Tag Archives: editing

Editing Is a Lot Like Shaving—Really!

[Please note that I am not a shaving professional and cannot be held responsible for any injuries that occur while shaving. The following is for entertainment purposes only.]


The badger-hair shaving brush I received for my last birthday (Thanks, G!) posed a challenge. I’d seen old-fashioned shaves in the movies, but, looking at the brush, I have to admit I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about the process.

Not to mention that I felt some apprehension over possibly leaving my face and neck looking like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But intrigue far outweighed fear. Shaving with what are generally considered antiquated—even dangerous—implements would be undeniably cool (dare I say, manly?), shimmering with the same mystique as an absinthe fountain or manual typewriter.

I vowed to do it, nicks and cuts be damned!

The Tools

An editor can’t edit without the proper tools, and these days that means a decent computer, a monitor (or two or three), a high-speed internet connection, software (Word, PerfectIt, etc.), dictionaries, and style manuals, for starters.

For my shave, I quickly realized I needed to further bolster my shaving arsenal. I was simply not going to use one of the modern five-blade razors with my cool new brush. Not being foolhardy—or perhaps manly—enough to wield a straight razor, I purchased a safety razor, and I assure you, turning the handle and butterflying the top open, then laying a bare blade within, felt plenty dangerous enough for me. Plus, the damn thing looks extremely cool hanging on the stand next to my brush.

Along with the razor I also bought shaving soap, a stainless steel bowl for working the soap into a lather, and some shaving oil and moisturizer.

I was ready to begin.


Editors don’t just sit down with a document and begin editing. An editor will resave the document with a new name, create a style sheet, perform basic cleanup on the document, and run macros and a variety of programs.

Much the same with shaving.

First, I place the brush in the stainless steel bowl and fill the bowl with warm water to soak the bristles for a few minutes. I then take this time to wash my face with my energizing face wash (Thanks again, G!).

At this stage I apply shaving oil and, pouring a tablespoon onto the shaving soap, dump all but a tablespoon or so of water from the bowl. Then I shake out the brush and swirl it over the soap.

Now for my favorite part!

With soap adhering to the bristles of the brush, I whisk the brush in the bowl to combine it with that little bit of water to create a nice lather. This takes time, and I find that the action of the brush and lather in the bowl centers my thoughts and relaxes me. It helps ready me for the day, and it reminds me a bit of making a roux for gumbo, where the oil and flour gradually assume that perfect peanut-butter color.

My mind clears, and when there are no more bubbles in the lather, I’m getting close.

After the lather is perfect, I apply it to my face, and I really go after it, working the bristles vigorously. The whole point is to raise my whiskers and ready them for the blade, but a pleasant side effect is that the bristles feel wonderful.

The Work

These days, editors have quite a few tools that make editing easier, but at editing’s heart there is always an editor working the text, poring diligently letter by letter over a document. This is where the real work is done, where an editor’s attention to detail and ability to concentrate for extended periods of time come into play.

This is the stage where the editor’s training and experience and knowledge really pay off.

If a mistake at this stage can leave glaring errors in a document, a mistake at the same point while shaving can result in the aforementioned nicks and cuts. But do it correctly and you’re left with smooth skin that you, or your loved one, can’t resist touching (or, for that matter, a clean, error-free document that invites reading).

But let’s make no mistake, shaving with a safety razor is not for the fainthearted.

Even secured in the casing, the blade is lethal, so you can’t shave quickly and recklessly, as you might with a more modern blade (no need to even reassert the editing metaphor here). With a safety razor, the weight of the handle itself is enough, so you let gravity do the work, bringing the blade down, always down, a half inch or so at a time, over and over.

I’ll admit that my first couple shaves with the safety razor could easily have put one in mind of The Wild Bunch, but I learned. Slow and extreme care can literally save your neck (or, when editing, your client’s).


Once a job is complete, an editor can wrap up the work, which of course entails returning the document to the client and, presumably, getting paid in the not-too-distant future. With shaving, this is the point where a hot towel (or cold, as some prefer) would really come in handy, but I haven’t incorporated that into the process. Maybe someday.

Until then, I’m going to enjoy the slow pleasures of a good shave—and I’m going to try to always bring the same level of extreme care to my work.  


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Talk About Bleary Eyes

While attending the George Washington University, I picked up extra scratch by proofreading patents for a law firm. Back in the early nineties, twelve dollars an hour seemed like a lot of money (though, being a college student, the firm might as well have sent my checks directly to the M Street bars).

