Thursday, February 26, 2009

Moments in Copy Editing

Came across this the other day:

Let's look at four of the coolest, campiest and downright otherworldly attractions that make for a great side trip.

I scratched my head: "coolest, campiest and downright otherworldly"? It took me a while to decide that, indeed, this is a parallel problem. It seems to be setting up a list of adjectives in superlative form (est), but then the thing after the "and" is not superlative.

I changed it to:

Let's look at four of the coolest and campiest -- some downright otherworldly attractions that make for a great side trip.

Better? I think so. Still, there's something unsettling about this one ...

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Joel said...

Frankly, if I'd written this sentence, I'd have been just fine with "otherworldliest," though I'm sure that would make some people squirm. Which is fine. Let 'em squirm.

No offense (you know I greatly respect your skillz), but I like my aberration better than your compromise. "Most otherworldly" (dropping the "downright"; hmmm, "downright" is a sort of superlativizing adverb in itself, isn't it, and works best, IMO, with a bit of self-mocking; it sounds a little "gosh-darn") might work, but I don't like that much either. I kinda think that if "otherworldliest" doesn't work (for the author or the overlords) that the conjoined otherworldliness should find its way into a different sentence altogether--which makes sense metaphorically, if you think about it. I see that that's almost what you've done, but, yeah, idunno, it unsettles me too.

Actually, I think "that make for a great side trip" is part of the problem. It seems to function as an unparallel modifier too. In any case, it hangs awkwardly even if you take out "downright otherworldly."

And maybe the main problem is that the initial superlatives are superfluous in the first place. Is this ad copy? It sounds like an ad. If it isn't, it's been seriously affected. Why is everything always so superlative-y-est?

Tell us what you really think, Joel. Really, you can tell me to shut up whenever I start to bother you.

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, I wasn't exactly in love with my final sentence, either. But when you take liberties with words, like "otherworldliest," I believe it's crucial to consider context. If this were editorial copy at a respected newspaper, I'd be fine with "otherworldliest" as a conscious device by the writer. But in advertiser-influenced stuff -- or in any less-respected publication -- I think you have to work harder to demonstrate your grasp of rules and reader expectations.

(This wasn't advertising copy, but it's in an advertiser-driven pub that does not get the same respect as straight editorial.)

There's another issue that's tough for copy editors: Trying not to bulldoze the writer's voice/choices. Hence that "downright." (I didn't like it either, but for different reasons.) Copy editors don't really have the authority to dictate tone and style. If a writer is going for folksy, we can only change it if we feel the choice truly doesn't work on some level or other.

I decided that "downright" was a bad call but still the writer's call. That's why I left it. Others would have taken it out.

Tricky job, this.

As a copy editor, I find it hard to not overcorrect. The job is, basically, looking for problems. So when you find something that COULD be a problem, you're all poised to pounce on it -- even though often changes can make it worse. It's hard to be prepared to pounce yet remain still even when pouncing opportunities arise.

(P.S. Don't worry about going on too much! It's all interesting stuff!)

Joel said...

I absolutely agree with everything you just said (which, by the way, you expressed very well indeed) and I truly don't envy your position.

Preserving a writer's voice is definitely a difficult thing. It's so much easier to take over and put it in my own voice. Pretty much every time I edit someone else's work, to avoid this danger, I end up with at least one instance (often, there are a few) in which I come up with multiple choices and/or mostly just highlight the problem and the rules it violates (often simply the need to be clear), and throw it back at the author. I realize that's not always possible and it's certainly not efficient.

One of the rules I've laid down for the newsletter I edit (and this fits the nature of the publication) is that it's going to have a mostly uniform personality and voice (no, not mine; God, I hope that's not my voice) and there will be no attribution. I essentially told my team "don't get attached to your style, because I'll most likely hack it to pieces." There are other good reasons for that, aside from my laziness and attempts to preserve my own sanity while performing a task I'm not supposed to spend too much time on. Of course, the Director always has a little column and I haven't even told him the rules. I'm thankful that he's a decent writer and effective communicator and I only have to make minor, technical adjustments to his stuff.

When I was in college, a friend asked me to look over a paper he'd written. I came back with a slew of criticisms that essentially berated him for having a voice different from mine. Lucky for us both, he ignored me and got not only an A+ but a commendation from the professor. What's worse (well, better, but worse for my sad little ego) is that he is now a successful, best-selling author, one of whose books has even been turned into a relatively major motion picture. All true. It isn't a bad movie, either. He sent me a copy of the book when I figured out who he was, but I haven't read it yet.

Meanwhile here I am a guy who mostly comments on other people's blogs and has secrete fantasies that involve Salma Hayek saying "subjunctive." Not that there's no joy in that. But still.

June Casagrande said...

That's funny that you basically told him to change his own voice and he profited by not listening. I 'spose that's something all we do as peer editors in college.

If I were editing a newsletter that was unbylined except for one column, I would want the tone to be uniform throughout the newsletter except for that one column.

Either a document reflects the voice of the organization, or it reflects the voice of a writer who is made known to the reader. Seems that's how it should be ...


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