When you're writing or editing copy, do you consider yourself a technician or an artist? In this post, writer and Embark editor Norman R. encourages us to think of a screen as a canvas and our keyboard as a palette. If you have any views about the artistry of wordsmithing, let Norman know in the comments!
AS YOU READ THE LATEST PULITZER PRIZE NOVEL, you might think, “Hey, this author’s a real artist.” We often associate writing with art. What about copyediting? Or editing in more general terms? Is there an artistic dimension to this craft? Art takes patience, precision, and intentionality. How much of this mind-set do writers and editors share?
WRITE LIKE A PAINTER
When I write, I see myself as a painter. I have my white canvas in front of me and a rough idea of what I want to communicate inside me. Then I start filling the page with all these ideas, without paying any attention either to their form or their organization. Letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs start unfolding on the page … until a picture develops.
You can tell by my naïve concept of the painting process that I’m less than an amateur painter. But I’m fascinated by that process, and I was recently at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, where I admired Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) -- see picture. The exhibit preceding the painting is loaded with expectation and suspense: before a visitor enters the room where the masterpiece is displayed, several other rooms show all the smaller studies Picasso made beforehand. Observing all the different versions of Picasso’s studies for the Guernica made me think of Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s copyediting process. At the top of her to-do list she places two actions:
EDIT LIKE A SCULPTOR
Form is crucial. Thanks to form, we can immediately recognize the text in front of us as a poem, a magazine article, or a caption. But how do we get to that form? When I edit copy, I feel like a sculptor. I have a block of words in front of me that needs shape: sometimes I’ve got to chip away at it before the message emerges in all its clarity and power; sometimes it just needs some gentle polishing. However, I need to be careful not to modify the author’s message.
When I first started copyediting, I thought of an old Italian story, summed up in the saying, “Because of a period, Martino lost his cowl.” The story involves a sixteenth-century Tuscan abbot, Martino from Asello, who wanted to decorate the entrance to his monastery with the words, Porta patens esto. Nulli claudatur honesto, which means “Let the door always open. Do not close the door to the honest man.” Unfortunately, when he carved the sentences on the marble lintel, he wrote: Porta patens esto nulli. Claudatur honesto, which translates to: “Do not let the door open for anybody. Close it down to the honest man.” Because of the misplaced period, Abbot Martino not only made a gaffe but also lost his office. Luckily for us, words are not set in stone.
COMPOSE LIKE A MUSICIAN
Finally, when I write and edit, I am like a musician. When I have all the words on the page in front of me, I like to play around with punctuation to change the rhythm and style of the sentence and the paragraph, try new combinations and new sentence structures. When I work on other writers’ texts, I listen carefully to their voices, understand the rhythm of their speech, and savor the flow of their messages.
Rhythm is at the core of the writing-editing process for Stephen King as well. He dedicates the final section of his memoir On Writing to an example of his editing process, in which he shows both the rough and the edited versions of a short story. King explains that most of his edits are “intended to speed the story;” that is, they involve matters of rhythm.
Though King claims he works alone, I like to believe that writers understand how to express their ideas better through the dialogues they have with their copyeditors. And by working on several kinds of texts and interacting with several authors, copyeditors can learn how to be flexible with grammar and how to communicate in different ways. By interacting with each other, writers and editors learn how to see the world with somebody else’s eyes. This is the way art also challenges us, and it’s a tough challenge: are you willing to accept it and embark on this journey?