It’s the advent of a new semester, and I’m back in the classroom. During the three years when I wasn’t teaching, I often found myself saying–in the ways that one rehearses a line that has become a useful anecdote, or a workable joke, or simply an acceptable answer to a difficult question–“I miss everything but the grading.”
Today, I sat down with my first bout of grading and thought, “I’ve missed this.”
I think this is because my attitude about editing has recently changed. My attitude toward my editing, and being edited myself.
I think of myself as a good editor. This is how I made some pocket money during my master’s program, as a tutor editing other peoples’ dissertations and papers and applications for graduate school. I’ve edited several nonfiction manuscripts that I thought were the better for my hand, and in some cases I’ve even charged money for it. (Imagine! Getting paid to do something you love, and think you’re good at.) I’ve had a lot of practice critiquing manuscripts in workshop, both the work of my peers and the work of my students. Editorial eagle eye, that’s me.
My relationship to being edited, myself, was more fractious. Here I drew the line between feedback on the short stories or essays that I submitted to workshop, where the bulk of information ran in the vein of, implied or stated, “I liked . . .” or “I feel . . .” Useful technical information about tightening plot, deepening characters, or clarifying language was always appreciated. When I sat down to revise a story, I often referred to my classmates’ and teacher’s advice, and then did whatever I felt was right.
But in my other part-time career writing reference articles, I was a far less tractable editee. In fact, I didn’t like it at all. When my MSS came back to me with red pencil circles and shorthand and often impatient comments, I felt my hackles rise, every time. I made the corrections, because I wanted the paycheck, but that’s not to say I didn’t grumble a little when I was asked to cut a line I thought was particularly poetic. Similarly, when my articles on medieval scholarship were being edited for publication, I complied with editorial direction, but I mostly felt humiliated about all I didn’t know. At every turn of the page I waited for the moment in which I, the imposter–the creative writer masquerading as a scholar–would be caught and exposed.
But this summer, I’ve had two experiences of being carefully, thoughtfully edited, and I. Loved. It. Every minute of it. Sure, there were the moments of embarrassment when an obvious typo was caught, or lazy writing was seized upon, or a point of organization was declared unclear. I will always be embarrassed when my work is not perfect the first time I hand it in. Twenty-three years in school will train a girl to hand in her best shot on the first try, and have to wrestle down her perfectionist shame when some revision is advised.
But the beauty of having a wise, sympathetic eye who sees what you’re saying and can help you say it better has, for the first time, been made clear to me. Someone else, outside of the critique group, who will call out a passage that isn’t clear, ask questions that lead to deeper thinking, spot the redundancies or cliches in your sentences that passed blithely past your radar. Someone who edits you with authority but also compassion–that is, I think, what I had been missing out on. It’s an extraordinary experience, like creating a sculpture or a painting in tandem, the raw data being shaped by wiser knowledge. The work is much better, in both cases, and I’m extremely grateful that it is.
This experience has, equally, made me rethink my approach to marking student papers. I warn my classes from the beginning to think of every work as in progress, capable of revision–a thought that would have been alien to me in any but my writing workshops in college. I fully adhere to the idea of student response as a core piece of the learning process. But I am also, now, marking with the sense in mind of how I like to be edited: with authority and compassion. With the goal of helping the writer’s thoughts to emerge, for the language to take flight, for the meaning to deepen. As an art form shaped as much by the requirements of a creative practice as by the practical necessity of communicating to and connecting with readers.
This makes the responding process far more interesting, at the very least. Less like work and more like practice. I like it very much.