Editing, the subtle pleasure
A couple of weeks ago someone addressed this tweet to me: “@johnemcintyre It must be tough, having a job that makes you so unhappy.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent which of my many remarks this referred to, but I think the writer misunderstands the satisfaction that a cranky and irritable personality derives from the quiet joys of editing.*
For newspaper copy editors, among whose ranks I have joyfully punched the DELETE button for more than thirty years, grousing is both a recreation and an art form. We are employed to be skeptical. We are engaged to ferret out error, and when we discover it, we are like a trained dog that has scratched up a truffle. We savor, hoard, and chuckle over the riper excesses that we remedy. And if our accomplishment is sometimes to render the execrable merely mediocre, we have done all that could be done with it.
We are as a class, as Flanders and Swann sang of the English, “clever and modest and misunderstood.”
Being misunderstood, we sometimes let out a good round oath or snicker among ourselves at the poseurs, the hacks, the fancied prose artists, the logorrheoids,** the blockhead managers, and all others who, deliberately or ignorantly, obstruct our godly task.***
I can explain to civilians how that task satisfies. You may find doing the laundry a chore, but you probably enjoy the smell and feel of clean sheets at bedtime. You may find vacuuming and dusting laborious, but it is good to stand and look around a clean and orderly room. Editing is cleaning up and establishing order.
When I call up an article, or when I lay a proof page on the desk and reach for a pencil, I am confident that by the time I get to the last paragraph, I will have identified careless slips, corrected inconsistencies, resolved perplexities, smoothed the rough places, and made the crooked straight. On publication, that article, on a page on the website or in the print edition, will display row after row of orderly sentences, a path the reader can negotiate without tripping.
There are times—the reporter files twenty-six column inches of type for a space that will accommodate no more than twelve—when I must be, as a reporter once called my first news editor, Bob Johnson, “the Texas chainsaw editor.” But when I wield the scalpel to excise excrescences and sharpen the focus, I can accomplish what a critic once told me about my editing of a review: “It says what I mean better than I said it.”
So, please, no tears for me over my three decades of the most congenial work I’ve ever done. If you hear a little grumbling or growling, that’s just the sound of the engine at work.
*Please, reader, do not think that I am universalizing. Carol Fisher Saller and Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, among others who regularly read these dispatches, offer editorial advice so unfailingly calm and irenic as to shame us lesser, cross-grained mortals.
**From logorrhea (logos “word” + rhoia “flow’), a twentieth-century coinage for a tendency toward unrestrained loquacity. I trust I need not mention what word it resembles.
***Oh, I should mention: Sometimes we like something.