Thursday, May 6, 2010

In Our Own Image

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.


Jim Murdoch said...

Book reviewers could also have a think about that. Many's the time I've had to remind myself that what I think is important, what I would have emphasised or left out or said that bit differently isn't the only or the right way to say things.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I LOVE this post. Thank you for putting it up. It's something I'd like to talk about on The Lit Lab. The more I read other's work, and the longer I write, the more I see what I should be critiquing. I used to always try and critique by making the work sound like how I would write it. Bad idea.

B. Nagel said...

fantastic picture. I try really hard not to edit until I've read through at least once. That way I can get a feel for the voice and style.

Not that I succeed.

Loren Eaton said...


It's hard to draw the line between subjective and objective evaluation, isn't it? John Updike did as good a job of reviewing as anyone for my two cents.

Loren Eaton said...


Thanks! I really struggle with the temptation to rewrite someone else's work when I'm proofing. But I've noticed that the more I mess with the little stuff, the less likely they are to pay attention to the big.

Loren Eaton said...


Isn't that picture great? I love it.

Your read-through-once rule sounds pretty good to me.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this comment about editing others' copy in something else I read -- an article in Salon, I think, about what we can learn from bad writing -- and it was attributed to someone much more famous, but I can't remember the name.

I have a hard time when asked to read friends' work, especially when they're not natural or practiced writers. When someone hasn't learned the rules of grammar, it's tough to keep the critique focused on plot and character. I fight not to insert and delete commas.

Loren Eaton said...

I think the poster has made the rounds in the writing community. In Elements, Plotnik admitted that he copied it from a unnamed source.

Yeah, it's tough when everything needs fixing in someone's manuscript. I'm no expert, but unless someone asks me for a detailed line edit, I limit myself to three or four macro-editing points. That helps retain friendships!