First day of class
Two weeks from today I will walk into a drab little room in Beatty Hall on the Loyola University Maryland campus to talk to a dozen or so undergraduates who have unaccountably registered to learn copy editing. It will be my thirty-second semester of teaching the course, and they will hear something like this:
This is not a gut course. Writing is difficult enough to do. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder. We can write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.
Before we even get to the analytical aspect, we will have to do some work on grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the five hundred students who have preceded you here, you will be shaky on some of the fundamentals. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught.
I should also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly dull. A student from last term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.
I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can.
Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I’m going to talk to you about basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I’m going to advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I’m going to show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.
You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.
Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class. I can’t make you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters?
But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by Christmas be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead of most of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.
So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. Last semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.
One more thing. You may not care for my manner or my sense of humor. Not every student has. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to practice your coping skills.
Now, shall we get down to the particulars?