Miscellaneous thoughts on the editorial craft.
Breaking the Rules: An Analysis of Punctuation in "It's okay, I'm from Philly."
I used this quote to open the "About Me" section of this website, and I'd love to hear from the prospective client who stopped reading there, fully assured of my editorial abilities! There's a lot I could write about Philadelphians and why we are so trustworthy, but I will keep this professional and set out to do what I intended: analyze the punctuation in this statement.
Technically, the comma should be a semicolon. "It's okay" and "I'm from Philly" are two independent clauses, so joining them with a comma is erroneous—a comma splice. Another grammatically sound option would be to make the statements two complete sentences: "It's okay. I'm from Philly." But I kept the comma, and in doing so, I defied the Chicago Manual of Style. Do you really want me editing your book?
I'll try to explain myself. I stuck with the comma because a comma best matches the way these phrases were linked when my friend Alexander said them, upon being discovered asleep, nude, beneath a beached canoe somewhere in Jersey (or was it Maryland?). He said the words quickly, hoping to reassure the startled stranger that he wasn't a creep—and you'll have to trust me that he wasn't. "It's okay, I'm from Philly." I wasn't there, but I imagine him bleary-eyed and backing away slowly, hands held up in surrender. A semicolon would have felt too formal, and a period would have created too much of a pause between the phrases. So, I opted to break the rules.
This says something about my editorial approach. I know the rules, and I follow them. But I also consider context and nuance. I consider what a writer hopes to convey through words, and I consider what a reader might receive through those words. My role as an editor is to help these match to the greatest degree possible.
To the Skin
Michelangelo Buonarroti said of carving a sculpture, “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” I like the image this quote brings to mind: Michelangelo standing before a giant hunk of rock, seeing within it a living figure that he simply needs to free with hammer and chisel. The art of writing can be considered a similar process—the work of revealing and making tangible, through words, an apparition that already seems to exist. When you edit your work, you chip away the extraneous rough walls around it, freeing the work for your readers to behold. Editing is not just surface polish; it can make the difference between a text that a reader merely reads, and one that a reader truly feels and interacts with. One of the most important aspects of editing is knowing when the job is done; when the piece (or paragraph, or sentence) should be left alone. As Michelangelo put it, “Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.”
The Reader’s Dream
Writer and teacher John Gardner says in his oft-quoted book The Art of Fiction, “The dream must be vivid and continuous.” He writes:
“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again.”
Gardner uses the analogy of a dream to describe the process of writing fiction. But I also think this dream analogy holds for the act of reading a piece of writing, regardless of type. When we dream at night, we become engaged in that particular dreamworld with all our senses; we believe that world is real. Similarly, when we read great writing, we forget all about the artifice of writing (the page and the screen, the author who composed the words), and become immersed in the world created by the writer.
Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, creating a vivid, continuous dream should be the writer’s goal. This is no easy task, yet doing so is what distinguishes great writers and writing. A good editor can help writers sustain a vivid and continuous “reader’s dream” by identifying any passages or elements that could lead to a lapse in the dream, awakening and distracting your reader from your story or message. Any time the reader steps outside of (or “wakes up” from) the world you’ve created, the power of your writing is diminished.
Some of the common writing issues that distract readers from the dream:
▪ Problematic structure: In nonfiction, ideas must flow coherently, pulling together by the end to create a sense of understanding something new. In fiction, a story’s pace, momentum, and rhythm help shape the reader’s emotional investment in the story. Structural problems can cause a reader’s dream to feel like it’s going nowhere, and that can be reason to wake up and stop reading.
▪ Vagueness: Whether fiction or nonfiction, a piece must feel true to life. This is accomplished through vivid details and active language. A dream that’s vague or dull not only isn’t believable, but isn’t worth dreaming in the first place.
▪ Implausibility: A good actor transforms into a new person, and if that transformation isn’t complete, the audience can never truly believe. The same is true in writing. If a metaphor or a character doesn’t ring true to life, or a passage doesn’t seem to suit the moment of the piece, the dream is instantly weakened for the reader.
