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.