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.)
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
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.
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?