More lessons on making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.
By Peter P. Jacobi
In Part I, I covered a number of lessons for those who both write and edit. Items included being clear, self-editing, leaving no questions, and adding interest. Now, here are the remaining points:
Often, the editing involves handling of opinionated copy that may or may not be appropriate. Be careful to follow policy. And remember there’s a great difference between using other people’s opinion in your copy, which, when used fairly, is proper, and using your own, which may not be unless labeled “opinion.” That can all become quite sticky and become a significant part of your duty to handle as editor.
Know Your Limits
Personally, I have experience handling professional copy for magazines, newspapers, radio, and television. As teacher, I’ve edited student copy of all those journalistic sorts for more than 50 years. I’ve done utilitarian editing and the others.
Let me emphasize, however, that we cannot, as individuals, handle all sorts of editing. I cannot. I’ve been asked to edit book manuscripts, for instance. Nonfiction I probably could do but avoid because a work of such length makes me nervous (not to read, mind you, but to edit). Fiction is out of the question. Fixing plot and character development and made-up dialogue and arcs of climaxes and such matters is not my thing. I say “no” to such requests. Consequently, working for a book publisher is not on my list of credits. That’s a very different sort of editing animal. Remind yourself of personal limits. Most of us who write cannot write everything. Ditto, when it comes to editing.
Which brings me back to Barbara Baig’s Spellbinding Sentences, mentioned in Part I. She uses the perfection of sentences to preach the series of lessons we need to be reminded of in seeking to write and edit better.
Her lessons are extremely well presented and developed. I think you would benefit from reading and using the book. Its coverage is grammar-deep, oriented toward showing how — when you use the language accurately and briefly and correctly — you are on the way to making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.
Practice Visionary Editing
Which also brings me back to the Highlights Foundation Workshop mentioned in Part I and my friend’s address to the students. He is a dear friend, Jan Cheripko, a deeply thoughtful and kind man, a former working journalist, a retired teacher in a residential school for children with emotional problems, and a successful author of books for children. He titled his talk “Literature, Lessons, and Life: How the Desire to Write One Good Sentence Pursued Me.”
He did discuss working toward perfection of a sentence through just the right language. But the aim of his discussion reached wider. One heard him deliver a number of sentences from a number of sources, some of them from literature, others among them from lessons and life. Out of events from his own life, that of his family, and of his troubled but beloved students, from the lessons Jan learned, he arrived at sentences, perfect ones, that in content and verbal style and personal voice and spirit wrapped up a spiritual journey or a lifesaving moment or a mind-opener that altered the course of someone’s life, including Jan’s own.
Jan was arguing that as writer and editor, when we can spot such in someone’s writing or discover it in our own, the editorial wisdom to leave that alone and pass it on is a gift to every reader. That becomes visionary editing, editing on another, higher level. Whenever you sit down to write or edit, keep your heart and brain on the lookout for such copy, potentially a gift beyond all measure.
Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.
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