Editing Zen and the Mark of a Good Copy Editor

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This weekend I have taken on another copyediting assignment. When I told my fiancé, he simply shook his head and rolled his eyes at me. He knew by the end of the weekend, I would be staring at my computer screen, my eyes red from overuse, my wrists sore from carpal tunnel, and I would ask him:

“Why? Why did you let me take on another copyediting assignment?”

In fact, by the end of almost every assignment, I plead with my fiancé and other loved ones, using almost the same lament each time. I tell them I hate copyediting, and please—no matter what I say—don’t let me do it again. Then, a few months later, an editor contacts me, and I gladly take on the assignment before even asking the above-mentioned loved ones.

“Sure,” I say, with much enthusiasm. “I’ll have it to you by Monday.”

The truth is these assignments often offer a much-needed break from the stress of writing. For one weekend, I don’t need to pay attention to sentence flow, character development, or dialogue. I only need to focus on commas, hyphens, widows, and abbreviations. At the same time, assignments such as these strengthen my writing, allowing me to refresh my skills. I come away feeling like a good writer, one who knows where to place a comma (most of the time) and can determine when a number should be spelled out or written in numeral form.

When I was in high school, I worked on the school newspaper for three years. When our teacher, who treated us like a professional staff, first asked why I wanted to write for a newspaper, I told him I was interested in creative writing, and I thought journalism would improve my editing skills. He told me this was not a fiction writing class, but I insisted writing articles would help me achieve my overall goals, and I was right. After three years, I could take any 800-word article and cut it down to 500. I could delete entire paragraphs, rearrange sentences, and rewrite leads. I learned how to be ruthless, and to this day, I am still able to cut our entire pages or sections of my work, admitting when the writing does not add to the greater good of the piece.

In some ways, I feel similarly about copyediting and proofreading. While the entire process can be tedious, I come away feeling refreshed. I am also able to focus on the technical side of my brain, which allows for a sort of mental vacation.

I must admit that I have always been technically inclined. I loved math in school, and I have always felt fond of computers. To me, these skills came naturally. Unlike my literary peers, I often did better on math tests than English essays or exams. But, I chose writing because it was a challenge and was ultimately meaningful to me. A sentence can be written in so many ways, and while there are many routes to solving a math equation, writing often surprises, turning down another, unexpected path before reaching its conclusion.

While I have chosen writing (and only sometimes lament my decision), I think writers do benefit from using the more technical side of their brains. Copyediting is not a strict science, and I often find myself looking at a comma and wondering if it truly belongs in a sentence. I might call up friends, look at books, discuss with my poor fiancé, and then I realize I have spent thirty minutes contemplating a comma (which is why I am not an efficient copy editor).

I worry that I will somehow make a mistake and place an unwanted comma where it does not belong, but then—after hours and hours of staring at the page—I realize that I truly love to write, and very few others would take more than a second to contemplate one comma in a sentence. Copyediting, too, reminds me that I have come a long way since I began writing. In fifth grade, I learned “a lot” was two words, and I never forgot this. The grammar rules and editing skills I have learned since then are astonishing, and as I finish the last page of my copyediting assignment, I feel a sense of achievement. If I hadn’t taken a step back to copyedit, I might not have reached this editing Zen. I realize, then, I have spent hours considering the minutia, and this has led me to once again see the big picture.

Sadly, I no longer use these traditional proofreading marks. I edit electronically.

Sadly, I no longer use these traditional proofreading marks but instead edit electronically.

Why MFA Graduates Are NOT Published

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I have been in touch with several MFA graduates since finishing my degree, and it seems very few of us have published a book. Some of us are publishing in literary magazines, and a few have had novels or poetry collections published by small presses, but it seems the bulk of MFA graduates do not have an agent or publishing deal. Many seem content this way, having little to no interest in working with commercial publishing houses. What I find concerning, however, is that many graduates seem to have given up writing and the publishing process altogether.

In a way, this makes perfect sense. As many MFAers know, an MFA does not prepare students for publication. There are many classes on the craft of writing and some basic contemporary literature courses, but there are no classes on marketing work, obtaining an agent or writing for a specific audience. It seems we have only been taught the art of writing.

While I agree our main priority should be creating a well-crafted piece, this should only be the beginning. The next step is figuring out how to get others to read our work. The problem is we often don’t care about this stage of writing process—or we are unwilling to look at our work from this harsh, often critical angle. I think many MFAers want to be published, but more importantly we want to write. If agents or publishers will only reject our work, we might as well just publish for ourselves.

I am not sure if this is truly the case for all MFA graduates, but many of those I have spoken to feel the publication process is just not worth the effort. In a way, I agree with this. While we should do more to publish our work, the publishing world is often an exclusive one. There are many good agents looking for debut writers, but perhaps they are not always looking in the right places. While many agents go to writing conferences and ask others for referrals, perhaps more should be reading their slush piles, meeting students at MFA programs, and finding talent at local bars, readings and bookshops. On the other hand, I sympathize with agents and understand they can only read so much material. Still, this process of weeding out mediocre from exceptional work needs to be refined.

It seems MFA graduates have their own circle of friends and colleagues, and likewise agents have an entirely different circle of acquaintances. In this way, it is possible that these social circles will never overlap. I agree that the publishing process is a difficult one, but I also believe we have to make a concerted effort to publish our work. I understand the need to retreat, to hide and write only for small audience of friends who understand our work. But, our writing is larger than that and needs to reach a broader range of people if we are to have a greater influence on the readers and world around us. That is the only way to make a career out of a passion that cannot be found anywhere else.

We need publishers to edit and promote our work. If this means knocking on every door, then so be it. When I think of the 15-20 graduates I finished my MFA with and wonder how many of them are trying to publish—it saddens me to think it might only be a few. The world is being robbed of these great talents, and I hope MFA graduates and those in the publishing industry will someday do more to ensure these great voices are heard.

The process of going from a finished manuscript to a bound book is often a difficult one.

The process of going from a finished manuscript to a bound book is often a difficult one.


Train Travel and Writing

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I spent the weekend traveling to and from Baltimore on the train, and, as it often does, the trip sparked my imagination. The images I saw outside my window—of buildings,  trees, lakes, homes—made me think about my relationship to the world and my place inside of it.

A train is a capsule, able to move across space and yet exist outside of it. In some ways this is what I hope from my writing. As a writer, I enter a space, visualize a setting and create a world based on what I see. I am allowed to enter this space, unobserved for just that moment.

Unlike a moving train, however, I do hope my work will have a larger impact. While I move through towns, in and out for only a moment, I still expect the images I see to impact me. If I see a condemned home, I might create a story for it. I might use the home to represent a town’s economic state or the loss of a character’s self within a community. For the owner of that home though, the condemned house is personal. Perhaps it represents an old life or family he/she has left behind.

While all travel can be conducive to writing, it is train travel, specifically, that seems to generate these thoughts. Train travel involves letting go. The train rolls through the hills and its passengers roll with it. They have little control over the train’s course.

I also believe destination impacts writing, but the impact is not always as immediate. For example, I once lived in Korea for a year. While this experience impacted me greatly, it was many years before I was able to capture this experience and what it meant to me on paper. On the other hand, train travel seems to have an immediate effect. Even when I do not expect it, trains appear in my stories. A man stands on a platform, watching a train pass him by. A couple takes a short trip by train, and it changes their relationship to each other.

I don’t know that travel affects others in quite the same way. I often think, however, that other writers could alleviate writer’s block with just a short trip. Perhaps after taking this trip, writers will return home renewed. They may find the movement in their life has created space within their work.

Train travel can create a good environment for writing.

Train travel can create a good environment for writing.