Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part VI


In this installment, I'm going to consider how our clients, the writers, see us and the rules we impose on them. Many editors start their career of helping writers without ever having been professionally edited themselves; some go through their entire careers without ever having that experience. This is a strange handicap for any professional: every doctor eventually gets to learn what it's like to be a patient; lawyers, even if never sued themselves, at least see other lawyers being sued; priests confess their sins like other sinners — but editors can go through life without ever experiencing the shock of having their own prose changed by someone else. There is no complete substitute for that experience, but in this installment, I will try to give such unscathed editors some idea of what it's like to be edited, drawn from the memories of a few writers (including me) who've gone through it.

The Hierarchy of Editorial Sins

Just as there are diseases caused by bad doctoring ("iatrogenic" diseases), there are textual problems introduced by editors — so editors, like physicians, must take the pledge: "First, do no harm." There is hardly any document that bad editing cannot make worse, as we shall see. And just as the besetting sins of writers can be named and categorized, so can those of editors. There are from a writer's point of view four grades of editorial sin, ranging from the venial to the mortal. Starting with the least serious, they are:

• A textual change made by an editor, with no change of meaning, simply because she likes her own phrasing better than that of the writer.

Editors are not (while they are editing) writers; the text belongs to the writer, not to you. Your main business is to find errors, not to substitute your taste for his. You may certainly make suggestions in matters of style, diction, and the like — indeed, it's your duty to do so — but remember that that's all they are. If you feel an irrepressible burst of creativity coming on, put aside the text you're editing and start a composition of your own.

• A textual change by an editor that somewhat changes the author's meaning.

This is a very common editorial sin, typically occurring when the editor has noted that something is wrong with the text she's working on, but hasn't thoroughly understood what the writer was trying to say. Her editorial fix removes the solecism or awkwardness, but in the course of doing so somewhat changes the writer's meaning. It helps to remember that no two words in the English language are absolute synonyms, so when you substitute one word for another, you always introduce some change of meaning or tone. Be sure that any such change is — in the writer's eyes, not just yours — a change for the better.

• A textual change by an editor that makes the author say the opposite of what he meant.

This sin is usually the result of simple carelessness — for example, leaving out a "not" or "un-," or replacing a "not" with a "now." If the writer is lucky, the resulting sentence will be so patently ridiculous, at least in its present context, that attentive readers will realize immediately that it cannot be what the writer meant; if unlucky, the sentence will be taken at face value, and make the author seem to assert what he really denies, or vice versa. Writers get understandably irritated by this.

• A textual change by an editor that turns a passage into complete nonsense.

This is the worst of the editorial sins. An editor may honestly misunderstand what her author is trying to say, change his text in such a way as to make it mean something quite different from what he intended, and still hope to go to heaven (after some time in purgatory). But to turn your author's text into nonsense is very hard to forgive; it makes him sound like a fool, and shows that you have not troubled to reread the text after making your pseudo-correction.

Some Examples of Editorial Mistakes

1. Doing the maximum damage with the tiniest change

Some editorial mistakes have intellectual or literary consequences entirely out of proportion to the textual modifications they introduce. The most striking example known to me — and one that would be hard, I think, to surpass — was caused by the editor of the first Anchor Books edition of Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, his classic account of the intellectual genealogy of Marxism. In that edition, Wilson is made to say:

While Karl Marx is pretending to tell us that all these horrors have advanced human civilization and that all morality is a relative matter, he is really convincing us that a true civilization will be impossible without our putting an end to them and is filling us with fervor for amorality of his own.

As advanced practitioners of editing, you will not need me to point out where Wilson's text, and meaning, have been subverted. What is remarkable about this example is the extremely economical means whereby he has been made to say the opposite of what he meant — just the omission of a single space has done the trick. (It probably wouldn't have made Wilson feel any better to learn that the editorial blunder, in the view of some readers, made him seem to say something wiser than he actually wrote.)

