Book Editing: Still Crazy After All These Years

18 Jun

Obsessive. Compulsive. Or maybe obsessive-compulsive. I can’t remember which. But I do recall Arthur Plotnik’s Elements of Editing suggesting to some extent that good editors need to be a little crazy to do their work.

A little research reveals the trait Plotnik talks about is compulsiveness. And I do have that trait. Or I think I do. I see a piece of writing, any piece of writing, and I have the urge to revise it, to read it over and make it sound better, or to make sure everything is spelled right, or to look over a manuscript as thoroughly as possible.

I even find myself editing already published materials. I tend to be especially alert to mispellings misspellings, or typgoraphical typographical errors that weren’t caught before the piece was printed. They stand out because they stood out so much when I saw them in my own work after it was published. And once something is published, especially in a newspaper, little can be done but offer a correction of some kind, or remain red-faced for the rest of the day, and do your best to avoid the error the next time.

At times I find myself being a stickler, though, when I copy edit, and I worry if I’m on the verge of bad compulsiveness. Recently, when I’ve been editing, the stickler in me comes out the most when writers do not make the distinction between which and that, between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. More often it’s which that is used when that is needed, because the clause is essential to the sentence.

Most of the manuscripts I work with aren’t written by professional writers. The manuscripts come from excellent instructors in technical fields, and they’ve written texts with the desire to present their materials clearly to their students. My job as an editor is to help make the text as clear as possible.

But, I’ve dealt with the which-that issue when editing professional writers, my colleagues in journalism. Many times I edited pieces when writers didn’t make the distinction, and in the past few years I’ve read novels and novellas by distinguished writers in which the distinction wasn’t made.

One of my favorite writers, Jim Harrison, doesn’t make the distinction in this passage from his novella The Beast God Forgot to Invent.

I’ve spent summers in my cabin my entire life since my father bought the property while a mining engineer for Cleveland Cliffs in Marquette, Michigan, early in the Great Depression which has now filtered down into millions of little ones in our inhabitants.

Technically, one of two things should have happened with this sentence (unless I’m misreading it) — either which should have been changed to that, which would make the clause following it clearer (the clause is essential to the sentence and to the pun it makes on the word depression), or a comma should follow Depression, making the clause inessential, something tacked on, and reductive of the pun.

But, this passage is a work of fiction so there’s some license granted, because the sentence comes from a fictional character, a persona adopted by the writer, and if you read the sentence carefully, and slowly, as you should, you catch the wordplay, and don’t have to suffer the hard sound an inserted that would bring to the rhythm. If you read the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, you’ll notice the English in that version often doesn’t make the distinction between which-that, and doesn’t suffer, and American prose has long been influenced by the King James Bible.

And, I suppose many writers don’t make the distinction, not because they don’t know better, but because of rhythm, or perhaps because it’s a relatively recent distinction (I wish I had time to research this matter).

Still, I find myself compulsively changing which to that and vice versa, probably because I had to learn the distinction to take the handful of journalism courses I took in college (I minored in journalism for a semester, and photography and darkrooms were my downfall). And I recall that Plotnik makes a distinction between good compulsiveness and bad compulsiveness.

Bad compulsion has an air of stickler about it: Within this trait is a tendency to stick to the rules instead of finding the most effective way to communicate. I hope my compulsion to change which to that is not a sign of bad craziness, but a sign that I want to make sentences make sense, possess clarity, and communicate effectively what the writer wants to say. I believe it is, but at the same time, I have to remind myself to stay good crazy, because good crazy is the best crazy to be.

And, for the record, most of the time I’ll change which to that or vice versa. I am just that crazy.


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