The Editor and the Edifice

“I’m not very good at this,” he says, smoothing out his page of single-spaced writing. “You want me to read it aloud?”

I nod. “And read your punctuation as well, please.”

“Okay…” he clears his throat and begins shakily.

Several times a week, this exchange repeats—with different students and occasional variations in the dialogue. Two constants remain: students’ diffident reading voices and emphatic criticism of their own writing.

“I’m really not a very good writer.”

“I am so bad at this—it’s embarrassing.”

“I’m so dumb. I already see a mistake.”

“I hope you can get through it; I just want the grammar to be good!”

Sometimes students will obediently read through their document as asked, stumbling awkwardly through their punctuation. Other times, they’ll forget to read commas and periods until I prompt, “You need a comma there,” and they reply, “Oh…I had one; I forgot to read it.” Still other times, they will stop every few sentences to ask, “Is it OK? Is that a good sentence?” And almost every time, they will verbally annotate their own work—pausing after every few words to make a change or tell me why they chose a particular adjective.

“See, I chose that word because I wanted to say…”

You can insert any word and any intended meaning into this sentence.

“I chose the word passionate because I wanted her to know that I am excited about this opportunity.”

“I chose completion of my education because I wanted to sound smart.”

“I chose at your earliest convenience because I’m trying to seem professional.”

Whether the words are appropriate (sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t), I invariably hear a disparity between what students write and what they mean to say. When I can hear this distance between meaning and execution of language, between what’s in their minds and what’s on the paper, I ask them to stop. I face them and say, “Look at me—don’t look at your paper. Tell me what you are trying to say.”

I stress that it’s difficult to find new words when you are staring at your old words. Sometimes, I tell them, we get caught in rhetorical feedback loops, where the only words we can imagine for this writing situation are the words we’ve already used. To eliminate the gap between what they’re saying and what they want to say, I have to enhance it. I have to underline it.

Even self-proclaimed “bad writers” come to love the words they’ve already written. When I ask students to break contact with their beloved words, they begin to understand the parts of their project that need renovation. Together, the editor and the writer begin to build something new, a work fostered by a relationship of trust and a commitment to tend the language.

The editor brings strength and perspective to the writing, replacing old, worn-out words with new ones. The editor walks the fine line between writing the work herself and leaving the writer’s original voice intact. A good editor doesn’t work in violence, snatching the pen and leaving dark red trails blazing across the paper. These rash gestures make the writer feel small and foolish.

I imagine editing as empowerment, the promise of future beauty. When I find myself in the editor’s role, I want my behavior to tell the writer, “Come with me. Let’s build something beautiful, evocative, and powerful.”

I must convey all this in thirty-minute sessions and semester-long courses. I must pack it into the design of assignments and the feedback I give. I must bring it to bear on the diffident writer, the overconfident grammar-scorner, and the creative analyst. I dream of inspiring the writer with my passion for language and well-deployed words, with my obsession for sentences that read smoothly and comfortably. I want the writer to feel the heartbeat in her own words, the life throbbing in her creation—to appreciate the power she invokes with words made bright and hard by centuries of use.

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