Language, Relics, and Mentors

Recently, a client complimented me on some editing work I’d done. It is always nice to hear from satisfied clients, but what surprised me was how disheartened I felt by the remarks. That is because behind the nice words I detected a sense of astonishment at what I consider a fundamental editorial duty: to push a writer's thinking in order to make the book better.

The compliment seemed to contain a lament for a golden age of editing of which I was a living relic—an era in which editors allegedly displayed vast general knowledge, a superior command of language, and the ability to make writers think about their work. These, apparently, were skills younger editors lack.

And that is the part that bothered me, that bit about young editors. No one is born a good editor. Yes, it takes some innate ability—an ear for language, if you will—but also years of training, reading, and hard work to build those skills. Younger editors don't have that, yet. Some of them will get there, but as with writing, it takes time and practice. And, I will add, mentors. Editing is as much a trade as it is a profession, and that means doing one's apprenticeship.

If I have any skills today, it is because of several mentors over the years who were willing to point to my mistakes and to show me how to correct them. They let me practice and make my mistakes without judgement. I thank them for their generosity and patience.

Ornithological Observations

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The cormorant sat there preening itself, unperturbed by my clumsy approach along the beach at Wolfe Point in the Bay of Fundy. I walked along the beach with no purpose other than to get close enough to take a photo that didn’t make it look like a speck of dirt on my lens. I am aware of my limitations: I’m not a professional photographer, and my equipment is inadequate. I know don’t have a bad camera (a Nikon D3100), although some might think of it as a relic from the past, and I don’t really know how to use it to its full capability. Every book or article I’ve read insists that I need at least a 300mm lens for bird photography; mine is a 55-200. The reality is that despite these alleged drawbacks, I still enjoy taking photos of birds. Both bird-watching and bird photography are ways to slow me down and to focus on the smaller details of my immediate surroundings. If a special photo happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I still had fun.

When it came to taking a picture of the cormorant, I’d gone about it all wrong. I didn’t have the proper equipment. I didn’t stay hidden or stalk and observe it for days, as the books suggest you do: I walked along the waterline slowly, in full view. As I got closer, I noticed how it bent and twisted its neck to spread oils on every inch of its body. I noticed that every now and then, it would straighten its neck and work the bulge in its crop a bit further down its slender neck. It would give me a careful look, then carry on doing what it was doing. Up close, I could see with the naked eye the black webs on its feet. What had seemed from a distance to be a uniform mass of black feathers was in fact a range of hues ranging from a golden brown to deep black, each feather folded and layered on another to offer an illusion of wholeness. I could see that this bird had already lost the breeding crests that give it its name, the double-crested cormorant. Colours shifted in the light and with the angle from which I viewed it. The orange beak was a cross between a duck’s flat bill and a raptor’s razor-edged hook. Even as the bird sat still while I approached it, everything about it moved and changed.

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I think that much of my approach to photography holds true for other art forms as well, like writing. Not everyone is, or should be, a professional writer. However, that does not mean you cannot write for fun, or set yourself writing challenges. There are entire books that prescribe rules for doing it properly—some emphasize correct grammar; others writing in the correct environment or using a formulaic structure; yet others offer rituals that will get the creative juices flowing. By the time you’ve read all the advice, you are aware only of your own inadequacy: you don’t have the right desk, the right pen or paper, the best writing shoes or sweat pants for the job, you use cheap ink, you don’t write stories that fit into neat categories ... It doesn’t matter: write because it gives you pleasure. Write because you want to tell a story. Write because you want to experiment with a form or technique. Just write. The rest will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, have fun anyway.

Editing by Edict vs. Editing by Ear

Two recent news articles highlight the importance of editing. In the first, Jacob Rees-Mogg laid down the laws of style in a guide for his staff; in the second, a foreign correspondent notes how a “colossal fuck-up” caused an international incident and ultimately became the subject of a movie.

As a junior reporter, Nicole Mowbray was asked to type up a letter. In accordance with the newspaper’s style guide, she “corrected” the American spelling to British. Such silent corrections are commonplace, and seldom raise anyone’s ire (the Riverside Shakespeare, for instance, has Americanized all spellings without known incident). Except, in Mowbray’s case this was a leaked communiqué from the American secret service, and her correction cast the authenticity of the email into doubt. Hence the international incident. Mowbray was given no context in which to work, and she followed the rules in the style guide to the letter, as many inexperienced writers and editors are wont to do. Her experience underscores why editors need proper context when they edit.

