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.

No comments:

Post a Comment