Is It Possible to Teach Editing?

I’m working on my syllabi for my fall classes. It’s always an interesting challenge.

I like to use a white board--I can erase easily!
I like to use a white board–I can erase easily!

Today I’m working on the syllabus for my Editing class for the sixth time. The first time I taught it, it was a marathon course (in a “special topics” category) where I had four Saturdays across the semester to get it all in. The next two times I taught it, it was a once-a-week evening class. Then, the next two times, it was a twice-a-week class. And now, for the first time, it’s a three-times-a-week class, with each class a mere fifty minutes.

So as I laid out the skeleton of the syllabus yesterday with all of the dates (taking into account holidays), what started out as four classes is now thirty-nine classes.

A part of me loves that. It feels like I have so much more opportunity to teach everything that is so important to editing.

But it’s also always a huge challenge. Editing is difficult to teach. In fact, some would maintain that it can’t be taught at all. In his post titled, “Is Editing Teachable?” Rich Adin says this:

Editing …. is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught.

Well, that just takes the wind out of my sails . . . but I have to partially agree. Editing is a skill, a craft, indeed it’s “art with words.” It’s a way of putting together a manuscript that takes it from ho-hum to grabbing you and holding you in page-turning mode (which is why, by the way, great editors need to be good writers and voracious readers).

While many in the comments section of the above blog post opined about how editing can or can’t be taught, here’s what I try to do differently. I try to help my students find their “sweet spot.”

Here’s what I mean. Through the course of the class, I expose them to the three main types of editing and I let them know that these are very different skills. When we get to the end of the class, inevitably some have said they really like the big-picture editing, but proofreading–not so much. Others hated proofreading because they couldn’t, at that point, make any (or many) changes to the typeset pages; they preferred copyediting where there was still opportunity to improve the sentences. One or two may go out of my class realizing that they hate editing, it’s not in their “genes” (as one comment on that blog put it)–and that’s a good thing. College should be helping you sort out what you like and don’t like, where you’re gifted and where you’re not.

So can it be taught? I’d like to think it can–at least, what I teach are the basics that help my students find that sweet spot, that hot button, that then sends them on their own trajectories. If they love it, they’ll work to further develop that skill on their own.

After all, the great elite editors all started somewhere. I’m hoping a few of them start out in my class.

5 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Teach Editing?

  1. I agree with you, Linda. I already know you’re a great teacher.
    People often ask whether or not writing can be “taught.” I think that aspects of good writing–like good editing–can be taught.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I do enjoy teaching it–but it’s always a challenge and I never quite feel like I’ve succeeded. But I know I help a little along the way. It’s having that “it” factor that’s the wild card. Thanks for being my unfailing cheerleader!

  2. Thanks for quoting my article. However, there is a great misperception about what I meant, which is probably (no, definitely) my fault — I failed as a writer and self-editor.

    We can teach all of the basics, the fundamentals of editing. And we can turn out good editors. What we cannot teach is how to turn ho-hum, grammatically correct, sentences into sentences that will still be revered 300 years from now. Think of how many really good books you have read over the last 10 years. How many of them have a memorable sentence that you can quote?

    Any number of writers could have written “Catch-22”; but how many writers or editors could have made the book so memorable that it became a part of daily lexicon? Thousands of editors edited books in the 20th century. How many can you name and associate with their authors? There is Bennett Cerf and Maxwell Perkins and who?

    We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.

    Good luck with your classes. I am sure you will turn out fine editors and I hope they all become the new Perkins of the 21st century.

  3. Thanks, Rich! Your article gave me much to think about as I worked on my syllabus last semester and now again for fall. I do hope that I can help my students become “good” editors and maybe, just maybe, water the seed that might grow someone into one of the “greats.”

    It’s the “it” factor. Lots of people can sing, but the judges on American Idol are also looking for that “it.” That can’t be taught; it’s just there already. The same is true for any art form–as you so aptly explained.

    Thanks for the encouragement! We’re all in this together!

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