Loyola University Maryland has sent me the student evaluations from the semester just past, and there it is again, the sentence that has cropped up in more or less the same form over thirty-five semesters: "I have learned more from this class than any other class I have taken at Loyola."
This is not to brag about my distinction as a teacher. Every semester the evaluations carry comments from the students I have not been able to reach, who were more preoccupied with their grades than with their understanding, or who quite understandably found my manner off-putting. Always I disappoint some. I take the favorable comments not as praise of my abilities but as indicating a discovery of the way that editing can open up the world.
Among civilians, proofreading, a necessary but subsidiary aspect of editing, is taken for the whole thing. And even among professionals, editing is often taken to be no more than the brutal, summary execution of one's darlings.*
The students who twig to what I am showing them develop an appreciation of skepticism, that what is given to them in a text is not to be accepted without question, that they must look more deeply into it. They begin to see that precision in grammar and usage has an aesthetic benefit, by not distracting the reader with minor blemishes. They notice that eliminating wordiness increases the impact of expression. They begin to see how proper editing can lead to elegance: not the frou-frou and carpenter's gothic produced when writers mistake fanciness for elegance, but the genuine elegance that rises when diction and syntax and cadence and metaphor are apt to the writer's purpose.
Editing isn't entirely unlike restoration. Years of accumulation of grime from candles and incense and pollution can be removed from an icon without damaging the painting, allowing the viewer a clearer image of what the painter intended to be seen. At our best, editors enable writers to achieve their intentions better than they were able to do on their own, by removing everything that does not accomplish the purpose.
And when my students call what they have learned "useful," I see that they understand that it is portable. It is challenging to master, but once one grasps the basics of editing, one can apply them to a letter, a press release, an article, a chapter, a thesis, a book, always making the necessary adjustments to topic, audience, occasion, and scale.
At the outset of every semester, I tell my charges that I can show them how to do something that is difficult to master but immensely rewarding, and by the end of every semester, bless them, some of them see that I told them the truth.
An explanation: Yes, I told you yesterday that I would be on vacation and the site would go dark for a week or more. But even if you leave the office and sit on the front porch with a pipe and a cup of coffee and one of Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie novels, or sit listening to recordings of Haydn's London symphonies or Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozart arias, you do not stop thinking.
*No doubt writers are sad to think of their masterworks of English prose withheld from a thirsting public by my arbitrary and ham-handed hacking away at texts. I have preserved a number of these masterworks for pedagogical purposes, and they tend to yield a good deal of snickering among the undergraduates.