“Is It Possible to Teach Editing?”

I’m working on my syllabi for my fall classes. It’s always an interesting challenge.

I like to use a white board--I can erase easily!

I like to use a white board–I can erase easily!

Today I’m working on the syllabus for my Editing class for the sixth time. The first time I taught it, it was a marathon course (in a “special topics” category) where I had four Saturdays across the semester to get it all in. The next two times I taught it, it was a once-a-week evening class. Then, the next two times, it was a twice-a-week class. And now, for the first time, it’s a three-times-a-week class, with each class a mere fifty minutes.

So as I laid out the skeleton of the syllabus yesterday with all of the dates (taking into account holidays), what started out as four classes is now thirty-nine classes.

A part of me loves that. It feels like I have so much more opportunity to teach everything that is so important to editing.

But it’s also always a huge challenge. Editing is difficult to teach. In fact, some would maintain that it can’t be taught at all. In his post titled, “Is Editing Teachable?” Rich Adin says this:

Editing …. is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught.

Well, that just takes the wind out of my sails . . . but I have to partially agree. Editing is a skill, a craft, indeed it’s “art with words.” It’s a way of putting together a manuscript that takes it from ho-hum to grabbing you and holding you in page-turning mode (which is why, by the way, great editors need to be good writers and voracious readers).

While many in the comments section of the above blog post opined about how editing can or can’t be taught, here’s what I try to do differently. I try to help my students find their “sweet spot.”

Here’s what I mean. Through the course of the class, I expose them to the three main types of editing and I let them know that these are very different skills. When we get to the end of the class, inevitably some have said they really like the big-picture editing, but proofreading–not so much. Others hated proofreading because they couldn’t, at that point, make any (or many) changes to the typeset pages; they preferred copyediting where there was still opportunity to improve the sentences. One or two may go out of my class realizing that they hate editing, it’s not in their “genes” (as one comment on that blog put it)–and that’s a good thing. College should be helping you sort out what you like and don’t like, where you’re gifted and where you’re not.

So can it be taught? I’d like to think it can–at least, what I teach are the basics that help my students find that sweet spot, that hot button, that then sends them on their own trajectories. If they love it, they’ll work to further develop that skill on their own.

After all, the great elite editors all started somewhere. I’m hoping a few of them start out in my class.


Visit Linda at her blog: http://lindaktaylor.wordpress.com/

Linda Taylor

About Linda Taylor

Linda Taylor has been working in publishing and doing editing for the last three decades. She’s been editorial director for a book packager (Livingstone) where her company worked with dozens of publishers helping create products—from concept to completion and every step in between. She continues to freelance for them and other companies; she especially enjoys copyediting, proofreading, and writing short things! She also loves teaching writing, editing, and publishing at writers conferences and at Taylor University where she is an instructor in the professional writing department. Editing, writing, publishing, and literary citizenship are hot topics of interest.

  • michaelroloff

    I worked as an editor and translator for 25 years in New York, at Farrar/Straus, Continuum & Urizen Books, but started to do both already in college, as editor of the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Review. I would say, summarily, that I at least cannot be a better editor than what is inherint in the material that I deal with. Other editors can elevate, I cannot. Being that kind of editor means being a dowser of sorts, of finding the water, distilling it, letting it pour. Dealing with a manuscript and shaping it is one thing, dealing as well with the writer of that manuscript, on a daily or weekly basis, can be a marvelous midwife type experiennce. The most challenging and amazing experience along that line was finding a powerful book within what walked into the store as a huge carton of thousands upon thousand of pages, Robert Kalich’s THE HANDICAPPER. Aside an immense struggle in getting the author to dispense, major upheaval by upheaval, with repetitions (the protagonist’s romanitic struggles with his wife) my main contribution was to supply a spine for the gambling story, but that meant pointing the author in the direction of something that existed latently. You would have never throught that when it came in THE HANDICAPPER might become a Book of the Month Club alternate Truly first rate writers like Sam Shepard or Michael Brodsky weren’t, ultimately, edited, their work did not require it, now and then you found a little slip, or where metaphor might reokace an abstraction,