“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” quipped John Keats. When we experience, the learning becomes permanent like etching on stone. We can relive the experience because we remember the finest details of the experience. And yeah, experiences shape us.
My first editing project was, and has been, a great editing experience and taught me the most important learning about editing – rules are there to guide us but rules are not everything.
It’s no coincidence that this piece starts with a John Keats quote. My first editing project was about Romantic Celticism and Keats. The author’s first book was published in the year I was born. The author was a university professor, the book I edited had substance, and her writing was flawless. Being the first-time editor, I regularly slipped into “Am I editing well?” mode because of the standard of the writing. I could barely spot an error. To this day, I’m wondering why the book came for language editing in the first place.
But there was this gotcha moment for me, a moment every editor would like to savour when a challenging project came their way. The publisher’s house style ruled against contractions. This particular author not only “violated” the rule, but used contractions inconsistently. Inconsistency, one word I don’t like in English. There you go, editor. Make ’em consistent. Fix all contractions. Look one more time at the project, with a puffed-up chest and send it out.
In came an email a week later. A long one. Spilling out annoyance in categorical terms. Obviously the author had the same question that I had had. Why would it go for language editing? Alright, I as an editor did nothing there. In fact, the project fuelled my inferiority complex because of the high standards it had come with. I just did a very menial task: I fixed only the inconsistencies. Had I not done that, it would have been injustice to my role.
Nope, the author believed the other way. The inconsistency was part of her technique. You know what? Contractions were used when talking about what Keats wrote and were avoided when interpreting what Keats wrote. In fact, the email said (not exactly in the same words): I was using contractions to denote the “phantasmagorical” scenes that Keats’ work brought out.
Wow, that’s a perspective. Is there any rule book you know of that has ever said “Use contractions to refer to phantasmagorical nature”. But here was an author who so cleverly and subtly interpreted a rule and maintained a difference between Keats’ writing and the writing about Keats’ writing. Alas, here was an editor who bought into the lie that rule books rule.
Phantasmagorical is a word I will never forget. Experiencing editing through this project was phantasmagorical: beginning with “Am I editing well?” to “Why am I editing this?” to “Gotcha!” to “Why did I do this?” to “Oh, is this how I should approach editing!”
So will I never forget the lesson that when editing, there are nuances that would laugh at the rules; if the editor is so naive to miss them or grows arrogant to ignore them, he ceases to be an editor.
OK, there ends the story and begins my journey as an editor. Every editor has a story to share. What is your story? How did your experience shape your editing? Share them in the comments below. After all, we all love stories, don’t we?