The gig entailed traditional proofreading, not the popularly held catch-all sense that can seemingly mean almost any kind of copy editing. The job was to proof already-printed patents against documents the law firm submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). I worked as part of a two-person team, taking turns reading the office copy while the other proofreader followed along in the printed patent. (In practice, I followed along about 90 percent of the time. Yes, I had the more difficult task, and no, I didn’t make a cent more for my efforts!)

If the patent had already been printed, you might wonder about the point of proofing it. Would the patent be reprinted? No, but if the clients, who were billed for our services, thought the change important enough, an errata sheet could be filed with the PTO and permanently attached to the patent.

Lest you’re thinking, “Wow, you must have gotten a sneak peek at some crazy-cool inventions!,” I can assure you that wasn’t the case. These were chemical and electrical patents detailing processes for such things as substrate application for computer chips. The patents were highly technical, and their proofreading often involved the reading of long chemical strings and formulas, along with such text features as superscripts and subscripts.

Wait a minute. This was college. Shouldn’t I have been out kidnapping the rival school’s goat?

The work had to be done in the law firm because the firm, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t allow client files to leave the office. So my partner and I would steal into the office at odd hours (usually Saturday or Sunday mornings), grab the files, and find an empty conference room to spend the next six or so hours performing the incredibly tedious work.

And the work was tedious, but I credit it for helping me develop the mental muscles that allow me to concentrate for long periods of time. It’s common for people to see an error in text and say, “How could an editor miss this?” But that question presumes that the editor has had that bit of text and only that bit of text laid before him or her, when these instances are usually missed not because editors aren’t capable of picking up a specific error, but because of a lapse of concentration during the course of a long day of editing.

This is why frequent breaks are so important. When reading text, the mental red flags that go up when something is amiss might very well not be raised if the editor is fatigued. If tired, editors can easily read right over something that would jump out at them if they were fresher.

I can now look at all the work I did proofreading patents as training for my editing career, but I suppose the training would only have done so much good if I didn’t love the work as well. Even when proofing materials that were largely impenetrable to me, I loved finding errors, and while some patents were fairly clean, any problem that could go wrong at some point inevitably did. Missing lines or even pages of text. Words run together. Even an innocently introduced case of profanity. (Yes, I once caught the f-word in a patent.)

One of the fun parts of the job was that, because we did off-hours work, almost no one at the firm knew who we were. We felt a bit like secret agents Mission: Impossible–ing our way into the office, knocking out our work, and getting the hell out of Dodge.

Or maybe that makes it sound a bit cooler than it actually was. Maybe you wouldn’t think there was much cool about a job that involved making sure every little syllable was correct in a word like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. But I enjoyed it, and in many ways I miss the job that I will forever associate with a particular time in my life.


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Mind the Gap

Looking at the spaces between vertical railings on my friend’s just-built deck, I could only say, “This can’t adhere to any code.” The spaces were a good two feet apart, so any child under the age of six could easily walk right off the deck.

Needless to say, my friend had words with her contractor.

The existing railing might even have been worse than no railing at all, because the illusion of safety might have given a false sense of security, whereas if there were no railing whatsoever, people (presumably even children) would be afraid to go near the edge.

Editing can be like that.

I’ve noticed that the more professional the design, whether that means typesetting of the text or pictorial or illustrative elements surrounding the text, the more likely the editor is to have a false sense that everything is okay.

It rarely is.

I’ve seen good editors miss what should be obvious mistakes on book covers in part, I have to think, because the design looks so nice that it’s hard to believe there could be an error.

A corollary is that editors can easily fail to fact-check something because of the thought that the writer intended a piece of information to be there and must know what he or she is talking about.

Trust in editing is a dangerous thing, while skepticism more often than not saves the day.

But editors should be skeptical of their own impulses as well. Before making any change, editors have to counter the little thrill of making a correction by asking themselves whether there’s any way that the original instance could in fact be correct. Young editors especially can be so fired up with confidence in their abilities that they introduce errors by misreading a usage and making a bad edit.

So we have to always be skeptical of the text, of our writers, and, perhaps most particularly, of ourselves. As always, do no harm!

And don’t go stepping off any decks, metaphorical ones or otherwise.  