By contrast, Jacob Rees-Mogg offers his employees plenty of context. He espouses a prescriptive approach to writing that reminds one of E.B. White’s essay, “An Approach to Style” that first appeared in the 1959 edition of Strunk & White. Yet, as with White, Rees-Mogg seems to often ignore his own dictates (and, yes, that split infinitive defies White’s instructions). In a different essay in the New Yorker, E.B. White wrote:

Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles. The English language is always sticking a foot out to trip a man. Every week we get thrown, writing merrily along. English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education—sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across a street.

So, which is it? Edit by edict, or by ear?

Style guides are precisely that: guides. Be aware of context and circumstance as well as the rules. Ignoring the context can lead to international incidents (ask Nicole Mowbray).

Inevitably, punctuation and politics belong together. Lynne Truss dedicated Eats, Shoots, and Leaves “To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution.” Those Russians and their wild ideas! Take Anton Chekhov: c.1885, Chekhov wrote a short story, “The Exclamation Mark.” At an official function, Collegiate Secretary Yefim Perekladin is berated by a younger, more educated colleague for his lack of education and awareness of the rules. Perekladin’s experience counts for little. After a sleepless night thinking about punctuation, Perekladin adds three exclamation marks to his name when he signs in to work the following morning. It is an act of defiance against the arrogant conservatism of his conditions of labour.

As with Perekladin’s colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s stylistic dictates say more about his social beliefs than about style. Now, more than ever, we need Perekladins in the era of Rees-Moggs.

Who’d have thought that editing was exciting enough to inspire two movies and a revolution: first, Genius, starring Colin Firth, and now Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley? Lord, save us from a movie about Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Language and Body

I am currently reading Helen Humphrey's latest book, Machine Without Horses. It is more than a story about the famous fly dresser, Megan Boyd: it is also a book about writing, about how the author comes to understand her subject, and how she creates a character.

At one point, Humphreys writes,

Pacing a novel is both natural and deliberate. On a basic level, the rhythms of an author’s body influence the way a story is told. Where a sentence pauses is often where the writer takes a breath, and the alignment of language with the body operates beneath the layers of the story, the syntax of the words themselves, and in the placement of the punctuation. (page 138)

Humphreys is not the first writer to note this relationship between words and body. When Toni Morrison wrote how she learned what to discard and what to keep, it is about understanding the rhythms of her body: she has learned to listen to the rhythms of her body and to know when something is in alignment, and when not.

I have a paused to consider this: the author’s body and alignment of body and language. We often read about the physical conditions of their labour: the books that surround them; the state of their desks; or their state of mind. What we seldom hear about how those elements of a writing life factor into editing.

An editor needs to understand an author’s rhythm, to find the alignment between language and the body of the author, to use Helen Humphreys’ phrasing. In trying to understand Megan Boyd, Helen Humphreys takes fly tying lessons because she needs to understand the meticulousness of the task: the careful winding of the thread, the different feathers that make up a Jock Scott, one of Megan’s signature flies. She needs to come to understand what Megan Boyd sees through her window, what occupies her mind as she engages in a repetitive task for fourteen hours a day. Likewise, editors need to understand the conditions from which an author writes, and that takes work.

One of the techniques for learning how to dress a fly is to take a completed fly apart—deconstruct it and then reassemble it. A novice fly dresser unravels a completed fly to understand the textures and colours of the different feathers that constitute each new fly they learn to tie. It is just so with each new book an editor edits: they need to get a feel for the tension in the thread that binds the elements together. In other words, they have to get to know not only the physical conditions of writing, but the rhythms of an author’s body—they need to align themselves with the language and rhythms of the text.

Take a look at the four images of a Jock Scott fly that I found on the internet:

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Note the tiny variations that each of the dressers introduced: more blue in one, a more prominent tail in another. These are the rhythms of the body manifesting themselves in the work, the alignment, technique, and interpretation coming to the fore. Writing is no different: a short story is a short story, but no two are exactly replicas of each other. Editors have to learn to identify the differences, and to help the author accentuate them, or correct them where they render the object unrecognizable.

