I’m sitting at the kitchen table, staring intently at my laptop, when my husband walks by. “Editing?” he says, and chuckles. He always knows. He swears that I have a special editing face – different from my writing face or even my crossword face. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s as though you are staring at a very messy room that *someone* is going to have to clean up, and you know it’s probably going to be you. Other times, your face lights up with the glee of someone who just figured out the last pieces of a puzzle.”
This probably explains why I spent several hours today editing other people’s essays. In fact, my last comment ended with “I think I’ve edited until my eyeballs crossed. I have to go.”
Now, the astute reader may notice that it is early August and school doesn’t start around here until September. No problem. To get my editing fix, I help a friend out with her business; part of the job is editing application essays for top business schools. I like it so much that sometimes I forget to submit my invoices. I strongly prefer editing to invoicing. So, yes, I actively seek out more essays than my own students provide me. I recognize that this is not normal behaviour.
But… let me tell you about the joys of editing. Some essays just need a quick grammar check. Conveniently, I am quite good at grammar. Grammar editing provides a quick hit of rule-following pleasure. Yes, all the subjects and verbs agree, even the complicated ones. No, no modifiers are left dangling. All the commas are in place. I feel like I’ve placed the perfect dab of whipped cream on top of a sundae. “Ah… done!” Then, there are essays that need to be cut down to fit a word count. This is the joy of a complicated word game. Can I find one word that will take the place of two – or, gasp, three? What must stay to communicate information? Personality? If I rearrange this sentence, can I eliminate a phrase? Finishing one of these essays feels like ending a well played Scrabble game – no waste anywhere. Often, I can return the essay to the author with the magnanimous phrase, “You’re now xx words below the limit; feel free, to put a few back in.” True satisfaction. Sometimes, I get essays that are very early drafts. These usually fall into categories like “heartfelt but disorganized” – which I handle with care as I help the author find a way to put structure onto their passion or their strong voice – “wordy” – allowing me to delete with unbridled glee – or “overgeneralized” – where I suggest paragraphs that would benefit from a solid anecdote, and sometimes amuse myself by imagining wild situations just to get their juices flowing. “Tell me more,” I write, “Did you get interested in EdTech over a revelatory grilled cheese? When you got that promotion did you samba through the office? Bring in a pinata? Call your mom?” Occasionally, I giggle as I edit.
My favourite essays – wait, who am I kidding? I like them all – are the ones where something is just off. These essays are organized and have anecdotes and ideas, but something – something – isn’t working. Sometimes I just sort of know the problem. Essay drift, for example, happens all the time. Aha! I think, they started off talking about feeling lonely in high school and ended up talking about a rafting trip. How are these related? My job is to help the author find their throughline. “Is this what you are trying to say?” I ask, “Or maybe this?” Some writers are nervous about revealing themselves, though that’s what applications require. These essays titillate without ever fulfilling their promise. I finish reading and feel kind of like my date stood me up – or worse, like I’m not sure if my date is a mild mannered accountant or a big game hunter and I’m not sure what to do. Who are you?I want to say. I need something else to know what’s important to you. As I write my comments, I try to discover the sticking points, the places where I think that the author is hiding a little. Passive voice, a sudden dearth of detail, maybe a wonky transition – these clues help me figure out where things are missing.
In the end, editing for me is about growing a story. None of these application essays are headed for publication, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. Each essay, each anecdote is another attempt to put someone’s ideas in order and share them with the world. I find deep pleasure in helping them make their written words match their inner thoughts.
When September comes, I will offer my students the same care and attention that I offer to the young people applying for business school. I will offer them suggestions, convince them that grammar is a tool, assure them that they can write and rewrite until they are happy with the result. I will tell them it’s okay to ask for help, that all sorts of writers have editors. I hope that this will be part of what convinces them that their stories matter.
And, of course, I will enjoy the editing.