My editing internship at an economics office this summer required that I dabble in free market philosophy. I had been trying to read one meaty article, scratching through the pages with underlines and question marks and brief abstractions of the text. Of course, I was bored with this by mid-afternoon. There were mountains out my window, and the visiting scholars kept passing by my cubicle with drinks, joking among themselves. By the last paragraph, the reading had impressed little on me besides the basics of costs and benefits.
But then, a subtle grace at the end of the text: “there is no better way to learn a subject than to teach it term after term. So go to it, all you teachers of economics. You learn by doing.”
I teared up. An actual tear made a divet in my notebook paper. And the author finally earned a piece of positive marginalia, a smiley face in pencil and a memory even six months later – from me, his reader.
Now, the author wasn’t saying much, really, and certainly nothing that should solicit tears. At first I was worried about my mental condition because I couldn’t justify this reaction.
But what I found at the end of this scholarly essay was a line of music, of rhythm, timbre, pitch.
As an editor in an academic and professional setting, this interested and excited me. What finally made me friends with this author wasn’t ultimately his grammar, his factual accuracy, even his logic, although he possessed all these throughout. It was the pure art of the text that, as strange as it sounds, subconsciously and deeply touched me.
As a writer and editor who seeks to persuade readers to action, I approach my work, even my professional work, as song.
So naturally, when I edit for style, I edit by ear. I listen to the sentences, and I feel them out, and I can’t explain the process much more precisely than that. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White said, “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? These are high mysteries . . . There is . . . no rule by which the young writer may shape his course. He will often find himself steering by the stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
When I joined the Professional Writing and Information Design (PWID) program, I assumed that by teaching us style and grammar rules, PWID would stifle the essential art of making a sentence into music. You might assume that too. But while rules can’t explain why words strung together affect us, they can describe what specific choices tend to do so; it turns out that passive voice often adds out-of-place beats to a sentence and that juxtaposing a short sentence with a long one surprises and delights the reader.
The more rigid grammatical and stylistic guidelines I’ve learned in PWID, especially in classes like Style and Mechanics, Editing, and Grammar, let me in on interruptions in the music that I used to miss. When it comes down to it, I can still play the words, and the rules and editing strategies I’ve learned fine tune my ear to practices that tend to charm us most. Knowing the rules also helps me defend my edits objectively to the writer who may not hear the music yet.
Sometimes the things we do in PWID appear grey and flat from the outside because we talk about them as prescribed processes – strategizing web content, sending out surveys, editing. This is the only way we can talk about them because art resists prescription and explanation. But time after time, I’ve found that behind the heuristics and rules and step-by-steps, my projects in PWID are music, poetry, and art in the fullest senses. The major has given me ways to use and justify my fundamentally mysterious expressions for the rational minds of the professional world.
About the author
Carrie is a 2019 graduate.
Join the Conversation