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Virginia Durksen

Myth: Editors Read With Their Eyes

Eyeglasses on a book

Eyeglasses on a bookIf there’s a cliché image for our profession, it’s eyeglasses. Editors and librarians, it seems, should always have a pair handy, preferably hanging from a chain around the neck. We earn this image, as we earn our reputation, when we limit editing to what the eye sees. Editing is not just an eye thing. It’s also an ear thing and a brain thing.

In fact, we should read first with our eyes shut and our minds open, reading between the lines as well as behind the lines. Then, with our ears tuned for rhythm, style and tone — listening for the writer’s voice. And finally, after a pause that gives us fresh eyes, with our bifocals firmly planted where they can be of use to spot flaws such as typos, commonly misused words, faulty page numbers and so on.

When we rely too heavily on our eyes (or when the manuscript overwhelms our reading with visually distracting errors and inconsistencies), it is often difficult for us to “see” the meaning or hear the style of the text until it has been cleaned up. Just as writers must turn off their inner editor to write the first draft, editors must discipline themselves to turn off their visual editor — to read first for sound and sense.

Recommended Remedies     

Take music lessons. Read poetry. To engage your aural editor, try reading the text aloud.

Read Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, edited by John Hollander.

 

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12 Comments on “Myth: Editors Read With Their Eyes”

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    A fine idea, Virginia, beautifully expressed. Yes, let’s consider the big picture first, attend the rhythm of the prose, and only then turn to technical matters. Substance and style before mechanics …

    • Virginia Durksen

      says:

      Thanks, Rosemary. I can ignore any number of typos (well, three or four perhaps) in a book. But flaws in substance or structure will stop me dead in my tracks. Usually at that point, a small rant begins…

  • I agree with you: when I edit text, I hear it in my head as much as I read it with my eyes. Hearing the text tells me what words or phrases need to be emphasized, and how the punctuation should support that emphasis.

    The more I think about this, though, the more surprised I am. I generally find it difficult to process auditory information – if I have a visual input and an audio input, I almost always block out the audio input in favour of the video (no talking on the phone while watching tv for me!). So it’s weird that I rely on my ears to edit when I otherwise de-prioritize my ears as a source of information.

    • Virginia Durksen

      says:

      That’s the beginning of real editing — awareness of your own reading preferences. When I’m editing an author I know well, the sound of their voice can take over. Their accent, their spoken rhythms become the voice in my editing head.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Yes, yes. «Substance and style before mechanics.» Stop arguing about grammar quibbles and focus on what really matters: helping writers communicated effectively and in their own voice (if they have one, LOL).

    • Virginia Durksen

      says:

      Yes! Let’s not avoid arguing entirely, but let’s not waste our time on trivia.

  • Paul Buckingham

    says:

    I totally agree, Virginia. If it’s a particularly difficult passage to understand, I sometimes find it helpful to imagine that the author is sitting in the room with me trying to explain the idea. Then it’s no longer about words on a page: it becomes more about the message.

    • Virginia Durksen

      says:

      Yes! Let’s not avoid arguing entirely, but let’s not waste our time on trivia.

      • Virginia Durksen

        says:

        And the author in the room should be someone you’d like to spend time with, not a pompous, overblown, etc. voice. Just a reasonable human being waving his hands about and explaining something in a way you can understand.

  • Rachel

    says:

    I love this, Virginia!

  • Virginia Durksen

    says:

    Thanks, Rachel.

  • Maria

    says:

    So true. A typo or misused word is easily forgiven if a piece flows well and is stylistically sound, but even perfect punctuation, spelling and word usage won’t do much for a piece if the flow and style are off. Another remedy I’d add: practice yoga!

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