The aesthetics of editing

Editing text is a strange undertaking. The job is composed of many quite technical aspects – but without art, without attention to beauty, it is compromised.

The technical aspects can be time-consuming to accomplish, and they’re essential. When I’m copyediting a piece of text, for example, I will do all of the following as a minimum:

  • Check the overall structure of the document and implement heading levels and paragraph styles
  • Check that all the parts are there
  • Ensure the text conforms to house style, or impose a style if there is none
  • Standardise spelling and hyphenation
  • Correct grammar and punctuation
  • Reword sentences where necessary to help with flow and to make the text appropriate for the audience
  • Cut text to make it shorter, if required
  • Check names of people and places for accuracy
  • Check dates make sense
  • Check that links and reference sources exist and are presented correctly
  • Check text associated with images and figures
  • Watch out for legal issues and plagiarism
  • Follow any other copyediting instructions set out in the brief

All of these activities impose their own kind of beauty on the text. There is much to admire in copy that looks clean and cared-for, that doesn’t cause the reader to trip up, that is ready for the next stage in its journey to publication. Already, it commands more respect. But for a piece to be properly well edited, truly beautiful, there is more to do, and this is subjective. It depends on the editor’s good taste. This is how I will take your text further:

Remove instances of repetition …

… unless repetition is intentional. Repetition can happen within a sentence, within a paragraph, or within a whole book. (Yes, your copyeditor should notice if you overuse a word or phrase, especially if it’s a little unusual, or a cliché, or even an eggcorn.) Often copyeditors will see a way to make a sentence shorter by cutting redundancy, and this is good. But sometimes repetition, even redundancy, is intentional, possibly desirable (think of the word ‘and’ or ‘or’ for emphasis in a list, or repeated articles, for example), and this is where the art comes in. Sometimes you have to read the text aloud to fully appreciate its rhythm before you can decide to cut or rearrange. 

Replace words that are almost good enough with words that are perfect

This is tricky, and it requires judgement and tact. But there’s a fine line between retaining the author’s voice and leaving good enough alone, and not pushing a text quite as far as it could go in terms of register and appropriateness and precision of meaning. Sometimes you have to look beyond a word itself to all the baggage it comes with, all the connotations and associations. You must consider what its use will evoke in the mind of the reader, about whether it will break the spell cast by the rest of the text (by being too formal, or too slangy, or too cumbersome), or if another word would more effectively keep the spell intact.

Find the rhythm

As I mentioned above, rhythm is important. We all know that sentences of varying lengths make reading more interesting. With this in mind, when editing short pieces, I will usually read the whole thing aloud. For a book-length copyedit, this isn’t possible, but for tricky passages I will always check my edits by reading the affected sentences back to myself. Sentence fragments are OK. But they shouldn’t be overused, or they can become tiring. There aren’t really rules that you can follow with this kind of thing. This is where the editor’s taste comes in. We shouldn’t be imposing our own tastes on authors unless they have asked us to. But we can use them to help us judge how best to help the author express themselves. There’s a difference.

Have an eye for glittering anomalies

Anachronisms and parochialisms are problems we all encounter in text. There’s no simple way to guard against letting them through beyond continuing to develop our copyeditor’s finely honed sense of details that are a bit off, and knowledge of when to look things up and check them. It takes a degree of interestedness in the world beyond the written word to care that a particular major thoroughfare that is described as running from north to south actually runs from east to west, or that an American robin is nothing like a European robin, or that no one in 1986 could possibly have been listening to Nirvana.

Understand that punctuation is about breathing

Punctuation is not about suffocating the text, confining it with rules and regulations. It’s about judicious use that works with what the reader needs. It’s about dissolving barriers to comprehension. It’s about leading the reader through the text with minimal resistance and optimal understanding – not showcasing your fantastic ability to deploy a semicolon. It’s about letting the text breathe.

Make small changes with outsize effects

Sometimes moving or cutting a single sentence can untangle a contorted paragraph. A good editor can see when to turn things on their head, when a point in a list detracts from the cumulative meaning of the whole, when a paragraph directly contradicts one that came before, or is a complete non sequitur. Sometimes text does need to be broken down and built from scratch. Often it doesn’t. The skill lies, partly, in being able to assess which course of action is needed.

I could liken editing to hanging a painting on a wall. If it’s a big, heavy piece of art it takes a bit of preparation and care even to get to the point of drilling holes. You must measure the picture, measure the wall, then measure everything again to be sure. Mark the holes, and check there are no electrics in the location where you plan to drill. Find the drill, fit an appropriate bit, drill, plug the holes, fit screws. Finally, hang the picture and hope your screws hold and that it is level. All these things are technical procedures you can learn, and they get easier and quicker with practice. But the business of finding the precise spot for the picture in order to make the room in which it hangs come alive – that cannot be prepared for or taught. That can only be felt.

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