Like Driving

As a kid I’d ride in the passenger’s seat and watch my mother’s hands on the steering wheel. They were always moving. How did she know when to move her hands? Driving, I thought, must be very difficult.

After I’d been behind the wheel myself a few times, I began to get it: You don’t move your hands on the wheel. The wheel moves your hands. Your hands respond to the road, the car, and what your eyes and other senses tell them.

True, your hands turn the wheel when you want to go left or right, but if you hold your hands still when you’re going down the road, you’ll probably start drifting to one side or the other.

In the last two months I’ve copyedited two demanding nonfiction manuscripts. One was 900 pages long, the other about 550. Yesterday morning I sent the second of the two off to its publisher.

I probably made thousands of editorial decisions for each of those books. Many were easy: insert a comma, remove a comma, correct the spelling of a misspelled word. If you stopped me in the middle of such insertions and deletions, I could explain without hesitation what I was doing and why I was doing it.

With many others, the explanation would take a moment or two. Here I changed “in a small number of instances” to “in a few instances.” Why? Because “instances” was more important than “number,” and we had no idea what that “small number” was. There I deleted “kind of” from “This kind of semi-prosperity.” My author was overly fond of “a number of,” “this kind of,” and “a sort of.” Sometimes they served a purpose. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I work, I make such decisions so quickly it feels as though the manuscript is telling me what to do. I just know. But an awful lot of experience goes into that knowing. That’s why, in retrospect, I can usually explain what I’ve done.

stetIt’s also why sometimes I’ll slam on the brakes a page or two after I’ve made one of those apparently instinctive changes, then go back and stet the author’s version. (“Stet” means “let it stand.” If a writer doesn’t agree with an editor’s change, she can stet the original.) While I’m editing along, evidently I’m also evaluating my editing. How do I do it? Damned if I know.

When I learned to drive, I was conscious of all the steps that went into making a smooth stop just a foot or two behind the car in front. Until I learned to judge distances, and to trust my judgment, I’d leave several feet between my bumper and the other car’s. It also took a while to learn to coordinate clutch and accelerator, especially on inclines. (I learned on a standard and that’s what I still drive.)

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

Of course I also learned the rules of the road, not just the written-down ones likely to be on the test but also the informal ones, like it’s usually safe to go five or so miles an hour over the speed limit and if an oncoming car flashes its headlights at you there’s a speed trap up ahead. If the vehicle ahead of you is poking along at ten mph under the speed limit, it may be looking for a crossroad, so be prepared for a sudden and unsignaled turn.

Editing works the same way. So does writing. So does every other skill I can think of. You learn the rules and conventions, they become second nature, then you start to improvise. If you leave the paved road, you don’t have to obey the traffic laws, but you better know know what your vehicle can handle and how to read the terrain. Otherwise you might wind up in a ditch, or worse.