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A reader and a longtime friend (and also a colleague) of mine, LB, commented on yesterday’s post:

I am sure you cringe every time I write. I was never formally trained in college-level English …I break many rules and donโ€™t even know it….I just write so it sounds good to me.

Thinking about you editing my writing sends chills down my spine!

LB is not alone: thinking about anyone editing my writing sends chills down my spine, too! Asking someone to be your second set of eyes is not easy; it is an act of faith and trust. We make ourselves vulnerable when we do that.

I truly believe that it is not ever very probable that anyone—myself included—will write a perfect draft of anything the first time. Is it possible? Sure. Likely? No. There is always something to fix, hone, improve, reword. The craft of writing never ends.

And just when we think we have it, there are new ways to push ourselves, new writing games we can play. A favorite teacher of mine in high school, Mrs. A, gave us a list of words we were not to use in some of our compositions. This list included common verbs such as “is” and “was” and “were”….plus several “helping words” like “there” and so forth. At first it took hours and hours to compose an essay around these rules. How do you write without the “to be” verbs?? Some students grumbled. Yet it remained our challenge, and we had to blossom creatively. I could feel myself stretching, and I loved that feeling as a student. Mrs. A will always be one of the truly great teachers in my life.

Our age of technology and quick written communication—blogs, e-mails, Facebook comments, text messages—seems to coincide with favoring efficiency and developing a more colloquial language. We do not read over our Facebook comments a dozen times before we post them, and we do not use our finest eye on our text messages. If we put these forms of writing through a rigorous and time-consuming editing/proofreading process every time we set out to communicate in this age, we might as well get out the ol’ fountain pen and stationery and make a trip to the post office. Sure, I am an advocate for writing as cleanly as possible so that you will be understood, but we must also understand that most blogs, for example, are first drafts, perhaps revised as we go.

That’s what editors are for: we can be the second eyes that take the piece through a clean-up time.

It is funny: ever since I declared English as my major at Stanford, and especially since I became an English teacher, many people—even my family! especially my family!—imagine that I am in “English teacher edit mode” all the time. I wish I could explain how much that is not the case. I majored in English because I love to read—to read others’ thoughts and to interface with those thoughts, to analyze and to learn from those thoughts, to have conversations across centuries. So most of the time, I read to savor and enjoy, to relax, to ponder. I read blogs and Facebook comments for these reasons…and also because I am just a plain old busybody. It takes an extra effort in my mind to switch into “edit mode.” Most of the time, I don’t push that switch because when we start pulling apart writing, we are looking at it in a mechanical way. Good writing often needs to be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.

I like what LB says about writing “so it sounds good to [her].” YES! An editor is no editor (and a teacher no teacher) if, at the end of instruction, the writer has lost her voice. And LB is right even further: we must begin writing by listening to the poetry and rhythms in our inner ear. Our own personal cadence. Grammar concerns arrive on the scene when a writer realizes that adhering to certain rules makes it more likely that readers will better understand her.

So no, I don’t cringe. Not unless I am asked to. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The times I am most aware of cringing with respect to Facebook or blogs, for example, is when a poster uses words to spread negativity or discordance. Words are powerful, and my emotional responses to them tend to be permanent. Words should be used for the Good. I am a big believer in that.

And I am willing to receive the feedback in return. Another friend and reader of mine, Miss M, mentioned the other day that perhaps joy should not be “gathered” but rather something one “feels.” I have been pondering the difference in those verbs for days…and I thank her for drawing my attention to the nuance of it. Not only does it mean we are communicating in a purposeful way, but also it means that she is letting my writing take both of us to new places in our philosophical outlook. Isn’t that what writing is for?

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of my life (as a person who is often concerned about earning respect from my colleagues and fearing my weaknesses) also turned out to be one of the biggest blessings. Still a young teacher, I was surprised when a colleague of mine, SH, (now a dear dear friend) asked me to team-teach with her a couple sections of 9th graders in classes that would combine GATE clusters with the special ed clusters and still meet the old rule of 20:1 students with a 9th grade teacher. Those clusters never would have intersected otherwise in 9th grade English at the time. We had a total vision for the double class, and the school gave us a double room and an extra adult. We were able to do some mind-blowing, amazing things together with our students. It was a time of great learning for me, for all of us.

That first year, I had to learn to trust the feeling of my colleagues watching me hone my pedagogy, watching me in both glorious moments and red-faced moments. I had several single classes of my own, too, and I know well how much revision goes on in a single lesson plan from period to period. Imagine revising lesson plans and teaching strategies with another teacher, being honest about what worked and didn’t, where I did well and where I didn’t. It was the same for SH. We could see and hear everything about each other as professionals. We even got to the point where we could revise together by just a glance or few words in the middle of a period, in a split second. We got to know each others’ teaching rhythms. We helped each other reflect. There was no room for anything but total trust.