2. Killing an idea and leaving the corpse in sight

In an article I once wrote for a computer journal, I made a small joke: I referred to a time when COBOL was just a "gleam in DoD's eye." (For those not up on such matters: COBOL is an early computer programming language that was created under the sponsorship of the Department of Defense.) When it was published, I found that the abbreviation "DoD" had been expanded so that the phrase now read "gleam in the eye of the Department of Defense," and the pun was gone. I protested; the editor told me he had been afraid that his readers wouldn't recognize DoD. He was silly to think so — the abbreviation was as familiar to anyone in the programming world (and many outside it) as IBM or NATO. And he was much at fault for changing my words without consulting me first — not only as a matter of courtesy, but because I might well have been able to think of a better way to handle the problem (if it was a problem) than he was. But his great sin was to change the wording of my little joke so that its point was gone while letting the now-pointless phrase remain. It would have been high-handed of him to delete the whole jokey passage, but at least it would have been a clean way of removing a supposed problem; to leave the headless torso in place was to puzzle his readers while offending his author.

3. Being too nice to be an editor

Some editors have such strong personal objections to certain usages and conventions that they refuse to employ them, or to let others over whom they have authority employ them. An example: Nancy Milford, biographer of Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay, refuses to employ the scholars' convention of inserting [sic] so as to assure the reader that an error or other eyebrow-raising point in a quoted passageit was not introduced by the quoting scholar, but was actually written just so by the original writer. She hates it because some scholars use [sic] as a generalized sneer — inserting it not to reassure a reader who might wonder whether the quotation was accurate, but to show contempt for the view being quoted: "Yes, the idiot really did say this, believe it or not!" Her distaste for this abuse of the convention is readily understandable, but to refuse on that account to use the convention at all is simply to indulge yourself at the reader's expense; it sometimes really is important to be able to say, succinctly, "Yes, this is really how the text reads, not a misprint or an error I introduced in quoting it."

Another example: an editor — a very good editor — working on a paper of mine asked me to delete the word discourse from the piece. She agreed that I had used it correctly, but explained that she had become so repelled by its specialized use by postmodern critics as to find even its traditional use offensive. I share her distaste for the jargonish use of the word, and found it easy to oblige her, but nevertheless have to find her guilty of self-indulgence of a kind that an editor should not permit herself. We editors must discipline ourselves before we can discipline others; we must not impose our personal whims and idiosyncrasies on writers we are there to help. In an earlier installment of this series, I used the motto abusus non tollit usum (the abuse does not invalidate the proper use); I repeat it here.

The Rules of the Game: The Only Question Is, Whose Rules?

By "Rules of the Game," I mean the pronouncements and recommendations and guidelines given in dictionaries, writing handbooks, style guides, usage manuals, and language reference works of all kinds. They are of several different kinds, representing several different motives and points of view:

1. Some are just statements of fact ("every pronoun must have an antecedent")

2. Some are counsels of perfection ("write clearly!")

3. Some are simply conventions ("a comma that separates a quotation from what follows it goes inside the final quotation mark")

4. Some are superstitions ("always use the active voice, not the passive!")

5. Some are both true and useful (examples discussed later)

Performing triage on these, we find we can ignore types 1 and 2; type 1 is obviously true, but useless as a rule because anyone who fails to provide his pronouns with antecedents is unlikely to consult a rule, or be helped by one even if he does. Type 2 points to a desirable objective, but gives no hint as to how to reach it — again, useless as a rule.

What we're concerned with are types 3, 4, and 5. Because an editor is always involved with rules — either justifying a correction by appealing to a rule, or explaining why some rule applies in one case but not in another, or denying that some rule has any real authority — the editor must herself be quite clear about them.

In fact, the temper of our times is such that an editor may find herself defending or explaining not just this rule or that, but the very concept of rules. There are writers who feel all rules as impositions, shackles, and burdens; these writers are simply confused, probably because of bad experiences during their early education. There are also academic linguists who decry rules as interferences with the "natural development of language"; they are promoting their own interest, the study of linguistic change, over the quite different editorial goal of making a particular piece of writing clear and effective. So the first point on which to be clear is that all writing is done within the domain of some body of rules; they may be unstated rules, and they may be silly rules, but there are always rules. Language is a communal, social creation, and only the acceptance of rules, however disguised, makes such a thing possible. The only question is, whose rules?

