Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Peace, Love and Editing

This week's edition Friday Fundamentals gets psychological and interpersonal as we take a look at the moral issues of editing other peoples' work.

It might be a Power Point for a co-worker, or a job resume that  a relative is painstakingly composing, or an English essay shoved under our nose by a belligerent adolescent  who happens to dwell (reluctantly) under our roof.  Eventually, anyone who writes gets tapped to edit others' writing, the same way that doctors get cornered at backyard barbecues and treated to recitations of  others' medical symptoms. 

This brings up the two perennial questions of Editor's Etiquette:  

1. When do you accept an editing assignment, and when do you refuse? 

And -- 

2.  If you accept, and do end up making corrections, how deep do you go?

A lot depends on your individual tolerance level.  Editing is odious for some of us.  It's actually fun for others.  And for many of us in the writing profession, it's simply a curse that we can't turn off: we find that like it or not, our brains are permanently set on Auto-Proofread.  

So, what to do?  

If you're in the hate-to-edit category it's simple.  Just say, "I can't stand editing.  Don't have the patience.  I'd do a rotten job.  Can you find someone else who's good at it?"

If you're an editing fan, or a compulsive editor, you'll probably accept.  Why not?  And then you'll have to face the "how much is too much?" issue.

I fall into the compulsive editor category.  Personally speaking, no restaurant dining experience seems complete to me unless I've found at least one typo on the menu ("Ha! Calamari with an e instead of an i!  Who checks this stuff before they send it to the printer?")  For those of us who are compulsive editors, it's not so easy to know how much editing is appropriate when we look at others' work.  consider these two examples: 

 "Make your entrance down the same French Grand Staircase as Coco Chanel
 and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor."

Or how about this one:

"The executive committee shall review the membership, specifically their adherence to the constitution and by-laws, and make recommendations for revising the roster."

If you don't immediately sense the off-kilter quality of those examples, then you're spared the difficulty or deciding whether to adjust them or not.  But If you're wired like me, you fret at problematic grammatical structure the way a musician winces at an off-pitch melody line. And you want to fix it, improve it, make it perfect. 

But are these examples wrong enough to justify tampering with them?   Will you offend the originating author if you try?  Will you come across as a nitpicking crackpot?  What's your verdict?  Should you rewrite, or not?   

I don't claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer, but here are my general guidelines about editing for someone else:

1.  Don't take on editing jobs unless you're enthusiastic about the project.  

2.  Try to edit only if you have the time to do a good enough job. 

3.  Use the language and phrasing that makes the most sense given the intended audience.

4.  Be a supporter, not a stickler.  

Writers' egos are a intertwined with our artistry.  When we produce our own words, we can let that artistry and that ego go hand in hand where we want them to go.  When we edit others' work, though we have to separate the two.  We have to check our ego and adjust our artistry a bit.  We are not, after all, writing with our own voice -- we are trying to let another artist's voice tell another artist's message.  So we need to lean back, stay objective, and wordsmith with humility in whatever way best connects that artist with his or her audience.

The truth is, our culture is getting less formal in its language usage, and literary purists are in the minority.  So for the best end results, we need to take on editing with a sense of detachment and devotion to the end result.

What will make the end product successful?  That's the ultimate question to ask.  

There are a million ways to write something.  That's what makes writing so powerful. When we come alongside to help another person put their thoughts into final format, let's do so with respect.  Let's give our skill graciously and pay attention, not to fixing grammar, but to meeting needs and encouraging craftsmanship.  

When you say yes to an editing job, be sure to edit out of love for the author, the subject, the audience, and the goal.  Then etiquette will be besides the point.  You'll be helping someone communicate exactly what they mean to say, and keeping them from being misunderstood.  

And no more than that is necessary.  

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