Great writing informs great copy editing
Updated: May 26
The ending lines of The Great Gatsby make any good list of the best closings in literature. The last line is perfect while the penultimate paragraph is perplexing:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning —
Savor that paragraph for a moment divorced of the final paragraph. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impeccable wording seems imprecise, uncertain, elusive. The punctuation, defying convention, serves as visual poetry, echoing the grasping thought process of the narrator. Its uncertainty contrasts with the final line, one of realization and acceptance, the end of youthful optimism:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
It’s hard to consider the penultimate paragraph without the last. But I wonder how many people stop at it and think, “Gosh, this could use a good editor.”
I probably thought that the first time I read it, as a teenager. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of altering a single dot. But what if that came to me as part of a manuscript I was asked to copy edit? Would I see it as red meat? Would I get rid of the dashes, perhaps allowing an ellipses for the uncertain ending? Would I change “orgastic” to “orgiastic” as one editor did, providing the wrong word to a generation of readers?
I offer this paragraph to students in my editing classes, inviting them to consider that copy editors can damage good writing just as easily as they can repair poor wording.
In editing, it is more important to avoid the negatives than to force in the positives. It’s more important to fix the distractions and let the author’s voice come through than to dismiss the author’s pedestrian voice in favor of our own polished prose.
In The Art of X-Ray Reading, Roy Peter Clark challenges us to read like writers, exploring the techniques that make for great writing.
“One of the delights of studying the work of a great author is to stumble upon glorious experiments in punctuation,” Clark writes in the first chapter, “X-raying Gatsby.” “Once a writer learns the conventions of punctuation, he or she is free to bend them for creative purposes.”
Of Fitzgerald’s penultimate paragraph, Clark says: “I remain in awe of this passage, of its stretched-out ellipses and its extended dash, which seems to point to nowhere — to infinity.”
Clark tells writers to “take command of the conventions of typography and punctuation, but realize they can function as rhetorical tools and not just rules.”
If that is good advice for writers, then editors must be aware that our job is not to impose convention without regard for deeper meaning. My editing students grapple with this issue — when are we being good editors and helping to bring out the author’s voice and when are we imposing convention and damaging elegant writing?
Elegance in writing has to do with flow, cadence, lyricism, word and punctuation choices — elements that are hard to put into a rule book. A good copy editor develops an ear for well-formed sentences, neat turns of phrases, rising and falling expectations over several paragraphs. And this isn’t just in fiction. We will find glimpses of it in the well-written academic papers. We can find it in deadline stories in the morning newspaper.
There are many such well-formed sentences that have been utterly destroyed by meddling copy editors who didn’t take the time to appreciate what they had before them. I have done such damage in my youthful exuberance. Good copy editors have a grasp of what to change and what to keep, of when a writer is overreaching and when a writer is channeling Fitzgerald.
For more on the topic:
Susan Bell on “Revisioning The Great Gatsby”: http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2009/05/bell1.html