That experience, combined with how I tend to think about life generally, opened me to whole new ways of sharing and gathering knowledge, on reflecting with someone else about what goes well and what doesn’t. There is not a place for critique (good or bad) of others without a supportive, open-hearted attitude. We can’t go into it feeling that knowledge is a zero-sum game, or that it is anything less than a true sharing without judgment. If two people are really communicating, the learning is always bi-directional.

Joy in the sharing…

I love my job. Thinking about words, writing, teaching, helping others to find their voice and make it shine—these are some of my true passions in life. I am passionate, too, about having a flexible schedule with my children and being their primary teacher—and being available to take them to music class, for example, or to visit family members during the week. I have had to relinquish my classroom in order to do this, yet I am thankful that everywhere can be a classroom.

I am thankful, too, that my friend Sana Johnson-Quijada thought of me when she was searching for an editor for her writing at friendtoyourself.com . I am thankful that my dad brought me to Toastmasters and that I met her, that Toastmasters has a weekly “grammarian” role that suits my skills, and that she trusts me to give her feedback that is sincere, experienced, and thoughtful. I love that, through communicating with her about her writing, I am able to teach again. I feel a renewed spark in myself, remembering what I am good at and what my mind feels satisfied doing. So often in motherhood I feel like I am making up solutions as I go along and reckoning constantly with my mistakes—but when I sit down to work on editing and writing, I feel assured. It turns out that is an important feeling to remember to have…and it ripples throughout my life.

I am thankful, too, that I am able to bring a little financial contribution into our home, earned by my effort. I give my every effort with our children, of course, but to commit to an external job is a different kind of discipline. It feels good to give that to my family, too.

I love that I can edit in the evenings, after my children are asleep, or in the mornings with a cup of tea and my jammies on. Even during the day I can set my own timing. I would, in fact, greatly enjoy additional editing projects.

Sana wrote to me last night with a question about her recent post on autism:

here’s a question for my editor.
all of these
i knew u would put that there but i left it out because i thought it was superfluous. ย is it a rule i’ve forgotten, Princeton?
I replied:

Hey Sana,

I love that the nerdy grammar bug has infected you and that you are asking that! You ain’t seen nuthin’ until you’ve seen English majors debate the finer points of MLA citation and rules, but you are getting closer to that nirvana. ๐Ÿ˜‰

In most cases, the “of” is superfluous… I learned that when the “all” is followed by a pronoun (these, this, them) that we put the “of” in. When it is followed by a noun (“all the books,” “all the fruit”), then we can leave the “of” out.

Truth be told, the trend of language now is that we see the “of” less and less—in either construction. Formal writing will use it, but it isn’t necessary for the writer to be understood. Case in point: I knew very well what you were saying without the “of.”

I am usually giving you the formal edits…

But one of the conversations I used to have with my students (Advanced Placement certainly, but I also would discuss it with 9th graders because, hey, why underestimate them?) was about the modernization of our language. Language evolves, is alive, breathes. We don’t talk like the characters in The Canterbury Tales anymore (thank GOODNESS!) and we don’t talk like Romeo and Juliet either (I say with more of a sigh).

We have more technology now, and our language is responding. We all are learning “texting language” and there are even unstated rules of language etiquette for e-mails and Facebook and the like.

Grammarians like me are often caught twixt and tween. On the one hand, we are nostalgic when conventions we’ve held dear begin to change; on the other, we are eager to quantify and learn the new “rules.”

Sooooooo… To “of”, or not to “of”?ย  Officially,there is a case that it goes there this time….but there is also much to be said for the fact that it is probably on its way out of usage. Go with your inner ear on that one. ๐Ÿ™‚

Yay for questions about grammar! I love them!

 

I am not sure why, when I was made, I was made to love languages and their rules. Not really party topics, I know… However, the amount of joy I derive from looking at grammar texts and convention rules and then teaching that knowledge seems unbounded. If anyone else out there would like to hire an editor for a project, I promise I won’t make you diagram sentences—that’s a little treat I save only for special occasions. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Gather joy in the details!

A good friend of mine (and my former 10th grade English teacher) Donna Dutton, another lovely spirit full of light, posed an thoughtful question to me in an e-mail this morning: What do I think of the revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

To catch up, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, is going to publish a new version of Huck Finn (as we call it in English-teacher shorthand) with all instances of the n-word replaced. NPR reports that there are other words that will be changed, as well. For example, “half-breed” will be revised to read “half-blood” and so on.

It is fair to say that, as I have grown older, my views with respect to censorship have grown more complex. As a young student, a young scholar of English at a liberal arts university, and a new first-year teacher I was loud with my trumpet that no literature or art should be off limits, censored, or banned. Yet with experience and motherhood has come the understanding that not all “art” has inherent value, simply because it was produced. There are a great many films, for example, that I would never allow to come into our home. There are several I have turned off mid-watch (even before children) because the language offends me. Why should my criteria be different with written material?

