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Ashlin Springer

Professor Suzy Bills

ELANG 350—Response 4

19 June 2017

Pick One: The Art of Being a Scientific Editor

As a college student, I have had to answer one of the most important questions of my

career: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Fortunately, there are more than enough

options to choose from: music, math, teaching, engineering, linguistics. My dream has always

been to create something marvelous. I always wanted (and still want) to be a top-notch pianist, a

famous actor, a fabulous singer, or a well-known painter; my talents, however, lie in other fields.

I am a logical, left-brained thinker who soaks up any information that crosses my path. I excelled

in my math and physics classes. Because of my aptitude for math, it appeared that my strengths

would best be put to use as an engineer. But that wasn’t my forte either. It took a while, but I

eventually discovered the perfect balance between the arts and the sciences that was to be my

calling: editing.

I found editing almost by chance. A friend of mine majored in linguistics, which she

described as the “scientific study of language.” She recommended that I take the introductory

class. I did, and while looking at the list of other classes and programs related to that major, the

word editing caught my eye. I dug deeper and eventually enrolled for two of the classes that

compose the editing minor. One class showed me how to analyze language; the other taught me

how to manipulate it.

I was introduced to the scientific side of language and editing in my grammar class. The

professor focused on teaching how to analyze sentence structure by identifying each word’s form
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and function. Understanding what is necessary to make a sentence grammatical helps editors

identify problems when they read them. Carol Saller, an editor for the University of Chicago

Press, noted that editors who “don’t know the issues, trends, and rules of style and grammar . . .

won’t be aware of all the little things that might or might not need attention” (26). On the

contrary, an editor who does know the issues, trends, and rules of grammar will be aware of what

might or might not need attention.

Editing problems that those with a solid understanding of grammar easily spot include

run-on sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, parallel structure, and dangling and

misplaced modifiers. If an editor knows when a subject is missing from a sentence, he or she has

found a sentence fragment. If an editor finds a sentence with multiple clauses not joined by a

comma and a coordinating conjunction, he or she has located a run-on sentence. If an editor spies

three phrases, two of which are infinitive phrases and one of which is a gerund, he or she has

identified an instance of non-parallel structure. If an editor sees an opening participial phrase

whose subject is different from the subject of the main clause, he or she has singled out a

dangling modifier. All of these can be spotted—and fixed—by grammatically educated editors,

and I have seen all these problems before.

The stylistic side of editing was explained to me in my class called “Modern American

Usage.” One of the main themes of this class was learning to decide whether a certain choice in

writing was more or less appropriate than another. In other words, there could be more than one

right answer. It took me a while to really comprehend this idea and apply it in editing situations.

I had a difficult time leaving an author’s voice in a paper because I thought it would send better

this way or that way. As an editor, my job is not to create the perfect sentence; my job is to help

authors clearly communicate their ideas. In fact, as Edmond Weiss put it, “What all the best
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communicators have in common is imagination” (xv). To fall back on an old idea, no two

snowflakes (or people) are the same, but that doesn’t mean one is less beautiful than another.

Saller sums up this point nicely: “Copy editors fail to understand that style rules . . . are often by

nature arbitrary and changeable. If style rules were universal and immutable, there would be no

need for different style guides and dictionaries” (33).

I also compare the artistic side of editing to, interestingly enough, math. Although it is

true that two plus five must always equal seven, seven does not necessarily always come from

two plus five. There are many ways to add up to seven: one plus six, three plus four, five plus

one plus one, four plus two plus one-half plus one-half. None of these answers is more correct

than any other. They are options. I saw this principle applied in my usage class when homework

was graded during class. All the students had edited the same sentences, but invariably each

student would raise query whether his or her answer was acceptable. More often than not, those

answers were. I found that there were times when I thought my edit was the better choice, but

there were other times when I preferred a classmate’s revision. All our answers were great, and

each represented each student’s artistic style.

Learning about these two sides of editing—scientific and artistic—has allowed me to

grow to love the profession I have chosen. I get to develop my creative side while letting my

mathematical talents flourish outside their usual environment. I don’t have to be a perfect editor

because there is no such thing. It may be impossible to uncover the best solution or best revision,

but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good or even a great solution. As I move forward, the artistry

and science of editing will continue to blend together, creating a wondrous mixture and harmony

words, and I will have created something truly marvelous.


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Works Cited

Saller, Carol F. The Subversive Copy Editor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Weiss, Edmond H. The Elements of International English Style. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.,

2005.