Thursday, May 6, 2010
You see that picture up there? It's from the 1982 edition of Arthur Plotnik's The Elements of Editing, and it made me laugh out loud when I saw it, so completely did describe my predilection to tamper with others' text during the editing process.
Surely you've felt it, that inching in your fingers when you're proofing someone's manuscript, that urge to rewrite sentences that don't quite meet your personal Platonic ideal. I've succumbed to it, and the result wasn't pretty. Even the most gracious author can reach the point where he feels as though he's dying from the literary equivalent of a thousand paper cuts. If a proofreader multiplies descriptors, expands fragments and inserts idiosyncratic words choices, he'll soon find himself locked outside the bathroom while the writer rummages through the medicine cabinet for Bactine.
Plotnik understood this, and though he was writing for journalists, his thoughts have ample application for we creative types. He noted, "The first impulse we have with another's copy is to make it sound right, and what sounds right to us is our own voice, our own idiom. Also, the more we change another's copy, the more we seem to justify our own editorial importance ..." But that isn't our job. When we're asked to examine another's brainchild, we should look for the macro mistakes and the micro foibles, the problems with, say, motivation or a misplaced comma or two. We ought not to attempt to recreate it in our own image.
Posted on Thursday, May 06, 2010