Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Exegesis, Movie Reviews, and Respect for the Written Word: On Being a Good Editor

Weirdly, I enjoy editing others' written work. In many ways I am a better editor than a writer, more aware of what would make that sentence work better than how to put my own pen to paper ex nihilo. If, by God's grace, I do end up teaching one day, it is a strange joy indeed that I anticipate in assigning and grading papers.

I remember as a sophomore in college, feeling superabundantly confident in my writing skills, and getting my first paper back in Exegesis. It was a sight I had never known before: full of red marks. This ridiculous professor somehow thought that my 20 years of life on the earth had not rendered me edit-proof. It was hard to swallow.

In truth, Glenn Pemberton taught me how to write for the first time that fall semester five years ago. I learned that I had not -- horror of horrors -- learned everything there was to learn about writing before graduation. That kind of knowledge, taken straight and without flinching, is essential, but not always easy to come by.

I remember also an encounter with an entirely different kind of editor the previous semester. Given my love for movies and my enjoyment of writing I thought I would email the school newspaper's arts editor, who usually authored the movie reviews, to see if I could do some freelance film reviews for the paper. I sent her a couple example pieces, and she welcomed a submission.

Unfortunately, because it was February, it was the dregs of the film release schedule, so the only film on offer -- remember, we're in Abilene, Texas; not exactly a burgeoning independent film location -- was Francis Lawrence's Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves in a comic book adaptation of a smart-mouthed, badass exorcist on the hunt for especially pesky demons.

Hey -- you've to start somewhere, right?

So I saw the movie, wrote up my review, meticulously edited it, and with fluttering heartbeats emailed it to the editor. And I waited; waited some more; finally heard back; and eventually learned when the next edition of the paper would be coming out.

So after chapel on a Tuesday morning in February I opened up the Arts section -- one of a dozen in my hands, ready to give to friends and family members -- to find my review. And what did I find?

First: what was the author's name? Brad Etan.

Second: having given the film 2 1/2 stars, what was the rating here? Two stars, full stop.

Third: having fulfilled the word and space requirements exactly, by how much did they trim the review's size? By a third. And within the two thirds that were left, what I had written was completely and utterly unrecognizable.

I was aghast. How was this possible? Was a functionally literate human being actually responsible for this atrocity? Who could have made such enormous mistakes? Were they conscious -- and therefore cruel -- or unconscious -- and therefore incompetent? More importantly, who would have dared to do such violence to another person's words?

Of course, I got over the mishap quickly enough, and it became a funny story to share with people. (Come on: what else can you possibly screw up in a movie review? I guess they could have said I was reviewing Son of the Mask, which opened the same weekend.) Besides, with how chopped up the review came out, I was happy my name wasn't attached to it. But it provided me with an indelible lesson: editors exist, your words are in their hands, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Since then I have become extraordinarily weary of editors unworthy of trust, and equally respectful and conscientious when I have someone else's work in my own hands. Though it would been self-evident anyway, now I know without a doubt: every comma, every dash, every boldface and italicization, every period and ellipsis and idiosyncratic form of citation -- all of it must be replicated exactly as is, or else taken back to the author. Those are the only two options. It's simply a matter of respect, both for the author and for the art and discipline of writing itself. Words -- but not merely "words," particular words written by this person for these reasons -- carry extraordinary meaning, meaning impenetrably thick and wholly inexhaustible, and no finite human editor, much less a goof like me, has the wherewithal or knowledge to disrespect one jot or tittle written by another.

But if you do, be kind enough to change the author's name, too.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brad
    I'm about to take up a fairly major editorial role, so thanks for the reminder. I remember well the fury I felt when the Editor of our denominational newspaper changed my word 'univocally' to 'unequivocally' in an article I had written, no doubt on the basis that I couldn't have meant what I had written.