Editors have to learn to move with the rhythms of the author whose work they are editing, and to bring themselves into alignment with the text. That is how they avoid avoid inserting their own voice into the text, and help writers shape the best book they can. And for that, editors have to study the layers that bring about the alignment of the body and the language of the text.

Off to the Races

I’ve used every sunny moment this summer to build a deck instead of keeping up with my blog. But here we go again, and today we’re off to the races. Motor racing, that is. There’s something about writing and editing, too, so stick with me. 

To the untrained eye, Formula One cars all look pretty much alike. Shapes, engine sizes and vehicle weights are strictly controlled. So, what makes the 2019 Mercedes team dominate? Well, Lewis Hamilton, for one. With so little to separate the vehicles, the skill of the drivers counts.

He is all the untrained observer sees, but behind every Lewis Hamilton, there is a team of engineers and a pit crew. Pit crews train so that they can rotate tyres in mere seconds (the record is 1.92 seconds, for those who care to know). Short pit stops shave off precious seconds in a sport where fractions matter. Pit crews work out and even have their own physios. That’s how seriously the industry takes these behind-the-scenes workers.

This year, new regulations governing the front wings allow drivers to overtake more easily, but it’s left aerodynamic engineers scrambling to find ways to increase the downward pressure that improves traction and speed. How much more traction do these cars need, you wonder? After all, the downward pressure on a racing car is so great, it could theoretically travel on the ceiling. (Step aside Lionel Ritchie.)

Turns out, it is all about traction. This year, Lewis Hamilton won the Monaco Grand Prix by a margin of 0.537 seconds. The difference lay in a faster pit stop and in the way Mercedes decided to control the airflow around the tyres. A quick pit stop gave Hamilton the lead he maintained to the end; better traction gave him the edge that kept him ahead of his competitors by allowing him to pass slower vehicles without spinning out, as some of the other cars did. The changes to the design were miniscule, but enormous. A slightly wider front flap, raised fractionally on one side, and off you go.

In short, the backup team allowed Lewis Hamilton to race safer and faster.

All stories, plays and poems look alike to the untrained eye. There’s plot and tension; there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Easy-peasy. Once you’ve done it a few times and published something, you’ve proven your writing skills—you’re ready for Formula Writing, right?

Not so fast. At this point, you’re Lewis Hamilton without a backup team. Editors are the writer’s backup—pit crew and aerodynamic engineers rolled into one incredible package. At the level of Formula Writing, it’s about the details your backup can provide. Often, it’s about miniscule tweaks rather than redesigning the entire book. Things you as a writer are aware of, but a good stylistic editor knows at the microscopic level of an aerodynamic engineer—the tiny plot or stylistic choices that move your story ahead faster; how to control the airflow around your words and increase traction with the readers; what innovative techniques can have you and your book dancing on the ceiling. Editors help you steer your way through shifts in the rules—things like gendered language, or an awareness of privilege and cultural nuance. “Small” things that can make the difference between a book and a bestseller.

As a member of your writing pit crew, I can see you and your book to the podium safely. I’ve got that part down. Now to find a physio and a work out that doesn’t hurt as much as building a deck.

I’m All About that Bull

“Leopards,” Oom Schalk Lourens said, “Oh yes, there are two varieties on his side of the Limpopo. The chief difference between them is that one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the veld unexpectedly, you seldom trouble to count his spots to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary because whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running, and that is the fastest kind.”

— “In the Withaak’s Shade” ( Herman Charles Bosman, Mafeking Road and Other Stories)

Among the literary bullshitters of this world, there are few I admire more than Oom Schalk Lourens.  South African readers will likely know Herman Charles Bosman’s raconteur extraordinaire. He tells whoppers, but here’s the thing: The bigger Oom Schalk’s bull, the deeper the thought that drives it.

In the story from which my quote comes, Oom Schalk is searching for stray cattle under the Withaak tree when he encounters a leopard. In that moment, he acknowledges, the semantic differences between species are irrelevant: running is running. Except that he can’t. And just like that, Oom Schalk discovers a truth. Not about leopards, but about hunters: It is not bravery that drives them to stick around in the face of danger, it is fear. They would run like anyone else, except that fear roots them to the spot.

