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.

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79 thoughts on “Like Driving

    • I first heard “Stet Happens” uttered in a firm, not-quite-menacing tone by the novelist Susan Shwartz. Fortunately we were at a sf con so I proceeded immediately to the hucksters’ room and ordered several buttons, one of which I gave Susan.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I completely agree with the metaphor of responding to the road as editors. We’re factoring in grammar, usage, style, writer’s intent, audience and making decisions that are calculated in split seconds or quite carefully. But they are always calculated. Thanks for sharing.

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    • You’re probably doing at least some editing while you write! Nearly all writers, even writers like me who are also editors, get to the point where we can go no further on our own. That’s the time to hire an editor. If you know something about editing and how editors work, it’ll be easier to find the editor you want to work with. And as an editor I can tell you I love working with writers who take their work seriously and are willing to look at it from different angles.

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      • Yup. Not so much on shorter projects, but for longer pieces it’s a must.
        The Hemingway app actually does a pretty good job of catching the nastier complex sentences, but there’s nothing like hearing it spoken.
        Or, if I feel like my voice is tiring, I’ll sometimes use the “Read Out Loud” function often found on e-readers or in PDF software. Sometimes it can be tough to listen to an electronic voice because they’re choppy, but it does help locate omissions, repetitions, or unnecessary punctuation. The neat thing about the last option is you can usually choose to speed up the narration to get through editing even faster.

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  2. I’m still learning to be a better editor of my work. I can edit my school work fairly well because APA format is like second nature to me. However, It’s hard for me to edit my personal writing because I tend to write how I talk (like most people).

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  3. When we moved to the Philippines, I had to forget much of what I’d been taught about the rules of the road. We lived there for more than fifteen years, and it must have taken at least five years for me to get the feel of a style of driving that seemed to have no rules. Finally I learned to let go of what I’d previously learned and simply go with the flow, like a leaf in a stream full of leaves.

    Some styles of writing might necessitate a similar loosening of rules but probably not anything I’d ever choose to write.

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    • Really interesting idea. Some nonfiction editors who venture into editing fiction seem to experience it as a loosening of rules. A poet who moves from working in traditional forms into free verse might feel likewise. When I was writing poetry, I moved in the opposite direction — and learned a lot from formal structure. Most of what I do finds its own structure, but that structure is shaped by rules, mainly because I know those rules cold.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was awesome! I am studying to be a publisher/editor and I love the way you spoke about editing, I love hearing from people that have the same passions I do. Workshopping is one of my favourite parts of the course, discussing ways to make the writer’s impact on the reader stronger… and of course removing commas.

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    • Sometimes I take commas out. Sometimes I put them in. Some writers I’d like to give a salt shaker full of commas and say, “Here, use them.” With other writers, I’d lock the commas in a cupboard and ration them out in small bags, like pills.

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  5. Completely agree. On the driving note, do you ever find that you reach your destination and can’t remember how you got there? You know that you had to make numerous decisions and manoeuvres throughout your journey but you’re not too sure how – pretty scary.

    If you have a moment, please check out my blog at edgarschallenge.wordpress.com

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  6. Great post! I also love the “Stet Happens” button. And it certainly DOES make a difference if you are editing your own material or someone elses.
    There are two levels of editing: the instinctive editing you discuss here (grammar, etc.) and stylistic (higher level) editing that involves making a thoughtful decision. There have been times I have made an editorial decision regarding style, only to rethink it and a few pages later reverse the original decision, based on the work it might take to correct something that could be a style issue: something so ingrained in the author’s style, you have to work around it.

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  7. This really resonated with me. Learning the basics is the most important thing to doing anything really well. When you do a thing with conscious effort and understanding the first time, it will always get easier from there.

    I also am considering letting others edit my work here and there for that second perspective. I was sort of worried to put my work at the mercy of the β€œred pen”, if you will, but reading how in tune you get to the writer and their intentions made me feel better. Best of luck with your work!

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    • Are you sharing your work with others, e.g., in a writers’ group? I blogged about this in an earlier post, “Workshop,” and have another post in the works about writers’ groups. Even before you hire an editor, you can learn a lot from the responses of other writers and readers. An experienced editor will be able to get in tune both with you and with your intended audience, but at the same time she’s only one person. And editors have been known to disagree — sometimes ferociously! — over how a particular passage should be edited.

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      • Susanna, I hadn’t even thought of writers’ groups yet. That is a really great suggestion, and I will be sure to check out your post on that and do some research. I think that would help me grow tremendously, and I do like the idea of having feedback from other writers as well. Thanks!

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  8. And, too , it’s always good to know where you are planning on going to help with those judgments. If there is no set time, the pace can slow. If others are waiting – perhaps it is best to arrive without mud stains. or perhaps not. ..

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  9. I can totally relate as an editor, even though I don’t drive! Funny that I’ve never seen ‘stet’ used in English though. The only drawback of being an editor AND a Latinist is that I read Latin words only as literal Latin and not as they are used idiomatically in English. So thanks for teaching me something, and potentially saving me from embarrassment down the editing road…

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  10. I have found that my own editing process has become rather predictable. Of course, it starts with creativity of ideas, topics, research and arguments. Then, I make an outline and a rough draft, initial incarnations which eventually end up in the trash. Then I write another outline that’s better and a rough draft that I think is good at the time, but after editing, it turns into a subsequent draft that I call the final rough draft.

    After that, its editing, organizing paragraph and argument structures, until I get annoyed with the whole process, during which the work of writing gets frustration. This is followed by staring at the computer fixing grammatical errors and formatting citations and references.

    The finished product usually comes unexpectedly when I’m sitting at the computer reading, what I think is tortured, overworked writing, and I think to myself, “this essay is actually good.” Then, after completing the final product and taking a day off from writing and research, the process starts over again with the next essay topic.

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  11. Great post–I love the analogy. Just came across your blog this morning and, as I have decided to try my hand at writing (something I have long wanted to do, but to this point in my life have just not had the time)…I am thankful that you are writing, and providing this vehicle for all of us (pun intended). Happy to be riding along with you on this adventure!

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      • Well, as a technical writer, I can tell you that you will certainly sell a few of those buttons to those of us in our line of work. Outside of the confines of the editorial world though, STET isn’t as well known. I am also surprised at some of the young tech writers just graduating from school who have never heard of it…what are they teaching these kids nowadays πŸ™‚

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  12. I love your post; it’s a pity I found it after I had already self-published. My book was edited and re-edited by me several times before I finally had the courage to make it available on Amazon Kindle. Just as you said, I worked on instinct, but I have learned more about grammar and editing since I’ve published my psychological thriller. My next book will be better thanks to people like you who give insight and knowledge to aspiring writers.

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  13. It’s really nice when instinct came over. Many times, writing and editing is better if we get our conscious mind out of the way. I call it “autopilot,” which I often do while driving.

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