▪ Confusing language and inconsistencies: Every sentence must be immediately understood by the reader. If language is vague, imprecise, or not consistent with the dream set in motion, the reader will be forced to wake from the dream to decipher the meaning.
▪ Grammatical and typographical errors: Grammatical and typographical errors, no matter how small, undermine the writer’s credibility and the power of the piece. Whether consciously or not, the reader will wake up for a moment to consider how the error was introduced or overlooked, as if glimpsing the mayhem backstage during a performance.
On Standards and Subjectivity
The widespread lack of equity in the publishing industry, which continues to exclude people of color, is increasingly well known and discussed. The majority of publishing professionals are white. The majority of books published are by white authors and feature white protagonists. The PEN America Equity Project poses important questions about this problem: If literature is the art form through which we explore the complexities of humanity and articulate what it means to be human, what values are we perpetuating through such widespread cultural erasure and blindness? At what point does this institutional exclusion become an issue of freedom of expression, whether that’s through market forces, commercial viability, pandering, or the insistence on universal narratives? (The PEN project website includes many great resources on these issues, including reports, surveys, and discussions.)
Editors are content gatekeepers and shapers of the publishing industry, and our perspectives are shaped by our own cultural contexts. I am white, I am American, and my entire education—including the way I was taught to read and write and analyze texts—was developed through this cultural lens. It is obvious that the industry needs to diversify, making concerted efforts to support and recruit editors of different cultural backgrounds. But how do white editors like me help ensure we're not perpetuating white cultural ideals while we edit texts? Even the grammatical "rules" of book editing, as delineated by the Chicago Manual of Style, etc., came out of white culture (and that's why it's important that Chicago's rules are ever evolving). In that sense, some cultural imposition may be inevitable.
In an interesting op-ed in The New York Review of Books, writer Tim Parks talks about the fact that readers "love to feel we are in direct, unmediated contact with an especially creative, possibly subversive mind and that we are getting all of its quirks and qualities unmediated and unmitigated." And that this is, no doubt, why so little is said about the work of editors and translators: nobody wants to know about us behind-the-scenes lurkers. In a publishing culture where the "norm" and the "conventional" are, in part, white, is there any moral place for these conventions? Parks (who is British and white) argues that in some ways "norms" are necessary to creativity, as standards from which to depart. He writes, "The editor’s job then becomes one of helping the writer to see where an unessential, perhaps unconscious departure from the norm is actually draining energy away from places where the text is excitingly unconventional. That is, the editor reminds an author that to construct a coherent identity he has to remember his relationship with society and with the language we share and cannot express ourselves without." This speaks to an essential aspect of the editorial craft—bridging writer-reader perspectives—though I am hesitant to define an editor's role so exclusively. Park's point that rings most true to me is about relationality: that "each text and each usage in the text has no absolute existence, content, or meaning, but is always understood in relation to where we are now, what we regularly read and expect to see on the page." In the context of reading and publishing, who "we" refers to is an important question to consider.
As an editor with my own particular context, by no means a neutral "every reader," I do the best I can. I try to keep my context at the forefront of my mind, so as to minimize the chances that I unconsciously impose upon another's writing my own biases and assumptions about how a story or sentence should read. I try to educate myself about other cultural ways of reading and writing and analyzing texts. But this isn't enough; there is so much about my own perspective that is invisible to me. My best course of action has been to state to the people I work with that any suggestions I make are meant to be illustrative, and that as writers, they should always follow their own instincts. Above all, I try to remain sensitive to my own ignorance and to the enormous amount I do not know.
Articles about Editing
A nice introduction to what an editor actually does, along with thoughts on why editing may still be important in this age of self-publishing.
Carver was apprehensive about his editor's substantial changes to his story collection, but went forth with them, and the collection received critical acclaim. This is a fascinating article about the conflicts that can arise when an editor oversteps boundaries. The article includes original and edited drafts of Carver’s story “Beginnings” (links on right).