This month, I copy edited a non-fiction book for a regular client. This was my desk two or three days into the job:
Wait, paper? Does she really edit on paper, you might be wondering. Yes and no. More on that another time, maybe. The point here is not the tools but the process.
On every project, I strive to work methodically and systematically. In this case, given the subject matter, I had decided to read the entire manuscript before making any corrections or suggestions. I wanted to get a sense of the book as a whole, to begin building the style sheet, and to collect questions for the author and in-house editor, some of which I was certain I would need answered before I touched a word. I also wanted to consider the order in which I would edit the various parts of the manuscript (including a 16-page reference list) and the things I would look for on different passes.
My notes started to look very disorganized, very quickly. Instead of questions for the author here, and questions for the in-house editor there, and items to look up or add to the style sheet on the style sheet, I ended up with notes and questions (and stars and arrows) all mixed together. Of course, I went through my notes afterward and reorganized them. Of course, notes are just notes, and when I actually edited the text on screen, the changes and queries were neat and clear.
But on day two or three, I was looking at a mess.
This happens frequently, and it used to worry me. I used to think I must be doing something wrong, and I was certainly working “inefficiently.” I am so easily sidetracked. “Read it over without editing, to get the gist of it” inevitably leads to underlining phrases, circling words, making notes in the margin, maybe stopping to look something up, and damn, there go 10 minutes of thinking about the repetition in that paragraph and how to eliminate it, even though I'm coming back to do that later.
I used to think more discipline and focus would make me a better editor. Now I think, this is simply how I work. It is organized; it’s just not linear. More discipline might make me faster, but it does not follow that my work would be better. And I don't need to be efficient, because efficiency isn’t the goal. The goal is a clear and accurate text that the reader understands and enjoys because it flows seamlessly.
The mess is part of my process.
When you walk into the courtyard of the Acropolis Museum, you may not see them immediately; once you do, you won’t be able to look away. Glass panels and enormous openings in the concrete reveal the remains of streets, baths, wells and buildings from different eras in the city’s history. The ruins extend in every direction below the courtyard and the building.
The first time I saw them, the museum wasn’t yet open and I was just passing through. I gasped when I noticed I was walking on glass. I gasped again when I noticed what lay underneath.
On this visit, I study the colour-coded diagram on an information panel. The ruins are a three-dimensional floor plan and the diagram is the legend. I try to picture people walking down that narrow street, or sitting in that bath, or eating in the dining area over there. I wonder how they made the curves so smooth and the lines so straight. I peer into the shadows where the ruins disappear from view. I stand on the glass—me, who skirts subway grates and steels myself to walk up openwork staircases—I stand on the glass and wish it wasn’t covered in white polka dots that must somehow strengthen it but obscure my view.
In downtown Athens, ruins are as ubiquitous as the yellow taxis. What draws me to these ruins in particular? The delightful memory of our first encounter. The masterful way they are incorporated into the design of the museum. Above all, their dense geometry. The perfect circles and square corners. The way everything is built up from rectangular blocks of different sizes. Indecipherable on one level, yet so clear and tidy on another. Even the plain concrete modern-day pillars, the ones holding me above it all, blend right in.
Restoration of the ruins is ongoing. Makeshift wooden walkways disrupt the shapeliness of the site.
I read on another information panel that visitors will soon be able to walk among the ruins. I can’t decide how I feel about this. Would I want to go down there? Would walking along the roads or next to the buildings instead of looking down on them help me to better understand the life of our predecessors in this place?
I look up at the people moving through the courtyard. I imagine looking down at these same people, their heads and hats and sandals moving in single file along designated paths. I imagine hearing snatches of whatever tour guides might be saying.
I think imagining anything is going to be a lot harder when they let the people in.
I’ll find out when I return.
I originally wrote this reflection for a scholarship application in 2015. As of my last visit, in 2017, the ruins remain inaccessible to the public.
What unites so much of what I do, professionally and personally, is the creation of beautiful things that matter. What that means will be revealed in the stories, examples, and questions I share here periodically.
First up: a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Famous,” which is as much about value and beauty as it is fame—and which directed the choice of image for this web page. An excerpt:
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
Now go read “Postscript,” but read it out loud. You have to read it out loud. The last 5 lines land perfectly. Every. Time.
One more: “Kindness," inspired by the experience of being robbed (which you can listen to Naomi talk about here: https://soundcloud.com/brainpicker/naomi-shihab-nye-on-the-story-behind-her-poem-kindness.)
Now go read everything else by Naomi Shihab Nye.
In fact, read poetry in general. I like poetry, even if I struggle to understand it. Most of the time I just love how it sounds, or the images it creates. And that’s enough.