Few would dispute that Twain is one of the greatest American novelists and artists of his age, or of any age. I do think that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer constitute valuable, worthwhile, thought-provoking artistry. Even more to my personal liking is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I wrote about on the day last year of Salinger’s passing. Catcher is filled with cursing, and yet I do believe they have a purpose. I believe that Twain’s use of extremely culturally charged words also had a purpose—a purpose that is still relevant today.

I weigh this idea, though, with how I feel about more and more expletives being permitted on TV. It has become so rampant and permissive that watching prime time TV with Katie present (even recorded, since she goes to bed near 8:00 PM) is out of the question. Bill and I have a personal philosophy that cursing or, obviously, using hurtful names to disparage others is never okay. We do not teach our children those words, and if they ever hear them elsewhere and start using them, they will be corrected. Yes, intellectually we understand that words are just words—human beings give them arbitrary values and emotional tones. We have both read Stephen Pinker’s work on the subject. Intellectualism, however, is only one facet of our experience as human beings. Whether we like it or not, the words we choose to use do define us. For better or worse, I always wince when I hear someone use a curse word (just as I cringe when one comes into my head in frustration), and I always wonder why that person has chosen not to express himself or herself in a more positive and polite way. Often, I can’t help being offended by those words, depending a little on context. That’s just…me. For better or worse. Perhaps I am a little too subject to my upbringing and cannot look enough outside my own box, it may be argued, but I was raised to use more polite word choice. It’s that Mennonite blood in me, I think.

For me the words I use or don’t use are a way to honor my family, my husband and children now, and my parents and extended family, my elders. We would never dream about using such words in front of my Nana or my grandfathers, so why should I use them any other time?

I step away from myself, though, and I realize that sometimes, the artful use of curse words can be amusing. Satire, farce, social commentary: wielded with skill, even the most powerfully negative words in our culture can be illuminating. I think there must be some part of me that distinguishes between using a curse word simply because we stub our toes and using a curse word to elucidate the human condition as a call for edifying, positive change. Intent?

We can see why this issue is so complicated. My intellectual side pulls me one direction, but my experience with the world and human nature guides me in another.

It would be easier to take an entirely intellectual approach and argue that anything should be permitted in art or expression at any time, and everyone should just “get over it.” I’ve been down that road of thinking before…but then, what about “art” that exploits women, or even children? What happens in a world where there are no boundaries of taste—whatever taste is? Or parameters of right and wrong? It often seems like one of our more logical choices is to choose to celebrate a language, and an art, that revolves around goodness and love. Sure, words may be just words, but they are powerful and impossible to divorce from sociocultural baggage…so why not choose to fill our minds and hearts with good ones?

But back to Twain. Ultimately, do I think he should be bowdlerized? No. Absolutely not. The choice to read his words or not must remain with the individual. Do I think that he would be an easy read for a less mature or experienced reader? No. His humor is sometimes subtle, his writing complex. It might be tempting for some readers to take him at face value—and there is one of the problems. I also taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels of all time. Harper Lee used the n-word, too, but she was more straightforward about her message: it is easier for young students to see that the only characters who use that word are utterly uneducated buffoons, including the antagonist of the novel. It is easier to teach students the context, for them to see how she uses the word in the mouths of the villains to make a point about racism. Twain is not always as clear, even though his point is similar. With my own children, I will teach them these novels when I am convinced that their reading comprehension is sophisticated enough to deal with the cultural weight of it.

Other films and novels they will have to choose on their own, when they are adults—and that is the point of all that Bill and I seek to teach them. How to make good choices… What to put in their minds and hearts, and above all, why.

I think much would be lost if, in the revision of Twain’s works, we lose the ability as Americans, as people, to have this discussion.

When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I often read certain passages aloud to my students. We would have a discussion about the n-word. I told them that my choice, as a human being, was that I would not be saying the word when we read. I know that probably offended a handful, and rightfully—it was my own form of personal censorship I guess. Except: they could still read and see the word as it was printed on the page. Each of us has to make her own choices. I supported my colleagues who would read those words aloud, and I respected the logic that led them to do so. It came from a caring, loving place, just as my choices did. Those colleagues were just as important to the freedom of our literature, if not moreso, than I was to the cause of individual choice. All American high school English teachers deal with this issue, and many of us fret about it late at night. I will always maintain that students needed to see how all of us dealt with those words, to know that one day they would have to choose, and that there were good arguments on both sides.

One of the joys of our glorious freedom in this country is that we can still debate this subject in a meaningful way. Gather your joy in thoughtful freedom today!