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Change Is Good (Sometimes)

Editors pore over text, moving from letter to letter, even looking for extra spaces and judging whether punctuation marks should be italic or roman.

Yes, an editor’s work might seem tedious, but then—BAM!—an editor finds an error and feels an undeniable charge. Editors might not pump their fists like tennis players winning a big point, but there’s a joy there. It’s one of the rewards of the profession.

That joy, though, shouldn’t influence whether an edit is actually made.

Every editor on the planet has probably heard that the first rule of editing is to “do no harm.” Good advice. There’s no greater sin in editing than introducing an error into the text. I don’t want to miss anything, ever, but I can forgive myself for that. I can’t forgive myself, however, for introducing an error because I’m too busy patting myself on the back to realize that a change shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

So once the thrill of finding what appears to be an error has passed, an editor should settle down and ask a number of questions.

  • Is it wrong? A misspelled name is wrong. A subject that doesn’t agree with its verb is wrong. But there are plenty of changes editors would like to make that have nothing to do with the supposed error being right or wrong. All editors have preferences, and some editors feel that their preferences are a reflection of who they are. Serial commas rule! or Down with serial commas! Either attitude is fine, and when editors have a choice, hey, by all means, they should follow their preference. But if you’re editing for someone who follows the Chicago Manual, then you use the serial comma, and if you’re editing for someone who follows AP, then you generally won’t. The point is that preferences over style should be put aside both for client and for audience.
  • Could it be correct if looked at from another angle? Sometimes we’re so sure that something is wrong that we don’t step back and ask whether there’s something we haven’t considered. Yes, that noun is singular and it’s linked to a plural verb. But have you considered that it’s a collective noun and the sense is that the members of that collective are acting individually and not as a whole? Editors should also try to look things up even when they are sure. (How many people are sure that just deserts should be just desserts?)
  • Should I make this edit? Does the edit go beyond the scope of my assignment? Yes, it’s a dangling modifier, but fixing it would mean radically restructuring the sentence. Maybe that’s something I should query before doing any rewriting.   
  • Does it affect other areas of the text? If I decide to write out the number eight and numerals have been used for numbers under ten throughout the document, then I’ve introduced an error where none existed before. What else could be affected by the change I’ve made?

The Halo Effect

Editors also have to consider the halo effect (missing another error close to the error that’s just been corrected). When an editor corrects an error, there’s a feeling that all is well, and that often extends to a few words before and after the error. You don’t want to fix the spelling of the subject and miss that the subject doesn’t agree with the verb. The best way to deal with the halo effect is to back up to the previous sentence and reread the portion of text again.

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Trust (Vroom, Vroom)

The mechanic sat down next to me and presented the sheet detailing the work to be performed on my vehicle. Because I needed to authorize the repairs, and by extension the king’s ransom the work required, I pretended to examine this sheet. For all I understood about what the man was saying, however, I might as well have been mentally reviewing a long-ago game of Donkey Kong.

If I were being honest, I would have said, “Sir, you’re describing something I could never hope to understand. I’m going to do my best to look distressed so you’ll take pity on me and charge a fair price for the work, but I’m completely at your mercy, and in the end I’m going to agree to whatever it is you suggest.”

In turn, if the mechanic were being honest, he would have said, “I understand the situation. I know you don’t have the foggiest notion of what I’m talking about, and I know that you know that I know. I’ll charge you whatever I please, and then when I’m done I’ll pretend to knock a little off the top as if I’m doing you a favor. But in truth, you’ll never really know the extent to which you’re being screwed.”

Fair enough, my good man.

My problem at the auto shop was twofold: First, I’m a car idiot, which is entirely my fault. With more than (or “over,” as I can now say with the full blessing of the Associated Press) forty years on this planet, I’ve had plenty of time to educate myself on the inner workings of one of the most important machines in my life. So that’s on me.

The second issue, though, is trust. There are good mechanics and bad mechanics, honest ones and dishonest ones. The mechanic working on my car seemed like a nice guy, but when you’re scratching to make ends meet, feelings of distrust have a way of asserting themselves.

Trust, too, is just as much a consideration when editing a job for a client. The client is, after all, placing something in my hands that’s every bit as precious to him or her as the sleekest car. When clients entrust you with their work, they’re handing over their baby, and you better believe they can be fussy as hell about it. And they have a right to be.

