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?