But enough bullshitting about stories. Let’s move on to more metaphorical leopards and cattle in the world of words. Yes, it is necessary to know important things like the differences between commas and semi-colons, or when (not) to use an Oxford comma. Knowing how to use these things reveals great wisdom and sagacity. However, when you’re a writer lying in the shade of a tree searching for words that are as elusive as Oom Schalk Lourens’s cattle, such differences become irrelevant. After all, your fingers only do one kind of clicking across the keyboard, and that is the fastest. (Besides, you can hire an editor to clean up the mess you leave behind.)

When you’re staring into the angry face of a semi-colon and feel its terrifying breath blow across your neck, don’t stop to consider what kind of punctuation mark you are dealing with. Rather, as Oom Schalk suggests, you should trust your instincts and let your strange companion settle beside you. When the time is right, in a second draft, or when a better course of action emerges, you can walk away from it without bloodshed. Or, for risk of repeating this too often, you can hire an editor.

Put differently: it is good to know the rules of grammar, but only to understand when to break them with confidence and purpose. Respond to the demands of situation. (Editors can help with that.)

Whether as a reader, a writer, or an editor, I care not a whit what variety of semi-colon confronts me. That’s for pedants. I care only that it works best in the context.

Turning Meadow Muffins into Manure

I’ve confessed that I’m a bullshitter. Some people have questioned the wisdom of that choice. That’s because bullshit is, erroneously, seen as a term of abuse, as a quick way to dismiss that which we disagree with or to avoid the labour of digging through the dung to discover the truths buried under the meadow muffins.

It’s time to take a closer look at bullshit, its uses and abuses, and its functions in a writerly world. It may take a few shovel-loads to get through the pile, so keep checking in to observe the progress.

The problem is that decades after Harry Frankfurt set out to define what bullshit is (On Bullshit, 1986), we still do not have a clear understanding of bullshit. As Frankfurt noted back then, we employ it randomly, abusively.

For writers, this is a very real danger. People who live among words are especially prone to bullshit—the bad kind, the rhetorical smoke and mirrors that cover up our intent. We fall in love with our own words. They become precious and proliferate, turning into verbal diarrhoea if left unchecked.

There is a reason writing gurus talk about Shitty First Drafts. They’re rough and contain piles of useless dung. Yet any gardener will tell you that fresh dung can decompose and become manure—and manure is “good shit”. All it takes to create manure from dung is for someone to shovel the pile so that it remains aerated and can decompose properly. If you don’t, it turns into soup. Soup is not good shit. It’s manure that you’re after as a writer: material that will feed the soul.

This is where developmental editing comes in. A good developmental editor is a bullshit detector, a shoveller extraordinaire. When doing developmental work, an editor’s job is to aerate the excrement and to ensure that through all the rhetoric, the writer’s profundity shows. To separate the good shit from the bad shit.

Sometimes, editors cannot turn meadow muffins into manure. Then it is their duty to let you know that the shit has turned to soup, that it is simply diarhhoea. Your editor is not your friend. S/he is your bullshit detector.

In this era of Fake News, tightening editorial budgets at publishing houses, increased competition for manuscripts, and who knows what else, writers sure could use a hand finding the fertilizer in the shitpile.

 Let your editor do the shovelling.

A bit of this, a bit of that

Let’s call this a blog post.

Let’s call it an experiment.

Let’s call it a thank you. You know what, just go ahead and call it whatever you like. I don’t care. After three days of being lobbed from pillar to post (can one even have pillars and posts—other than blog posts—on the internet?) by web hosting services, various Helpdesk phantoms and well-meaning tech friends, I finally stumbled upon Grace G. at the Squarespace Helpdesk.

Grace G. started by throwing a link to an article at me. It was filled with terms like DNS and CNAMES and A-something-or-other. I told her it might as well have been written in Dothraki.

Having discovered that I am as lost and defenseless in the world of technology as I’d be in Essos, Grace G. reached for her pen (which, in her case definitely is mightier than the sword). Fine, realistically, it was probably a stylus. Whatever. The point is, she sure knew how to fight her way through that horde of Dothraki words in the article. She reached for her trusty stylus and swished out some commands I could lob back at another hidden face at my domain host.

And just like that, she made magic happen. It’s the truth: The proof lies in these pages you are admiring right now. You’d better be admiring them. I typed the content, but without Grace G. conquering the netherworldly maze of coding that drives this crazy ether-real world we inhabit, no one would ever have seen them.

So thank you, Grace G. The Cretan maze that is the underbelly of the internet is a scary place for the technically challenged.