Tuesday, November 08, 2005

To Edit

a few weeks ago i went to a copy editor conference near the airport. i don't know why it's worth mentioning that it was near the airport, but it was near the airport even though no one flew in for it. all the attendees were local copy editors like me, with a handful from orange county (which may as well be China if you live in LA).

the point is that it was a copy editor conference which is curious for a number of reasons. first off, copy editors don't really need a conference -- a fact that made my attendance mandatory. you see, we are a static industry. a semicolon by any other name will still serve the same purpose. the few yearly updates on usage and terminology can be found in the latest edition of whichever style bible we subscribe to. in my case, that would the very cutting-edge AP Stylebook. secondly, we are rarely allowed away from our desks/out of our cages for fear that a wayward comma might sneak into otherwise clean copy. our bosses usually love us dearly and know that no one could do our jobs or, for that matter, would want to do our jobs in our absence. and that's always my most favorite thing to hear from people -- "eww. at work all day you sit around looking for errors in the things you read? i could never do that. it would drive me crazy."

yes indeed, it sometimes drives me crazy. on certain days, it makes my eyes bleed. but on most days, i friggin love it. i really do. i can get a serious hard-on from taking a white page with 12-point, times new roman font and marking it up silly with my red pen. it's a satisfaction that rivals orgasm, like "who's your momma, bitch?" we all want to be the authority on something, and copy editing gives me the ultimate power of the pen, which provides a great veto power. (unless you have to work with pain-in-the-ass writers who think you're worthless because you're correcting their copy, which they think is so damn flawless even though it's crap. but if you got a writer who's open, it's cool.)

it's a glamorous profession, i tell ya. but i should also tell ya that while i'm a fabulous editor, i am a horrible grammarian. i couldn't tell ya why or how a modifier dangles, only that it does dangle like that fleshy, dangling thing in the back of your mouth (also known as an 'uvula.') i also couldn't make a strong case for splitting infinitives or explain the difference between comparatives and superlatives, because i don't know what those things are. all i know is what sounds right to me and that intuition has helped me fake a career in copy editing for the past ten years. but it's always nice to match labels with instincts so i looked forward to this conference as an opportunity to deepen my understanding of my own skill set, which at times feels foreign to me.

unfortunately, that didn't happen at this conference, as i found the instructor pompous and the material remedial. plus, i left early and had my usual bad attitude going on. i did, however, learn a handful of interesting things worth sharing and here they are:

-- writing is full of awful redundencies, so think again before you use the terms: 'lone gunman,' 'safe haven,' and 'whether or not.'
-- 'cement' is wet; 'concrete' is dry.
-- a 'dove' is a beautiful, white bird; use 'dived' as the past tense of 'dive.'
-- 'between' compares two things, while 'among' generally refers to more than two.
-- 'oral' concerns the mouth; 'verbal' deals with words.
-- an 'initialism' is a term like TLC and FBI, where each of the letters is spoken as a letter; an 'acronym' is pronounceable as a word, like NAFTA or NASA.
-- 'begging the question' is actually a term for philosophers that assumes that the premise of an argument assumes the very thing the argument is trying to prove. for example, the question "Have you stopped taking bribes?" begs the questions because the speaker assumes the person was taking bribes. most people use this term when they really mean 'raise the question.'
-- the difference between farther and further can be remembered with this handy mnemonic: the 'a' in 'farther' refers to 'actual' distance; further refers to figurative distance.
-- you 'convince' people of your viewpoint before 'persuading' them into action.
-- the road is 'winding'; the wind is 'windy.'
-- don't ever use 'ironic' when you mean 'coincidental' even though every one else does.

i'll confess that i never even heard the term 'initialism' before attending the conference, so that knowledge alone might have been worth the $12 all-day parking fee at the airport Marriott. i still cannot explain the difference between nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses -- the key to the exciting 'that' vs. 'which' debate -- but maybe next year i'll sit through the whole thing.

i did, however, adore my fellow attendees. all these bookish hair-splitters sitting around celebrating their anal retentiveness. and me, the rebel librarian, with her nose piercing and funky purple shirt. but never did i feel out of place. the whole scene reminded me of that Blind Melon video from several years back, with the girl dancing around in a bee outfit. at first, everyone looks at her askew, but she knows the secret -- she's not crazy, just misunderstood. and that's what copy editors feel like sometimes: dancing bees with bent antennae. writers may hate to hear our buzz, but we turn their crappy copy into golden honey. we make it digestible and sweet.

so it was a blessing to find this conference. it was like entering that park in the video, the one with the tall green grass where other dancers dressed like bees buzz freely and dance without shame. it was awesome to be able to turn to the person beside you and say, "don't you hate it when people say 'the man that' instead of 'the man who'?" only the hear the person say, "oh, i know! that drives me crazy, too. but what's worse is when people confuse 'your' and 'you're.'"

the shame, the shame, people -- and you know who you are.

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