Saturday, September 11, 2010

A few comments and questions...

"One Paragraph, Three Ways" touched on a big issue I have while informally editing friend's papers: maintaining the author's style. When I come across sentences that are poorly written or that I feel need to be rewritten altogether, it is extremely hard for me not to impose my own style. This becomes especially difficult if I run into many sentences that fit this description.

Obviously this applies more in a teaching scenario, as opposed to a professional copyediting setting. However, I am curious as to how to best edit a paper in this situation.


Pat said...

The difficulty you're having is part of an ethical dilemma:

1. Who does the paper belong to--the person who wrote it or you the editor?

2. What is the relationship between you and the person you are editing? Is it guided by some objective rules, or is it purely a personal relationship?

You can see that when distinctions blur, we run into trouble.

A good question. Let me think about this some more and write another comment later.

Pat said...

Ashley, I thought about this some more and realized that you are talking about rewriting, not editing. You may start off wanting to edit, but you find yourself rewriting because the sentences need so much work. Not only are they poorly written, but the thinking behind them has to be straightened out. And in a few cases, I'm guessing, sections need to be reorganized.

Once you start rewriting, you are acquiring ownership. The paper no longer belongs to your friend alone; it also belongs to you.

I showed your question and my earlier comment to my boss, and he replied with a comment of his own. I'll include that here as a new post.

Pat said...

Ashley, I also showed your post to my good friend Michael LaGory, who teaches AP English at Iolani School and who produced the school's grammar guide. He had this to say:

Pat asked me to comment on your question. I am a high school English teacher who used to work as an editor.

Here’s my advice: don’t be shy. Sensible writers welcome suggestions. They know they aren’t perfect. They don’t see their writing as objectively as you do. It’s your job to read a manuscript as your journal’s audience would read the finished article or story. Most stylistic flaws are lapses by the author, not conscious stylistic decisions. If you have doubts, tell the writer your concerns: “The parallelism would be smoother if both verbs were action verbs” or “The paragraph could use a more emphatic conclusion.”

With teachers, editorial reticence amounts to negligence. Writing is difficult, and I have more experience than my students. If one of their sentences seems unclear or ugly, the reason is usually that it is. Once in a while I call in a student and ask, “Before I judge this poem, please tell me what you were trying to say or do.” Invariably it turns out that I understand the poem better than its author did.