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In the background

Over at The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller has some suggestions for managing those days when the glamour of editing fades. (Yes, Best Beloved, even editing, like fashion modeling and skydiving, has low points.)

Her final piece of advice: “Accept your fate. Yep, just do it. If possible, break it into smaller chunks. Listen to music. Give yourself little treats as you make progress and a big treat at the end. It’s going to feel so good when you’re done.”

That, in turn, prompted a reader’s comment: “I find ... that rock 'n' roll works well for wake-up-the-brain-and-body dancing breaks, while baroque instrumental music gets me more deeply into the editing zone. Your music choices will vary according to your generation and personality.”

Vary they will, and I wonder whether you would care to discuss what music assists you during the slog. At the paragraph factory I forgo music, because headphones or ear buds would block things I need to hear—the abrupt reversals of decisions, the alarm that the computer system is about to crash again, the urgent query about what our style is on work force (two words, AP says, even though every business writer in America writes workforce). But I can crank it up when I’m working at home.

Haydn symphonies, I’ve discovered, are excellent adjuncts to editing: not too much crash-bang (Imagine what a manuscript would look like if you were listening to Stockhausen while editing), harmonious with the requisite energy, and a little bounce. But when the text is pure stodge, deadline looms, and something more propulsive is required: Sousa.

And you?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 AM | | Comments (18)


Ah, yes. Sousa definitely cranks up the attention level!

I'm a pretty auditory guy, so music, alas, is usually more of a distraction than a help.

When I have to hunker down at the office, I use an application that channels the soothing sounds of stream water through my noise-canceling headphones. It's either that or some version of white noise: I'm fond of "brown noise" at home and "pink noise" at work. Either way, the app is a lifesaver.

If the task is downright mindless, I put the iPod on shuffle, which means plenty of U2, Indigo Girls, Ella Fitzgerald, and (I'll admit it!) showtunes.

I didn't use to be able to listen to music while writing or editing. If the music was good, it distracted me from concentrating on the work -- and why listen to bad music?
Now I find I can listen to instrumental music -- nothing with words, please -- and preferably solos or small groups. String quartets, keyboard (especially Bach), small group jazz (Monk or Miles).

Somehow, music (even without lyrics) occupies the verbal parts of my brain, so I can't listen to music and write unless the music is completely filtered out.

Copeland is good, especially "Fanfare for the Common Man."

...and, of course, I meant to misspell Copland. Sheesh.

Depends on the time of day.
For the wake-up call (mornings at work) it's E. Power Biggs blasting out Bach on the organ. That will clear your sinuses!
For the tasks that requires being in the zone, choral music does it; a plaintive Kyrie followed by a fire-and-brimstone Dies Irae sure mixes things up.
When a contemporary beat is on order, it's either show tunes (yes, more vocals) or bagrock - rock bands with bagpipes, bodhrans and fiddles in addition to the normal guitars and drum kit.

I do computer work, not editing, but filling in Canadian postal codes is a soporific task that benefits from powerful musical assistance at times.

No one - with the possible exception of Pierre Boulez - listens to Stockhausen. And of course almost no one listens to Boulez.

For relaxing sturf, maybe some Bach. Sousa might work, but I lean towards some more contemporary music, like Sarah McLachlan. Her voice is great.
But when its really crunch time, maybe three fingers of Knob Creek.

Oops, my apologies. That was supposed to be "stuff".

The most basic thing for me is that there must be no words in the music if I'm working with a text. Doesn't matter if it's opera in a language I don't speak; I can't manage two sets of words at once.

I also am partial to baroque when working, and will often listen to the same CD of, say, Mozart concertos over and over again until a particular project is complete.

John, I have to say i am more taken by your observation that headphones and earbuds obscure one of the essential responsibilities of the slot person -- eavesdropping in order to apprehend trivia such as (in my experience) moveups not otherwise communicated to the desk.

I like "sturf."

I prefer wordless music for editing, and guitar is the least distracting. When Leo Kottke or Johnny A. come up on the shuffle, I switch it to play in order. No music for writing. Loud music for housework, so I can bust some moves while I tidy.

Forgot to say that the housework music is rhythm & blues.

I'm definitely a product of the rock and roll era. My favorite "gotta bang it out now" writing music (I'm the sole writer/editor at this job) is the band Boston.

I put on Gaelic Storm. They distract me no end from the task at hand, which is usually exactly what I need. After indulging for a bit, I get back down to business. That's the ticket.

I'm with MelissaJane and Ol' Scrapiron on this one. Instrumentals only. I cobbled together a small playlist within my laptop's iTunes library for this purpose. The playlist includes, among others, Jim Chappell, Gustav Holst, Richard Elliot, the Rippingtons, George Gershwin, and Bernie Williams. I'll be adding some Wayman Tisdale in the near future.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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