Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Being an editor

Right after I finish this blog entry, I will be starting the final edit of my essay. Editing my own work is tricky, I find, because it demands a shift in perspective. When I’m writing, I’m a creator, responsible for generating material. But as an editor I’m more like a destroyer, removing extraneous material and licking what’s left into shape. It reminds me a bit of the way the body repairs fractured bones; first of all, bone-secreting cells produce an excess of bone around the fracture site, which is then trimmed away by bone-eating cells so that the end result approximates the elegant shape of the original, unbroken bone.

To be an effective editor, I find that it’s necessary to distance myself from my work. One easy way of doing this, I find, is to put it away for a few days before beginning the final edit. And then, after that, to prepare for my edit by printing a hard copy of the work in a very different font and colour from that which I’ve been using to write. I always edit in hard copy if that’s how my work is going to be read, because I believe that editing is all about inhabiting my reader’s perspective. So, I get into the right frame of mind by imagining myself to be the archetypal picky reader, looking to find fault with the smallest thing, irritated by spelling mistakes and other similar errors. Then I get started.

The first thing I assess is the writer’s voice. Is it appropriate to the discipline and the essay topic? For example, in an essay which does not explicitly ask for my own opinions and experiences, I would probably never use ‘I’ when writing (and even if the essay were a reflective one I would try to use it very sparingly). When I write an academic essay, I try to aim for a style which is quite formal (saying things like ‘is not’ instead of ‘isn’t’) but which is as clear and plain as possible. I avoid unsupported anecdotes and generalisations (eg. “most people view Freud as something of a dirty old man”) like the plague. Furthermore, when I carry out my edit, I ask if the writer (me!) has used a consistent voice throughout. Deficiencies in this department can be jarring and offputting to a reader.

I would say that finding your voice is the most important part of writing in general. In academic writing, it’s probably one of those insidious factors which colours everything, although it might not be recognised as being of enormous importance by itself. In my view, an academic writer is like a newsreader; the mission is to report a viewpoint, hopefully supported by factual evidence, and most importantly to do it intelligibly and engagingly. Newsreaders aren’t there to grandstand and show off their cleverness, just to report. Please note that this doesn’t preclude their having an opinion or a particular viewpoint, though. News, after all, is rarely hard, unvarnished fact. It’s all about the presentation.

This point is touched upon in the WriteNow/Assessment Plus criteria. The last criterion, number six, cites use of language as one of the points for assessment, specifically, “The use of words, grammar, and punctuation to formulate an utterance appropriate to the purpose and context. Good essays are free from errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and would be acceptable pieces of writing in the wider world. Better essays adopt academic styles and conventions, and approximate to the appropriate academic ‘register’.”

This reinforces for me that far from being something which can be learned as a general methodology, each piece of academic writing stands alone. It should be approached as something fresh. It also reminds me that after my initial edit, I need to go back and proof read my essay (preferably in fresh, clean hard copy form) to detect any spelling or grammatical errors. Then, I must do an on-screen check to assess whether I am within the permissible word limit. And finally, I add my references, which usually takes much longer than anticipated.

So I’d better get on with it, hadn’t I?

47 comments:

Erick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erick said...

ESL writing is a huge pain in the ass for me, but I wanted to pass along a tip. Editing By Amanda is a great site for essay editing or punching up any writing you want perfected. I'm giving her props on your blog because she really helped me this last semester--every paper she edited I got an A on!

Lynn said...

Hi Erick. What's your first language? I also wonder exactly how Amanda's service helped you imrove your writing skills.

At undergraduate level I wouldn't recommend sites which merely titivate your draft without helping you to learn how to do it yourself next time. That seems to be sacrificing process to goal.

What's probably cheaper is to invest in a book such as "Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing" by Claire Kehrwald Cook and develop your own editorial antennae.

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