I have always had a fierce love of language. I love its nuances and subtleties, how no one word is exactly like another, and there is no joy quite like finding the perfect one.
My job here at PRC is to work with words. That world is usually very comfortable to me. While my commitment to that perfection serves me as a writer, it is a clumsy coupling with my role as an editor. It ties me too tightly to “right” writing. I have been told the rules of writing too many times to recognize that they are arbitrary. (This is a little painful for me to admit.)
As an editor, I started off invasive. Righteously armed with The Elements of Style, I slash through extra adjectives and run-on sentences. Beware the writer who takes six words to describe a feeling I can describe in one.
But my word may not be one the writer would use. My word sticks out like a neon sign: EDITOR WAS HERE. In one swift moment, I saw the neon sign for the first time. I had added an SAT Prep Word to the work of a woman still learning English. I stared at it in horror. I had gone too far.
I am gently reminded by my boss that my work has to be invisible: Make the writing as clear as possible while changing as little as possible. I don’t agree immediately, still stubbornly sure that the “right” word should always win. But I comply.
And one day, looking at the home screen for the one billionth time, something hits me— the blog is called Tell Your Story. Not Let Grace Tell Your Story for You. Preserving the writer’s voice is my most important job. Slowly and deliberately, I release my stranglehold on rightness.
I discover I am much more gentle with the writing when I know more about the writer. As powerful as these stories are, paradoxically, they reveal very little of a person.
Sometimes, I hear the story behind the story, and I get a glimpse of the rest of the iceberg. Word choices that seemed odd to me suddenly carry emotional baggage. The woman who used “trying” when I would have used “hoping” is indeed trying, and not simply hoping.
Old-fashioned terms didn’t deserve to be changed simply because they weren’t in my lexicon. A man who used “seamy” when I would have used “sordid,” and not only is that word exactly what he meant, he had a lovely metaphor to describe its meaning. He fought for the word. I respected him for it.
There were idioms that didn’t quite roll off my tongue, turns of phrase that felt a little clunky to me. They bothered me at first, but I grew to love them for what they conveyed— the distinct and cherished voice of each writer.
They are not mistakes. They are the foundation of this blog.
It’s not my job to teach these writers how to use words. It’s my job to listen.
On this blog, it’s my job to amplify their voices.
Are you listening?
Part 3 to follow on Friday.