Cut to the Bone

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In the Sunday NYTBR essay, Dorothy Gallagher looks back on the lessons passed on by one Helene Pleasants, a copy editor the author met while a junior editor at Redbook:

Helene had no literary theories — she had literary values. She valued clarity and transparency. She had nothing against style, if it didn’t distract from the material. Her blue pencil struck at redundancy, at confusion, at authorial vanity, at the wrong and the false word, at the unearned conclusion. She loved good writing, therefore she loved the reader: good writing did not cause the reader to stumble over meaning. By the time Helene was finished with me seven years later, I knew how to read a sentence and how to fix one. I knew what a sentence was supposed to do. I began to write my own sentences; needless to say, the responsibility for them is my own.

I wondered about the essay's frigorific opening lines, "My copy editor died. No need to be upset on my account. I hadn't seen Helene Pleasants for at least 10 years before her death; and even those closest to her would agree that her death was timely." I wondered, too, about its gelid last: "And I've changed my mind: it is a pity that Helene died. As long as she lived, I could still think of myself as a young writer."

But the in-between of Gallagher's essay brought poignantly to mind the copy editors who have done their level best to keep me in grammatical line. I moved quite a bit as a child—Wilmington to Alberta to Wilmington to Boston to Wilmington and finally to a suburb of Philadelphia—and in that zagging journey I lost two academic things: continuity with a foreign language (don't test my French) and an ability to stay on course with any grammar lessons. I was perpetually relearning what I already knew, or I was skipping entire chapters of Strunk & White.

Given the Swiss Cheese quality of my brain, this was not good.

So that I have had to rely on copy editors since (and pray for my poor blog readers, who daily encounter the unfiltered, uncorrected Beth), and though I've run the gamut of experiences, I've grown rather fond of one who shall remain unnamed, one I've never met. She stalks my every comma, circles my overblown "just," writes thin-penciled comments in the margins that remind me that it'll always be love of language first for her, struggling writer distant second. What were you thinking? her comments fairly shout. What business have you writing in the first place? Have you taken a good look at yourself?

I read her notes in the privacy of my own house. I turn magnificent shades of red. I tremble. And then I'm severely grateful for her, grateful that she cares so much.

I pay attention. I apply my learnings. I do try to get it right. I fantasize, even, about receiving a Fed Ex with a single note inside: Your manuscript required no changes, it might say. It's gone directly to print.


PJ Hoover said...

OK, I let out a chuckle at the last part. That would be nice, wouldn't it.
I feel like I'm only starting to get back in touch with grammar. Watching commas, noting when they are missing. Subject. Predicate. It's like I erased so much and now have a desire to learn it all over again with a whole new meaning.

TJ Brown said...

I have to have a copy editor. My brain is so swiss cheese, it's barely hanging together. I blame the brain radiation. Or perimenopause.

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