When I first moved to Los Angeles and told people I was an editor, they'd invariably assume I was a film editor and the talk would turn to Avid. When I explained that I was a text editor, that I
worked with words, not images, they frequently seemed mystified.
More than a decade later, I still find it difficult to explain what editing is — copyediting, line editing — and how I do it.
In fact, good editing (of text and film) is invisible. My goal is not for someone to read a piece I've edited and say, "Wow, this sure is a well-edited piece"; it's for someone to read the piece and say, "Wow, this sure is interesting" and hopefully come to understand how the subject might benefit him.
My job is to eliminate anything that stands between the subject and the reader, anything that distracts or confuses, anything that creates friction. That might be a misspelling, an errant comma, a grammatical or syntactical error, but it might also be an inconsistency, a failure of logic, a naked exaggeration (my people call it hype). Thus I edit for factual accuracy and for tone.
I also edit for verisimilitude. When I interview someone and represent their words between quotation marks, I lend polish to what they've said — "make me sound smart" is a regular request. But I also take pains to make sure they sound like themselves (and not like me). After 20 years of interviewing people (yes, I began as a teen), I am attuned to the nuances of their speech. I am faithful to my subject's manner as well as his meaning.
I think I'm a good editor because I'm a good reader.
During the process, I don't answer the phone. I don't move from my seat. I don't stop to eat. The hours fly by. I am in the zone.I have an ear for language. I understand not just the vocabulary, but the rhythm. Sometimes a sentence will be grammatically correct, but the cadence is wrong. I'll rework the sentence until it feels right.
We tend to love what we're good at, and I love editing. When I say this, I mean copyediting — wrangling the verbiage — not the kind of administrative and production duties performed by managing editors. What I love is the intimacy created by my solitary interaction with the keyboard and the screen. I enjoy writing as well, but it does not provide me with the meditative pleasure I derive from editing.
I sit down with my cup of Lung Ching Extra Special, turn off my inbox and note the time (to keep track of my hours). Sometimes I'll light a lavender-scented candle. With these simple steps, I give myself permission to surrender fully to the task at hand — spinning straw into gold.
My first pass through the text is reconnaissance; I get the lay of the land. I fix the glaring errors.
On the second, I delve into the substance of what is being said and consider how best to say it. I tighten up the structure, rearranging lines and paragraphs. I shore up transitions so one paragraph flows naturally into the next. I refine the language, vary the vocabulary, trim redundancy. I idiot-proof the text while taking care not to dumb it down.
Sometimes a second pass is insufficient to accomplish all of this; sometimes there is a third and a fourth and a fifth. I systematically go through the text, weighing the words and phrases — my ear to the safe, listening for the clicks as I turn the dial — until I know the edit is fundamentally complete. How do I know? I just do.
For me, editing is like a Rubik's Cube; you simply try different options until all the facets fall into place. Another analogy that applies here is the sculpting of a horse from a block of marble — you just chip away everything that doesn't look like a horse; in this case, you just chip away everything that doesn't look like the piece. I'm not an equestrian sculptor (nor do I play one on TV), but I also find myself lost in blissful concentration when I prune my Hikaru Genji camellia, snipping away anything that does not look like my idealized version of this beloved shrub.
The penultimate pass through the document is my first hard-copy reading. This is where I occasionally spot errors I can't believe I missed on the previous run-throughs, but it's also where I start to feel the thrilling satisfaction of a job well done.
The final pass is my second hard-copy reading, in which all of my proofreading skills are brought to bear. I hold the edge of an envelope to the paper, moving line by line down the page. I proceed with deliberation until I am certain the document is pristine. Then and only then do I say to myself, "Damn, I'm good."
During the process, I don't answer the phone. I don't move from my seat. I don't stop to eat. The hours fly by. I am in the zone.
I think I have a natural affinity for this craft because I crave order. But I know there's more to it. I reap intellectual sustenance from the challenge. I relish the power to transform. And I achieve a measure of escape — of transport — in the work. There is nothing but me and the words, and nothing more is required.