Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

Signs Of Dysfunctional (Editor-Related) Compulsiveness Or Holding To Favourite Rules Of Usage, Whatever The Effect On Communication.

“Some compulsives will work through a manuscript, and even galleys, changing every “till” to “until” or vice versa, depending on the grammatical ear they brought with them to the job […]. Chief Editors are usually the least flexible, stamping out perfectly acceptable words and phrases with great ceremony or waving their favourite (and usually outdated) usage handbooks. Although it is appropriate for editors to rail against the depreciation of English into jargon and colloquial swill, they must stop short of self-styled purism and allow for some variety of expression. […] A little Strunk and White is a dangerous thing.” -- The Elements of Editing by Plotnik

I have had this guide for quite some time. It is not a primer in grammar or a “how to line edit.” It’s a handy dandy reminder guide for serious editors, and it covers such topics as Editor and Writer relationships, how to approach a manuscript from acquisition to final galley, and the snarls of Libel and Copyright among other serious concerns. My reason for discussing this book has to do with the compulsive editor and the “style guides” both of which stand sentinel in perpetuating certain standards, standards that don’t often sit well with the artistic-minded writer. Yes, we want to be grammatically correct so that our intent with a sentence is clear, but we also want the artistic voice to ring out loud and clear. As Plotnik states: “The first impulse we (editors) have with another’s copy is to make it sound right, and what sounds right to us is our own voice, our own idiom. Also the more we (editors) change another’s copy, the more we seem to justify our own editorial importance. An editor’s job is to shape expression not thoughts. The editor deletes jargon, redundancies, ambiguities, and irrelevancies – never ideas.”

I agree. Sometimes as an editor, I suggest authors restructure sentences to improve clarity such as in the case of misplaced descriptive clauses and modifiers. Example: Poor: She bought a blouse in a store downtown of pure silk. Better: She bought a blouse of pure silk in a store downtown. This also removes accidental impossibilities: Disappearing into my bedroom, I changed into my evening dress. See what I am saying. Restructuring the sentence would get rid of the silliness and the ambiguity. That is what editors do best. They create clarity so as Plotnick says “The reader can see the fire through the smoke.” Nothing wrong with the smoke. Every story needs a bit of smoke but not at the expense of choking the reader. Editors should also be wary of crossing the line by making each book sound exactly like every other. Novice editors lean too heavily on the “style guides.” Consistency is nice and all that, but consistency, artistic expression, and individuality can coexist on the page. I know art from style-guide schlock when I see it, so I know it can.

Knowing how to be a good editor is more than just being a grammar Nazi. Yes, grammar is a necessary evil. Chaotic words carry very little meaning, but that doesn’t mean we want to give our work a Strunk and White enema either. We want the work to be fluid, comprehensible, and artistic. We need to learn the rules so that we know exactly what we are doing when we choose to break them. There is an art to editing just as there is with writing. No Editor is perfect. For me, the editorial process is a process of discovery, one very different from the writing process. With every editorial pass, I recreate the story from a different perspective. In the end, hopefully, I, the writer and the editor, understand the story’s true meaning. If I, as the editor, understand the true meaning, so will the intended reader. That’s who editors really work for: The Readers. As an Indie artist, if you cannot step back and become an objective editor, then leave the editing to someone who can: An editor who truly understands grammar, style, and voice. An editor who understand clarity is key and that their voice isn't the voice that counts, it's the authors.

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Anonymous said...

Hi Ms Gardner:

Just an interesting side note. Plotnik's Elements of Authorship was republished via POD back in 2000. I think it was under the Author's Guild relationship with iUniverse if I remember correctly.

I used to work for the old (i.e. not evil) iUniverse, as opposed to the new (i.e. very evil) current iUniverse.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks for the tip. I like his writing very much. I'll see if I can track that down and profile it.