Wrinkle-free style for the modern writer

I recently had a discussion with my son about why I enjoy editing so much. He admitted—to my surprise, since he’s not much of a reader or writer—that he enjoys editing too. “It’s like ironing a big pile of wrinkly clothes. It’s really satisfying.” (Not that he has ever actually done this.)

Iron Rotated

This seems to me a perfect analogue to the pleasure of editing. Smoothing rough prose is satisfying in the same way that ironing is satisfying. You start with something less-than-presentable and end up with something you can wear proudly.

Of course, to iron well or edit well, you need reliable appliances.

Get out the irons

My previous editing bible

My previous editing bible

When I began writing professionally, my bible was Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, mostly because it was what I used in my college and graduate school writing courses. I still have that slim paperback somewhere.

Recently, I have taken on some professional editing jobs. This caused me to break down and buy a new style manual. Editing the words of others requires a more definitive (and up-to-date) style guide. So I bought a one-year subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style Online. I look forward to getting answers to all sorts of tricky questions, such as the correct adjective to describe people who live in Argentina. Argentine, Argentinian, or Argentinean? I couldn’t find that tidbit in the manual, but there were some discussions in the online forum.

My current editing bible

My current editing bible

Lest I come across as a grammar-obsessed quibbler (any fellow serial comma devotees out there?), I’ll say that I try not to be slavish about adherence to style. In fiction, it’s fine to break the rules. For a good reason. (Like emphasis.) But when I’m being paid to edit the work of others, I need a consistent guide to the choices I’m suggesting, and, occasionally, a neutral third-party to help make my point.

That said, I loved the recent New Yorker article by long-time copy editor Mary Norris, “Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House Style.” If you have ever tried to iron the wrinkles out of a piece writing, you’ll enjoy what she has to say.

If you’re a writer, what do you find satisfying about working with words? Do you like editing, or would you rather let someone else do the ironing?

15 thoughts on “Wrinkle-free style for the modern writer

  1. I love editing, to an almost unhealthy degree 😉 My dayjob is as a copywriter, so I spend my days crafting and refining text then get all excited about coming home and doing the same to my fiction, like the giant dork that I am 😉

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  2. Another lover of editing here. This is new territory for me — happened after I joined a critique group, and found myself piping up, suggesting rearrangements, pulling out extra words. My writing buddies egged me on, not taking offense, bless them.

    Good reminder to me to dust off the Elements of Style. Thanks for the link to the Mary Norris article. Happy editing.

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  3. I am practically a compulsive editor – of my work or anyone else’s. (Sometimes it interferes with my enjoyment of reading , even books from traditional publishers.) I think of it as polishing, as of a gemstone. I surprises me that you’ve gotten several others here to admit that they enjoy it when so much of the time all you hear comes from the folks who hate it.

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  4. I love editing, too. I think I’ve mentioned before how I feel like I can finally relax when I get to that point. I have the Chicago Manual of Style in textbook form and refer to it often. But I should probably invest in the online version. Would be more practical.

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