Money in the bank is greatly appreciated. It can be used to pay for things like, well, car repairs. But earning the trust of a client is also a form of payment, and it’s a deeply satisfying one.

Now that I think about it, editing a manuscript isn’t all that different from working on a vehicle. I can take a manuscript into my garage and put the hood up and listen to the sound of the engine. I can gauge whether it runs smoothly, corners nicely, or if it sputters and fails.

I can emerge from the garage and look the client in the eye and perhaps see the same level of apprehension I felt at the mechanic’s when I say, “I gotta tell ya, we need to do some serious work here.”

I’d wipe the grease off my hands with a rag and continue, “That knocking you heard in your manuscript? It’s a combination of dangling participles, noun-pronoun antecedent issues, comma splices. Your punctuation’s out of whack. You’ve got some serious usage issues. Yes, sir, I’m going to have to take those paragraphs completely apart and put ’em all back together again. We’re talking a full week in the shop.”

In reality, when taking on freelance work, I’m more likely to undercharge clients than to overcharge them. I enjoy editing and I enjoy helping others, probably in part because I’ve always had low self-esteem. But that’s another issue entirely.

The real issue is trust, and in a good writer-editor relationship, the writer trusts the editor to bring out the best in his or her manuscript, to be strong in his opinions, and to respect the writer’s right to disagree. And when the work is done, the best feeling in the world is seeing the writer continue his journey with a manuscript that purrs like a kitten.

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Space, the Final Frontier


Or rather: Think for a moment about how marvelously useful spaces between words are. And cheers to that big triple-em-dash-looking thing on our keyboard: the space bar.

Without spaces, sentences are all but unreadable, and so conditioned are we to using spaces that I could not write that first sentence without them. I tried, but damned if my thumb didn’t automatically hit the space bar after every word. I almost immediately abandoned the attempt and simply typed the sentence normally and then went back and deleted the spaces.

(Latin did not employ spaces between words until sometime around 700 CE. Sales of the Aeneid must have skyrocketed.)

Good editors naturally develop the ability to spot extra spaces between words and sentences. Once you’ve honed this ability, an extra space will send up the same mental red flag as a misspelled word. Whether you know it or not, you’re already reading every space as a type of character, so the groundwork for developing this skill is already in place.

I imagine someone is about to slam down a fist and cry out, ”Let’s just be clear that there should be one space between sentences!” Or: “You’re crazy! There have always been two spaces after the period!”

Needless to say, you’ll still hear arguments about whether there should be one space or two after the period. In short, the use of two spaces after the period was a common typewriter convention. Typewriter fonts used monospace typefaces and the two spaces helped readers recognize the break between sentences. Modern fonts use proportional typefaces and one space is usually preferred, unless otherwise specified by a house style. There’s no need to get upset, and those of a confrontational bent can go back to arguing about the Oxford comma.

No matter how practiced you become at recognizing extra spaces in text, it’s always good to use all the tools at our disposal, and the Find/Replace feature on most programs is a helpful aid.

Simply type two spaces into the Find field and let the machine do its work. You can type one space into the Replace field and fix issues one at a time as the Find/Replace feature takes you through the document. You can also run a Replace All, but if doing so, be sure that there aren’t places in the document where a run of spaces hasn’t been used for another purpose.

If you are using Find/Replace to ensure one space after the period, be sure to run it again and again until it comes up with no hits. If there are instances of two spaces after the period, there’s a good chance that there will also be instances of three or more spaces as well, and running the cycle multiple times ensures you catch all of these.

To sum up: Space is a good thing, but too much can cause problems. Sounds a bit like relationship advice, doesn’t it? But then there are any number of ways editing extends beyond the page. And perhaps that’s something for another post.

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Now I’m Lookin’ at a Flashback Sunday

Quite some time ago, I was critiquing catalog write-ups, some of which I’d written, in a roomful of writers and marketers. A particular piece contained a phrase that read something like this: “A tale where such and such . . .” I made the suggestion that we change “where” to “in which.”

One of the people in the room smirked and said, “So you’re an ‘in which’ guy.”


I don’t recall my response, but I remember being taken aback. Like most people, I don’t cotton* to those who assume things about me and smugly cast me as a certain type. The implication was worse than that I didn’t know a specific grammar point. The implication was that there was a rule governing a usage and that I was blindly following that rule, even if a less formal usage would have been perfectly suitable, and maybe even preferred, in the context.