So when linguistic freedom fighters declare that no one is going to tell them how to speak or write their own language, they don't really mean it (they seldom mean exactly what they say, precisely because they have rebelled against rules, which are necessary for precision). What they really mean is that they're not going to be told how to use the language by teachers, highbrows, bookworms, and snobbish intellectuals — which means they get told how to use it by television gag men, advertising copywriters, political flacks, and aluminum-siding salesmen.

A few years ago, I was involved in an online discussion of authority in matters of usage, and when I suggested that the best writers of today and the recent past were our most reliable guides, my suggestion was derided by a critic in these terms:

Mr. Halpern has missed the real point ... that is, that people, not "experts" will decide what is right and wrong [in English usage]. Mr. Halpern says that prescriptivists depend on "books and teachers" for providing guidance on "correct grammar." But our society today is driven so much more by television, radio, movies, and popular music, that this is laughable by its irrelevancy.1

Are the American people really liberated from rules and authority when they repudiate "books and teachers," and let themselves instead be "driven" by television and other entertainment media? The critic seems unaware that he is celebrating not the liberation of the common man from all rules, but just the substitution of television's rules for literature's rules. He sings "Goodbye schoolroom, goodbye books, goodbye teacher's dirty looks!" and fails to realize the import of his own last sentence, which admits that we the people, having said goodbye to traditional guides, are condemned instead to parrot the latest catchphrase of some late-night television performer, thereby demonstrating our independence of all authority in the same way our sons demonstrate their independence and individuality by all wearing their caps backwards and calling everyone "dude".2 (The cultural critic Harold Rosenberg coined a phrase that covers the case beautifully: "the herd of independent minds.") The critic whose argument we've just been examining, incidentally, identified himself as "a teacher."

If we the people accept this replacement of one ruler by another, I believe it's because accepting the authority of the television comedian or the advertising copywriter is not felt as submission to rules; the comedian or copywriter does not threaten our dignity and self-esteem; he never lectures, never corrects, never suggests that he thinks himself better than we are — so if he determines what we are to say, we don't resent it, don't feel imposed on. But whatever the reason for our transfer of loyalty, the point is that someone or something is going to determine the way we speak and write; someone is going to make decisions on usage — there is no such thing as individual autonomy in the matter, any more than there is in deciding which side of the road you'll drive on.

Nor can there be a moratorium in making rules for language usage, any more than in politics. We could not defer usage decisions while waiting for linguists to perform further research, even if we thought their findings relevant; nor can we invent for ourselves a language and a set of rules for using it. We can only choose among authorities, and only among those we know of. And if the authorities on usage are not to be the best writers of the recent past and present, and the critics and teachers with whom we study them, who are they to be? Television personalities? Rock stars? Gangbangers? Funeral directors? Gossip columnists? Telemarketing consultants? Or academic linguists, telling us soothingly that whatever we say is fine, just fine?

The Other Mistake About Rules: Idolizing Them

There are two great mistakes one can make about grammatical and rhetorical rules: to reject them as impositions on our freedom, and to cling to them as drowning men cling to a piece of flotsam. The first of these mistakes has already been discussed; the second is no less dangerous, and perhaps more common. Many so-called rules, as noted, are simply false or useless, but even those that are both true and useful may become obstacles to good writing if taken as commandments from above, and obeyed mindlessly. The great principle to remember here is that the rules are helpful only to those who have already substantially absorbed their messages; they are reminders, not first lessons.3 In the hands of those who have read widely and critically, good rules are great time-savers and guideposts; to those who lack such background, they are often stumbling-blocks.

We know what results in public life from following or enforcing rules literally and mindlessly: disaster. In some industries, employees who want to put pressure on their management often do so by "working to rule"; that is, by following every rule and regulation literally and absolutely, untempered by common sense — with the result that the business or other enterprise affected slows down to the point of collapse. In the anarchistic story The Good Soldier Schweik, the hero defeats his military superiors by carrying out their orders to the letter. The results of blindly following "the rules" — even the best of rules — in writing and editing is no less destructive. (Note that in the next section, an examination of the rules proposed by George Orwell, he recognizes this truth in his sixth and last rule.)

