On Being Edited: Do You Hear What I Hear?

May 28, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Andrea Isiminger

It’s only 50 words out of 500. Am I really going to insist? I wrestled with the question and once again reviewed the changes the editorial assistant suggested. Some edits I was grateful for; others I’d tweaked to make my own. But when she tidied up that final paragraph, my heart broke.

The last three lines of this essay were unconventional. I suppose they resembled poetry more than prose, but to me nothing appeared out of place. Each line contained a rhythm that amplified its message. The three together created a crescendo, an ending I hoped would echo in the reader’s mind long after the facts faded away.

I confess—I sometimes write sentences that would make a good grammar girl cry. I’ll begin with a conjunction if it will make the reader pay closer attention to what follows. A run-on sentence may be positioned to steal breath and increase heart rate. And a sentence fragment is an invitation for someone else to follow the thought to their own conclusion.

I try not to ignore the solid advice of style manuals often, but I honestly believe there are instances when correcting the grammar makes the magic disappear. Clean, correct structure might improve flow, but it also alters perspective, said a voice inside my head. My people-pleasing personality shuddered at the image of becoming a diva who trailed drama in her wake. I trusted this literary blog; they had published my work before. Even so, I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath, clicked on the Google document comment section and explained why I needed those lines to remain untouched.

My essay was off to be reviewed by the senior editors. There was nothing to do but wait.

To keep occupied, I prepared my book club notes on Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase. While surfing for witty remarks on the internet, I learned that Dovlatov had the idiosyncrasy of never writing a sentence containing two words that began with the same letter. Of course, this didn’t hold true for our English translation. I wondered what Russian readers thought of his style. Did they notice a stronger structure, a more defined purpose? Or was it only Sergei who cared? Could anyone hear what he heard?

My email inbox offered up The Paris Review’s weekly newsletter. It contained a 1990 interview with Maya Angelou, who revealed why she keeps a Bible nearby when she writes. “I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.” I’d found a kindred spirit to calm my nerves. I also appreciated her comments on revising: “I know when it’s the best I can do. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.” In the distance, I heard a resounding chorus of “amens,” released by the souls of misunderstood writers throughout the centuries.

We all know how easy it is to skew information to support what we need to hear. Would it be more difficult to cherry-pick facts if I moved to a book written by a copy editor? With my Sherpa blanket and a glass of red wine for comfort, I settled on the sofa with Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. On page 52, Mary, who works at The New Yorker, recounts a tussle with an author over a dastardly dangler. The author wished to leave the sentence as is: “Over tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark.” (The clever reader certainly realizes that the mood can’t hover over the tea.) Mary changed it to: “As we drank tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark.” Later on, Mary admitted (with regret, I hoped) that there was “something more brooding about the version with the dangler.” In another example, Mary decided to let Edward St. Aubyn’s dangler squeak by because “the queasiness created by the dangler, that sense of imbalance,” produced an important sensation for the reader.

I welcome input. Editorial insight has saved me from embarrassment and my readers from misinformation. I’ve sat in the editor’s chair, and I agree with Mary that the job is a delicate balance “between doing too much and doing too little.” Although when I’m the writer, my job includes protecting my voice. I was brave enough to display all my imperfections (personal as well as grammatical) in order to get the reader invested in my creative nonfiction. Therefore, I need the editor to occasionally give way to my adverb-wielding, comma-splicing, em dash-loving self.

A week later I received the email confirming that my piece would be published as is—the senior editors having chosen the writing over the grammar. When the essay later ran on their Facebook site, I was thrilled when they introduced it with their favorite line, which happened to be my sentence fragment. Perhaps the magic wasn’t just in my head after all.

Andrea Isiminger lives in Madrid, Spain. While becoming fluent in the Spanish language seems to be beyond her skill set, she hasn’t given up on English or her writing. Her work has been published in print and online at Blink Ink, Stitch (flash nonfiction at Thread), Literary Mama and Mamalode to name a few.

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