The Art of Correction

It took me nearly two decades to figure it out, but it shouldn’t have.

After spending freshman year with a self-indulgent architecture TA bent on making my life miserable, I combed the majors catalog, search-engined (pre-Google) a few unfamiliar terms like “anthropology,” and eliminated anything with a foreign-language requirement. I finally transferred to engineering and enrolled in Intro to Computer Science — the weeder course of all weeder courses. I survived, with a decent grade nonetheless, but my only memory from the class is an email exchange I had with my professor, notifying him of an error I’d found in the textbook. My professor affirmed the error and then forwarded it on to the book’s author. Three years later, a second edition was published.

I barely knew the subject yet I was editing away. Two decades later, I became the editor I was apparently meant to be.

Noticing this in my neighborhood should’ve been another clue:

I’m probably the only person in town who’s noticed that the two signs on the street don’t match. I do wonder which one the residents use to spell their addresses?

It doesn’t feel right to say I enjoy editing as much — if not more — than writing itself. That’s like saying I enjoy sorting trash more than creating beautiful art. It’s an unattractive thought.

An Eye for Correction

What can I say? I have an eye for detail and love adjusting words so they work.

That being said, the worst of all editing tasks is editing my own work. When you’re closeup and personal with the words and the way you’ve used them, it’s nearly impossible to straighten the mess. That’s why I send all my work-writing to be edited by a coworker and why I have critique partners to provide feedback on my publishing pursuits.

But finding fault in others’ writing. That’s apparently my jam.

I’m nearing completion of an editing certificate from the authoritative institution in the editing world, which has added a lot of credibility and reasoning to the things I knew formerly by feel. I’ve put names with faces on the rules of grammar and style. I now have defensible reasons for doing what I do.

But spotting errors doesn’t automatically make correction welcome.

Invitations and Context

Correction needs an invitation. Or, at the very least, correction needs context.

I’m reading The Subversive Copy Editor for one of my classes. It’s a fascinated must-read for every editor. One of the early chapters opens with an actual question from the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A page where the inquirer wants to back up her correction of a grammar error on an enchilada sign in the cafeteria. The chapter ends with confirmation that unless someone asked the editor for feedback on the sign, she has no business editing the cafeteria’s enchilada sign.

Now, not every editing effort needs an invitation. But all editing needs context.

If that enchilada sign is just in a local university cafeteria, then it’s not worth notifying the cafeteria manager of the error. If the enchilada sign is going on a billboard or tv ad, then perhaps it deserves a quick “by the way” to the responsible party.

Feedback

I may be a full-time editor, but I cannot be editing full time. Sure, everyone needs feedback, but you can’t give feedback to everyone. Whether it’s their words, their behaviors, their attitude, their beliefs, or their decisions, you need either an invitation or context.

An invitation is generally easiest. Someone asking for feedback seems like a green light. It’s more like a yellow light, though — proceed with caution. Does this person truly want your feedback or is it more of a “Does this dress make me look fat?” situation?

Context is still key, with or without an invitation.

  • What’s the gravity of the situation? Are lives at stake? Sometimes it’s better to let someone flounder a bit or come face-to-face with the consequences of their own errors.  Is the potential error recoverable from? Making mistakes is how we all learn. Can they learn something that might help them avoid worst mistakes in the future?
  • What’s your relationship and is there enough relational capital to support this feedback? I’ve given feedback — the writer-editor kind as well as the life kind —without the needed relationship and it typically doesn’t invite future feedback opportunities. 😉
  • Is this your space and is this your time? The situation may feel dire and the relationship may seem cemented. But you also have to consider if this is really your arena or if you need to zip your lips and let someone else do their thing.

Testing the Waters

Sometimes you have to test out a situation to know if you’ve got an invitation or a context for correction.

  • Determine why you feel compelled to correct. Is it your own need for control and perfection, or are you supporting their needs? I find my “edits” fall on deaf ears when the person on the other end has needs that are different than what I perceive them to be.
  • Dip your toe in the water. How are your suggestions received? If your intervention or input isn’t received, chances are, continuing to provide it will only escalate frustration on both ends.
  • Ask if they want feedback. Simply asking can be a real challenge. But it can also be the only thing that stands between you being truly helpful or a real pain in the rear.
  • Shroud any feedback in empathy. Whenever you’re correcting someone, be it a grammar issue or a life-mistake you think they’re making, if they don’t feel like you’re sitting on the same side of the table as they are, your feedback will feel like nails on a chalkboard.

As someone who is both an artist and a scientist, I would say editing is equal parts art and science. There are the formulas and hard-and-fast rules that make it enticing, but there’s also knowing when to apply them.

I’m early on in my editing career. I’m learning when to pull out the style guide and bleed red ink over others’ work and when to turn a blind eye to what I think I’m seeing. I’m learning to wait for an invitation and to consider context. Doing this may serve me not only where words are concerned, but in the life stuff too. It may even rescue a few relationships in the process.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Correction

  1. Truer words never written! It is terrifically difficult to critique original work that you’ve been over and over, and over yet again, without reading in “what I meant.” And just as hard as self-editing is, being the fresh eyes on another’s work and seeing what might -indeed, should – be corrected is easy in at least the same degree. And, re the street sign issue, all I can say (and I say it A LOT) is “once an editor, always an editor.”

  2. So this probably means I need to stop correcting my spouse on his spelling errors and problems with word-finding, huh? I think “nails on chalkboard” might be the convincing analogy here. Oi vey!

  3. Oh. Good. Golly. Gee. Whiz. Great article–and I’d love to have you edit some of my stuff. However, in the context of deep and abiding friendship, how does that feel to you? WEIRD!!! Anyway, brilliant deductions–we all need to think in terms of how we correct others. Love this,

    1. Dennis just let me hack up…er…I mean…edit his proposal and first two chapters. Deep and abiding relationship does make it tricky! 🙂 But I also love having a way to help. Love you friend and love that you get this on both levels.

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