Orwell's Rules

Most of the rules proposed over the years, whether by private grammarians or by national academies, have been disregarded and even derided by many of the writers and speakers who were supposed to obey them, and with them the very idea of rules has been discredited among most of the intellectual workers of the Western world. But the urge to prescribe rules for language usage cannot be squelched — the desire to sum up our experience and recommendations in brief, pithy form is a permanent trait of our species, and probably has contributed to our survival. So even though today's conventional attitude is generally one of scorn for rules, the yearning for them survives, and one particular set of rules continues to command the respect of many who disdain all others: that proposed by George Orwell:4

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I much admire Orwell, and I think that his instincts about language are as sound as his political instincts — indeed, they are just two aspects of the same good sense — but even his rules, I contend, are useless or worse. This is a bold claim, but one that I think I can justify by examining each in some detail:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

His first rule, trying to prevent us from sounding "bookish," forbids us to use much of what we have seen in our reading. But what if we have been reading books by authors who write clearly and simply — books like Orwell's, for example? And if we read widely, there are very few useful figures of speech that we are not used to seeing in books — this rule would make it virtually impossible to write at all. What he is doing here is using his own youthful experience as the basis for a far-reaching rule, and that experience is much too narrow to support the rule.

He was an Edwardian by birth, and with his interest in the rough side of life, would have found little of interest in the kind of heavily "literary" writing that was the staple of the period. But by the time he formulated his rules, Modernism was in full swing, and the leading writers much preferred being thought barbarians to being thought genteel — it was early in the '20s that the literate began to prefer Caliban to Ariel. Accordingly, his prohibition against using the figures of speech found in books was even when he issued it an anachronism; if he were living today, he would be appalled at how few are literate enough to write bookishly or in any other intelligible way.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

The second sets up a spurious opposition between "a long word" and "a short word." But what one meets in practice is virtually never a choice between a long word and a fully equivalent short one, but rather between a long word and a string of short ones — and there's no way of saying, in general, which is best; each case is unique. And even in the uncommon case when we do have a long and a short word that are close enough in meaning to make either acceptable, the choice is not automatic. It is not true, despite what Orwell seems sometimes to suggest, that the short word, of good old Anglo-Saxon stock, is always more pungent and effective than the long Latinate word, even though the long one may have been adopted originally as a euphemism.

When a euphemism has been in use long enough to take on the connotations of the simpler, shockingly direct word it replaced — which it inevitably does, even although it was adopted just because of its freedom from those connotations — it becomes the term of power, the term that reaches our gut. Tell me that Marie Antoinette or Jayne Mansfield had their heads chopped off, and I remain unaffected; your expression is so crude, so cartoonish, that it leaves me untouched; tell me that they were decapitated, and I feel that frisson that means I have fully taken in the reality. In a world where the fearful and the shameful are regularly described in euphemisms and bland circumlocutions, it is euphemisms and circumlocutions that terrify us; a simple blunt word is almost a relief.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

The third is Occam's Razor, applied to words rather than concepts, but just as useless: when is it possible to cut a word, assuming it had some function to begin with? What we need is not a command to eliminate the unnecessary, but some useful tests for detecting the unnecessary. This is another rule that requires so much interpretation that it becomes mere excess baggage.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The fourth advises changing the passive to the active voice whenever possible — which is to say, always. But as writers keep discovering, the passive has a unique and important function: it is the voice that matches our needs whenever we want to focus attention on an action or its object rather than the actor or subject; and to force such an utterance into the active voice is to distort and falsify our meaning. It's true that the passive is to be used with discrimination — but then, what feature of the language is not?