To set your mind at ease, this film does not resume with me turning that room into The Wild Bunch. The comment did stick with me, though, most likely because I’m sensitive to how I’m perceived. It’s bad to be thought incompetent, but it’s far worse to be thought ridiculous, and I like to think of myself as the opposite of someone who mindlessly enforces rules across all situations, no matter the appropriateness.


I’d meant this blog post to be about the attitude one takes toward grammar, and I had thought to compare that attitude to one that a person might take toward politics. I was going to levy charges against marrying oneself to a viewpoint, whether it be right, left, prescriptivist, or descriptivist. I meant to talk about my self-loathing in regard to the scornful “reasonable” view. I was even going to talk about free will, but all that will have to wait for another post. I’ve realized that this post (admittedly a self-serving one in many ways) is about something more basic: why one edits.

Return to the Theatre.

Many years ago, my office mates and I were charged with assembling going-away gifts for a colleague named Lars, who was leaving our group to strike out on his own. Someone in the office (an accountant, not an editor, mind you) had decorated and labeled a container as “Lars’ Jar.” I don’t remember what was to go in the jar, but it was likely to be filled with well-wishing notes or something of the like.

One of my other coworkers, fancying herself a grammar guru, made a showy display of hand-wringing over her contention that it should be written “Lars’s Jar.” She was sorely aggrieved that anyone who saw the jar would assume that Lars, in essence, had worked with a group of slack-jawed yokels, presumably because it was such an eye-poppingly huge punctuation gaffe.

First things [deleted] last: The manner of forming the possessive of a singular noun ending in s is a style decision. Chicago recommends apostrophe-s, while Associated Press style, for instance, recommends the apostrophe alone (saving even a single space in a newspaper column can be a big deal). But even if it were something as uncontestable as misusing “its” for “it’s,” longtime fans of Steven Goff’s informative soccer blog would recognize the woman’s outrage as nothing short of “overegging the pudding.”

The point isn’t the right or wrong of the matter but why the comment was made in the first place. It seems clear that it was meant to mark the commenter as in some way superior while at the same time disparaging the person who’d taken the trouble to craft the jar. In the workplace or out, correcting other people’s grammar is often done for similar reasons, and many have undoubtedly witnessed someone wielding the “Never end a sentence with a preposition!” stick to carry out just this form of tyranny.

It’s not why I edit.

In the Robert Rodriguez vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn, murdering thief Seth Gecko (George Clooney) discovers that his brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino) has brutally assaulted an innocent cleaning woman. Horrified, Seth tells Richie, “Do you think this is who I am? I am a professional thief. I don’t kill people I don’t have to.”

When I see an editor lording his or her knowledge (or supposed knowledge) over someone else for the purpose of belittling that person, I think, This is not who I am.

I like to imagine that copy editors are much like trash men, who during their largely unseen, early-morning rounds clean up our towns and cities. Copy editors, also largely unseen, clean up our text. I’m comfortable with the blue-collar nature of both jobs, and the world is a better place without garbage overflowing bins or dangling modifiers confusing our text.

I recently interviewed someone for an editing position, and during the interview I allowed as to how I enjoy editing, how I enjoy being alone with a stack of pages and keeping at my desk. In an attempt to be ingratiating, the person said something along the lines of, “It’s good to correct other people, isn’t it?”

No, that isn’t me. I’d rather think that what I’m doing is helpful to other people. I like to do a good job and be acknowledged for it, sure. I can’t deny a certain self-congratulatory impulse to pat myself on the back every time I mark an edit. I’m not proud of it, but it’s there. At the same time, I’d like to think the majority of that impulse stems not from a feeling of superiority but from a sense of satisfaction at doing my job well. I can also remind myself that as editors, it’s easy to feel superior when we’re registering all the good catches we’ve made, but none of us are immune from that embarrassing gut-punch when someone finds something we’ve missed (and all editors miss from time to time).

I’m not an “in which” guy, although there are any number of times I’ll recommend using those two words over “where.” I have to imagine that “in which” guys, if they exist, don’t quote Robert Rodriguez movies. I do try to keep an editing mindset that’s consistent with being a decent person. As Seth said, “I may be a bastard, but I’m not a [deleted] bastard.”

PS: A hearty congratulations to anyone who gets the reference in the title. My only justification is that it made me laugh.

* As for the use of the word cotton: some of the write-ups were for Western novels, you lousy coffee boiler.


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