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Reflections on Editing — and on the Sound of Prose

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“You are the kind of editor who thoroughly understood what we were trying to say — an essential, we think, to empathic editing.  It makes you much more than the usual editor, and what you have contributed to our book is accordingly so much greater.”

–Everett M. Rogers,
Institute for Communication Research,
Stanford University

 

I believe in relating to a manuscript not just “as it is, but as it can be made to be,” to quote from M. Lincoln ("Max") Schuster’s “Open Letter to a Would-Be Editor.”

And I draw on my training in mathematics, logic, and analytical philosophy at Cornell in seeking to make every piece of writing as clear as it can be made to be. In line editing a text, I raise with the author, as needed, two questions I was taught to ask at Cornell:

  • What do you mean? (What are you saying, or trying to say?)
    and
  • How you do know it’s true? (How did you get from there to here? By what reasoning? From what evidence?)

But in editing general-interest and scholarly non-fiction as well as lighter fare, I not only relentlessly edit for clarity and logic but, on behalf of the author, seek to achieve a sometimes more difficult ideal: grace — even elegance. “Make it flow” is probably the most common instruction — or prayerful petition — I’ve received from managing editors and writers.

Achieving that goal requires editing for the ear — for we read with our inner ear even when (as most of the time) we don’t read aloud; and that inner ear hears discordancies, ambiguities, and inelegancies that we may not even be (consciously) aware of. It requires a sensitivity to what Wilson Follett calls “the sound of prose.”

Thus, “to know good grammar,” says one writer, “is to be able to hear when something just doesn’t sound right. You know when someone has made a grammatical mistake the same way you know when someone is singing off-key.”

Effective punctuation can also help make writing sound — which is to say, read — well.  The choice of a comma vs. a dash, say, or a dash vs. a colon, can affect the balance and cadence of a sentence as much as the selection of the right adverb or preposition.  The writer and radio personality Jonathan Schwartz once said that Frank Sinatra was the only singer he’d ever heard who could sing a semicolon.  (As it happens, the semicolon is, in my judgment, the single most underutilized mark of punctuation among writers today:  “a pause,” notes the Irish writer and media critic Trevor Butterworth, “for ambiguity, complexity, and nuance.”)  The exquisite phrasing for which Sinatra was famed as a singer is what writers seek in their prose — and what E. B. White, for example, was admired for achieving.

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White is often praised for what has been described as his limpid — transparently clear — style.  He may have been familiar with George Orwell’s injunction that “good prose is like a [perfectly clear] windowpane.”  As a writing teacher of mine once elaborated:  You don’t see the window!  Good editing involves removing whatever textual stains or smudges might make a reader aware of the window, thereby distracting him or her from the author’s message — just as pebbles in a road you’re walking on make you too aware of the road itself, diverting you from the journey and its pleasures.

It helps to be a perfectionist — one book calls line editing “the rigorous pursuit of perfection” — with respect to everything from the presence or absence of a comma to the choice of the right transitional phrase or adverb; from pruning unnecessary words to inserting required ones; from moving a sentence, or a paragraph, to hearing, with an editor’s ear, what will move a reader.  (Perhaps keeping in mind what another teacher, in a class on essay writing, once taught me:  that all writing — he specifically included fiction! — is, in intention, persuasive writing.)

And it’s important to remember that, as my first managing editor taught me, “All editing is by way of suggestion” — and to take satisfaction in invisibly making “others look better than they really are,” as one author gratifyingly described my work.  The ideal compliment from an author will ultimately attest to one’s skills as an empathic reader:  “Usually Robert has expressed what we intended to say,” wrote one of my authors to an editing supervisor, “but in an even more effective way.”  “It was like you could read my mind,” wrote another author, “and knew what word I wanted but couldn’t find.”

Ultimately, one edits prose in the hope that not only will writers express themselves more clearly, but they — and, especially, their readers — will think more clearly.  (“Bad thinking brings bad consequences, now or at any time,” wrote the distinguished poet and critic Mark Van Doren.)  Editing with this goal in mind can sustain one’s faith that, in the words of the (pre-computer) editor William Bridgwater, “the little marks [one] puts on paper are for the betterment of mankind.”

© Robert L. Cohen

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