Over the past few weeks I have been editing a book manuscript for someone I don’t know. When I grade student essays, I know whose paper is in front of me, which colors how I both read and comment, but this time I am not being asked to teach, only edit. The hardest part, in many ways, is not being able to picture who put down the words that are now looking back at me. Microsoft Word’s “track changes” mode has made the unfortunate choice to use red as the color of the altered text, which I fear carries all the baggage of every corrected essay the writer ever received along the way. I don’t know how she will read the red, my trail of wounds to her words, even as I struggle to find a way to infuse each stroke with some kind of encouragement.
In between editing sessions, I am still reading John Berger, who continues to amaze me. He is writing about being at the National Gallery in London on Good Friday and deciding to draw the figure of Christ in the Crucifixion by Antonello de Messina. He finds the painting, and then realizes he will have to work stealthily around the guards who wander from room to room. Here’s the paragraph that caught me:
I start drawing. Correcting error after error. Some trivial. Some not. The crucial question is the scale of the cross on the page. If this is not right, the surrounding space will exert no pressure, and there’ll be no resistance. I’m drawing with ink and wetting my index finger with spit. Bad beginning. I turn the page and restart. I won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll make others, of course. I draw, correct, draw. (52)As I worked my way through the manuscript, I wished for a better way to explain myself, because I made lots of marks and changes. The commas are scattered across the page like confetti after a parade and I have to help sweep them up. In some places, the writer was so caught up in the emotion of the passage that they lost track of the tense and I had to call them into consistency. Then there were the places where the author moved from A to G or H without showing the reader how to follow, leaving rather philosophical potholes in the middle of the page big enough for said reader to get lost or give up. I recognized the errors because I have made them myself.
I worked in short shifts, seeking to stay fresh enough to be encouraging. I learned from my days of grading stacks of student essays that I had to pause every few pages and remind myself I needed to wield my pen with some measure of gentleness, rather than using the opportunity to demonstrate my expertise. I remembered that some days better than others. The word from which our word error comes meant wandering, as though the idea of an error or mistake carried with it the idea of having wandered off course. As I have been reading, I have carried that image, seeing the author out in the middle of a field, off the path they were shooting for, chasing an idea that had gotten away and dropping commas like bread crumbs, it seems. My choice was between correcting in a voice that sounded like a frightened parent (“Where have you been? You had us worried. Don’t ever wander off like that again.”) or a fellow traveler (“I’ve missed that turn myself; let me show you the way back to the path.”) As I edited, I became aware I was making mistakes of my own. When I got ready to send the manuscript, I spent an evening composing the letter to go with it, making sure the author understood the story didn’t belong to me and that my task was to offer suggestions and create a conversation.
As much as I wanted to throw pillows to soften the blows, I also know there is great value in failure. I took my job seriously and I mean what I wrote as I deleted and added to what had been given to me. Part of the way we find our way back from our wanderings is through those who have the courage to say, “You’ve made a mistake and have wandered off the path.” For the manuscript to be all that it can be, much needs to change. The writer needs to wrestle with what they wanted to say and what ended up on the page for the book to be ready for others to read. I expect to go through it again once the author responds, looking for more ways to improve it. To paraphrase Berger: write, correct, write.
One day, I hope, I will get to meet the author and hear the story behind how the book came to be and, perhaps, how they felt seeing my fingerprints all over their pages. Till then, I hope they can see beyond the red marks and hear my encouragement: the manuscript is worth revising.
Write, correct, write. How else will we learn?