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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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

I remember the exchange on Twitter. The catty comment was inspired by this tweet of yours, which in turn was prompted by the most tired of all puns. Your impatience was perfectly justified.

Well, yes, John - but don't you thus agree that the occasional indulgence in an editorial peeve is soothing to the emendational soul?

As you often warn, such a thing overdone is poor form, but the relish of a fine peeve (e.g., misuse of "begging the question," unhappy en-dash, etc.) does have its own peculiar pleasures.

Ah, but Mr. McIntyre, you cannot see me as I sit reading from my computer screen, sometimes in dismay, sometimes in the throes of a cackling fit, and occasionally in delight, caused by the prose before me.

And if you ever reveal what's behind my pleasant manuscript-side manner, I shall have to force you to read postmodern literary criticism ... and we all know how toxic that stuff is.

I toyed with the cadaver dog analogy before deciding that truffles would be more appetizing, if less appropriate.


Prof. McI.,

Hmm....... you might have pointed out, as well, that you need not have mentioned what word "logorrheoids" resembles. (And clearly, you didn't. ) And I'm not talkin' "adenoids", or "androids', if you get my naughty drift. HA!

I'll just shut my oral sphincter (pie hole), and leave it at that, as on more than a few occasions, even on this very blog, I've been accused of being a raving logorrheoid.
Well, not directly to my face. HA!

@GSB---- I love your turn of phrase, "soothing to the emendational soul". For me, it exudes both a sense of professional rectitude and higher purpose, which hopefully makes up a large part of the dedicated, yet occasionally peeved, copy editor's mettle.

ALEX

Evidence that even the best editors need proofreaders: "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 make the crooked straight." (Once an editor, always an editor.)

Point taken, with thanks. The best editors, like the best writers, are always grateful for correction.

As a fellow laborer in this vineyard for more than three decades, I must say I was unable to hit the "delete" button for that long because for most of the first decade that button was not available on the device my employer provided: a manual typewriter.

Coming in on the local...
I work at a weekly paper, where I report, write, knock press releases into English, copyedit, dummy pages, write headlines, and so forth. One of my favorite parts of my job is being the official cutter of overset. It makes my day when a colleague reads a story I have cut seven or eight inches (or even more) from and says, "I can't even tell what you cut."

Another fine post, Mr. McIntyre, and one worthy of printing and hanging on the wall. For those who do not understand my devotion to editing, even two years removed from newspaper editing, I will lead them here.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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