I still try to be tactful, as my friends are with me!).

From there, it's simply thinking about what works best for the audience -- and sometimes, for the turnaround time!
My undergrad students get plenty of close editing from me -- IF they come to OFFICE HOURS.

It amazes me sometimes how many of them won't come to offic ehours unless forced, even when I point out that this is essentially free tutoring (or rather, something that they've paid for with their tuition), and even better, actually by the person who will be grading their finished paper.
I edit professionally. I learned on the job, but I did so after 1)graduate school in the social sciences; 2)years on the net (since 88), writing every day; 3)editing as blood sport on Wikipedia; 4)participation on a copyeditors' mailing list.

I am by nature a developmental editor and an extremely critical close editor. I struggle to keep my edits light and my comments supportive rather than scathing.

It's a hard life. Most commercial publishers have fired their in-house editors and outsource everything to freelancers. Pay is low. Work is feast or famine. No benefits. No medical insurance. But it's closer to my heart than anything else I've ever done.
Speaking of Vanity Fair, what do you think of their close editing of Sarah Palin's resignation speech?
Thanks for the shout-out, DD. Sorry to be late to the thread, but I was on vacation.

Like many posters here, I learned close editing "on the job", and my best editors have been colleagues and advisors who had a positive stake in my writing being as good as possible. I like to think I perform a similar service for them.

DD, I'm surprised to hear that you've never had a close editor. Is it usual in your field for papers to be single-author? In mine, it's very rare, and my most intense editing experiences have been when my colleagues and I were trying to speak in a single, clear voice in a manuscript or grant application. This requires good-hearted but ruthless attention to each others' quirks and ambiguities, and a willingness to accept and internalize correction. Is this not customary in your field?
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