If you want to know what I know

The Baltimore Sun

Since the video of my first-day-of-class address to my students garnered a couple of million views, people have been inquiring whether the class is offered online. I must disappoint them.

Loyola University Maryland does not offer the class online, I do not offer online instruction independently,* and I’m not sure how an editing course would be effective online. Learning editing works best when a small group is huddled around a text.

But if you want to know what I know about editing, I can suggest how I came to know what I know.

At a minimum, you want to have three books on English usage near at hand: Garner’s Modern English Usage (fourth edition), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield). Look specific things up in them as issues are identified. But also browse in them. The more you see the points at which their advice diverges, the better you will be able to make informed judgments on your own.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style has a more theoretical grounding. Older books on usage can be tricky because of dated advice, but Theodore M. Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins is entertaining about usage superstitions.

Several books can give you an excellent perspective on the way language functions and the strange paths “proper” usage has taken over the years. Among them are Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak, Henry Hitchings’s The Secret Life of Words and The Language Wars, and John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel.

You’re free to rummage around the internet for posts from the decade I’ve been writing this blog. You can find, for example, “The Old Editor’s Macro-Editing Checklist,” which can get you started on the practice of addressing the big issues, and “The peeververein canon,” a catalogue of usage superstitions.

Then there are the other bloggers I follow: Stan Carey’s Sentence first, Kory Stamper’s harm-less drudg-ery,** Tom Freeman’s Stroppy Editor, Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry, Language Log, Copyediting.

And of course you can’t develop a reliable sense of what the best writing is without voluminous reading, including trash (online or in print) to stay au courant demotically and high-grade prose to remind you what can be done. (I regularly look into The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. That would be in the latter category.)

So now you’ve asked for my help, and what you got in return was a boatload of reading assignments. Well, you watched the video. I told you it wasn’t going to be easy.



*I have in the past, before people’s training budgets dried up, offered a series of one-to-two hour workshops: on current English usage, on macro-editing techniques, on tone, metaphor and ornamental language. I can be rented.


**She has a book coming out. Buy it.

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