Student guest post: How copy editing taught me to be a better writer

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Bailey Holman is a senior from Wilmington, N.C., who is majoring in journalism with a minor in creative writing.

I’m a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill (reporting track), but the truth is, news is not really what I’m into. I’m a creative-writing nerd.

Fiction, memoir, poetry — you name it, I want to read it and write it. I’m hoping to have a career as a novelist, or at least write novels on the side, but because creative writing isn’t a major at North Carolina, I settled into the journalism school. The journalism program is great, but I was frustrated. For four years I carried around the notion that creative writing and newswriting belong to two different worlds, and I was unable to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time. It took an advanced copy-editing class to smack some sense into me.

Let me backtrack a little. I’ve loved every creative writing course that I’ve taken at this school, but I was struggling with one aspect of my writing: I was being too wordy.

Some writers sneer at the sentiment that wordiness is sin; of course we’re going to be wordy — words are our job. But some words, some sentences, are better left out. One of my creative writing professors, novelist Marianne Gingher, kept urging me to strike words and phrases from my stories that weren’t necessary, that didn’t add anything. It’s stronger without, she said.

I tried, but I couldn’t grasp it. My natural inclination was to explain everything in excruciating detail. Enter JOMC457 (Advanced Editing) and Rene J. Cappon.

In Andy Bechtel’s editing class, we are editing articles for wordiness and repetition almost daily, and outside of class, we’re reading Rene Cappon’s “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing.” Cappon says that bloated language is all around us; too many writers succumb to the “fatal lure of wordiness” and repetition – “the grossest form of wordiness.” His thought is that the skill of writing lies not in the initial gush of words, but in the sifting of them.

Cappon also implores that writers and editors show instead of tell. Why tell your reader outright that something is dramatic? Just give them the particulars and they’ll supply their own adjectives, he says.

With the words of Gingher ringing in my head – Don’t Spoonfeed Us! – I had my eureka moment. Or, more accurately, my eureka semester. I finally got it: concise is powerful. Cutting adjectives does not always mean a sacrifice of information or imagery.

While it’s true that copy editors often make deletions for reasons of space or to ensure that the average reader will understand, sometimes it is simply because wordiness and repetition can bog the reader down and cloud meaning. In this editing class, I’m becoming less reluctant to yield my proverbial red pen, slashing what’s not needed, and in my creative writing endeavors, I’m finding it easier to be concise. Alas, I’ve found the antacid to my writer’s bloating!

Now, I’m not saying that descriptive, poetic language doesn’t have its place in creative writing. It does. What I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be used all the time. A writer must find a balance. As the saying goes, less is sometimes more. Mark Twain put  it well: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean that utterly, but kill the most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Even as a self-professed language nerd, I sometimes find myself reading an author, and all I can think is: What are you trying to say? I want to go back and read over a sentence because I love it, not because I have to wade back through its excesses trying to find its meaning.

When Jim Roberts from The New York Times came to speak to our class earlier in the semester, he told us that it’s not only our writing that can be strengthened by an understanding of editing, but our speech as well. He’s noticed that a background in editing makes individuals more verbally concise and clear, a benefit he says is sometimes underappreciated.

So, out of fear of repeating myself, I’ll stop here, ending with an expression of gratitude for the field of copy editing, which helped me to see that I was being a moron. I haven’t been wasting my time. Writing and editing the news does not float in a realm separate from creative writing.

Instead, they can bleed together to strengthen my grasp of language. And teach me not to write sentences like: They mingle and overlap, blurring and bleeding together, swirling like dyes in an aqueous solution, until I’ve reached a higher level of consciousness and fully realized for the first time that one can really, truly help the other and vice versa. Did you get all that?

To hear the thoughts of a few other writers and copy editors on the necessity of concise writing and editing, check out: