I recall trying to write excuses for my children’s absences for school. I’d say something such as “Please excuse Mary Jane’s absence last Thursday. She was sick.” Then I’d change that to “Because Mary Jane was ill last Thursday, she was not able to attend school.” Then I’d change that sentence to “I am requesting that you excuse Mary Jane’s absence last Thursday because she missed class due to illness.” And on and on I’d go, trying to get the right nuance, the right word. Generally I’d go back to the first version.
Editing is hard work. It takes a practiced eye and knowledge of grammar and punctuation. In 1929, Thomas Wolf wrote, “The editing of Look Homeward Angel is completed,” and the task was like “putting corsets on an elephant.”
I have several good friends who are wonderful editors. One says, “I don’t read fiction, I just read for structure, grammar, and punctuation.” Another says, “I just read, and I see what needs to be changed.” She reads with a red pencil in hand. One of the best ways of editing, for me, is to read aloud. Often my eye will think it sees a word, when the word isn’t even on the page.
It’s wonderful for any writer or English teacher to come across a comment such as the one that appeared in the Wall Street Journal under “Notable & Quotable” (Aug.9, 2012) by Tech Industry CEO Kyle Wiens, quoted from the Harvard Business Review, July 20, 2012.
“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building….
“Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin….
“[G]rammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e- mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re….
" If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use ‘it’s,’ then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.
“Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing—like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”
Thank you Mr.Wiens and thank you Wall Street Journal for publishing those words. Wien’s comments justify all those hours of grading, reading, and lecturing I did when I was teaching. Knowing that editing matters also keeps me on my toes.