To understand why Orwell formulated so silly a rule, recall that he was writing in an era that was, and not only to him, one of unparalleled deceit and muddle.5 Torrents of governmental lying and evasiveness during the years leading up to and during World War 2 had driven him to propose extreme measures in his campaign to restore decency and clarity to public discourse. One of the standard devices of politicians and bureaucrats seeking to evade responsibility is the passive voice, with its reticence about just who said or did the thing described — "no names, no packdrill," the public servant mutters as he issues a press release saying "mistakes were made." Orwell, in his zeal to end the abuse, suggested the drastic measure of rejecting the passive voice altogether. But this is the remedy that kills the patient before the disease: the passive is an irreplaceable resource of the language; forbidding it will not diminish human dishonesty or muddleheadedness; and abusus non tollit usum holds in language as in law.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

The fifth mixes several quite different things: for real scientific words there are no everyday English equivalents — that's why scientific terms are coined. Jargon? Sometimes quite in place, as when one is talking shop with colleagues, or even for some special rhetorical purposes when writing for a more general audience. The foreign term? Sometimes pretentious verbiage, sometimes le mot juste. Here as elsewhere, Orwell is so determined to get rid of impediments to clarity that he throws out baby, bathwater, and the tub as well.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The sixth, which some admirers of Orwell's rules think his masterstroke, is the final seal on his failure; all the rules just given, it turns out, are to be ignored if they violate an implied Rule Against Barbarousness — a rule about which we are given no information whatever.

If even so admirable a writer, critic, and moralist as Orwell cannot state a rule that is of much use, the chances of doing so must be very slim. Are we to conclude, then, that there are no good rules, and that the effort to formulate them is simply a waste of time? I think not; I think that rules are in fact of the highest importance, and that the effort to formulate good ones should never cease. If we cease to formulate and improve good rules, we will be ruled by bad ones. If there are to be further installments in this series on editing, I'll examine what I think are some good ones.

Concluding Words on Rules

This installment has been designed to clear away some superstitions about rules — superstitions that all writers should be free of, but which editors must be free of. You will meet in your work writers who disdain all rules, seeing them as impediments to their genius, and writers who are slaves to rules, and can barely turn out a sentence without worrying that it seems to contravene some obscure edict that they vaguely remember learning in high school. Of course most writers occupy the space between these extremes, but they will be unclear about which rules are to be respected and which ignored; it will be your job as editor to clear up their doubts, soothe their misplaced fears, and keep them writing clear prose.

They tell a story about the sea captain who was almost always a tower of strength and competence in any kind of nautical emergency, but who once in a great while seemed to lose his grip, fumble, and waver. When this happened to him, he would leave the bridge, retire briefly to his cabin, and return a few minutes later restored to his usual confident mastery. The first mate, suspecting that the captain got his courage and competence back with the help of alcohol, quietly followed him to his cabin on one of these occasions and, peeking through the keyhole, saw the captain open a safe, take out and consult a slip of paper, then return it to the safe, and emerge completely restored. Burning with curiosity, the mate sneaked into the captain's cabin one day, used the combination to the safe that he had pilfered from the captain's wallet, and found the slip of paper that had such a wonderful effect on the captain. It read "Starboard, right; port, left."

For editors, too, there is such a magical slip of paper. It reads "The reader must never be misled."


Article Footnotes

1 Posted on the Atlantic Monthly's website, March 9, 1997, on the "Post & Riposte" page.

2 Some years ago, a fellow employee of a computer software company made me an offer that I declined with the words, "No, thank you." He looked at me in a kindly manner, then gently corrected me: "No way, José!" he said, offering me the formula I should have used.

3" ...recipes can be helpful guides but only for those who have already become familiar with the practice [of cooking]." Noel Annan, Our Age, page 525.

4 In his essay "Politics and the English Language," reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), IV, page 139. I criticized these rules in an earlier Vocabula piece, but I think the criticism bears repetition here.

5 Winston Churchill in 1932: "I cannot recall any time when the gap between the kind of words which statesmen used and what was actually happening was so great as it is now" (from Arms and the Covenant, page 43, quoted in A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, page 317); also, Auden's "low dishonest decade," and from Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (New York: Knopf, 2000), pages xvi-xvii: "... the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale."