Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's the Little Things

When you work as an editor, you have to make compromises to live in the real world. (Well, you don't really have to, but if you don't, you go nuts. Or drink. Or both.) Sometimes, compromise involves letting go of little things.

Here's an example: Menus. I don't edit menus. I would if I got paid for it, but when I'm out for an evening, I don't. I don't care that the menu lists "roast beef with au jus." In fact, I would say, "I couldn't care less." If you in a similar situation said, "I could care less," I might grit my teeth a little but would try not to show it. Unless you really meant "I guess I COULD care less but I'm not sure how," in which case I would know you're one of us!!!

The point is that when I'm off duty, I'm off duty. Because I can't fix all the little things in the world, especially when I'm not asked to.

But here, I'm supposed to be on duty. So you'd think I'd have noticed at SOME point in the past year that my email address (see right) was incorrect. But you'd be wrong, even though I'd looked at it and thought it maybe wasn't right but wasn't sure. It's correct NOW, though.

As that example illustrates, little things are not necessarily unimportant things. A little thing can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. A little thing can be the canary in the coal mine. (Little things are apparently hell on animals.)

In fact, Terry O'Reilly points out in this recent episode of the Age of Persuasion, little things are often taken as signals of big things. Van Halen required a dish of M&Ms backstage--but no brown M&Ms. Brown M&Ms in the bowl indicated that someone hadn't read Van Halen's contract carefully and possibly cut corners in stage sets, lighting, or other safety-related areas.

So, when I read in a book that "[t]he United States is the only major western nation...where five out of ten think the Creation myth in the Bible is literally true,"* I look for a footnote. When I don't find one, I know that the writer is, at best, sloppy. I wonder what else the writer has been sloppy or lazy or just plain ignorant about. (Quite a bit, as it turns out, but this site is not the place for a review.)

And, after receiving another rejection, I always debate whether to do another proofreading pass through the piece or just send it off without looking at it. It's tough because different people always find something different, and the person I am today editing something is a different person from the one who edited it last. I may see a different mistake this time, in which case, another pass is obviously the right choice. But I may simply have a different opinion about a phrase, in which case, another pass is a whole lot more like "making myself crazy."

I'm currently preparing a few things for submission, and I plan to let the pages "age" for one extra day so that I have the benefit of proofing with fresh eyes. Because whether I'm editing for myself or someone else, I'm on duty. And while I can't fix all the little things in the world, it is important to fix all the little things I can.

*Wright, Ronald. What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2008, pp 220-221.