Edit the World – a guest post by Ed Battistella

Today we welcome Southern Oregon University professor Ed Battistella with a piece that is close to my own heart: editing. (I confess to being much like his friend in the first paragraph.) Enjoy!

Edit the World

A friend of mine recently explained that she edits everything. Memos, posters, billboards, menus, skylines, faces. Her mind is continuously making improvements in the world around her.

When I hear this, I think “wow,” and wonder if it’s a good thing or a bad one.

I’ve been an editor and I’ve been edited. I’ve learned the hard way not to read with a pen in my hand, but also not to fight with editors who are more objective than I am. But my friend’s practice makes me wonder how much editing of my students’ work I should I do, and what kind.

Often the problem solves itself. Some assignments are short and don’t demand extensive feedback—their purpose is to check comprehension. On longer, more complex assignments where the goal is to develop, defend, and refine an idea for a particular audience, I try to match my editing to the effort that the writer makes. Most of my students are pretty conscientious, so the editing is usually pretty intense.

What I end up doing is developmental editing, with a dash or splash of copyediting. For me, the challenge is to make my comments useful for the long haul and tie them to bigger concepts we’ve discussed in class. “Does the reader have enough information here?” I ask, confessing that “I’m confused.”

When writers stray into textbook jargon and paraphrase of academic articles (because they are unsure of the specifics), I try to remind them to “give a concrete kitchen-table example along with the theoretical point.” “Remember,” I scribble, “show AND tell.”

When the writer tosses in a point and runs away from its implications, I try to offer a choice: “Develop this point more or omit it.” When there are too many unconnected ideas in a long paragraph, I want them to “Think about how you can make this all about a set of related topics.” When long bits of reasoning take over the exposition, I implore the writers to “add a short summary sentence to balance out the long ones.”

Sometimes too, the need or impulse to copyedit and correct arises. Here I try to refer to concepts rather than corrections. A clunky sentence is not just AWKWARD, it’s one that could be “stronger if you put the subject and predicate together and the new information at the end.”

For me, editing is about concepts rather than corrections. But some corrections are inevitable: affect and effect, its and it’s, eggcorns like “chuck it up” for “chalk it up.” I ask, “Do you mean chalk it up?”

But sometimes a simple scolding that says you’re better than this: I cross out the apostrophe in the possessive its and add a smiley face. When the writer does it again, the smile turns to a frowny face. I’ve even got a shocked face for the third time. The message is: you are better than this mistake. Work with me!

When I was in college, I remember seeing Warren Beatty playing in Reds, and laughing with my friends at Jack Reed’s line “Nobody edits my stuff.” We laughed because we didn’t appreciate what editors did. Now, I think about editing all the time.

Ed Battistella teaches at Southern Oregon University. He is working on a book about the linguistics of apology.