I come by my editing skills honestly. I learned to read so far back I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I do remember the first grade teacher asking us to read aloud on the first day, so she could see what skill we had, if any. I had read out all of Look and See before she recovered from her astonishment enough to stop me.
My mother did freelance writing and editing, and I remember laying out index cards on the dining room table like a tarot deck and alphabetizing them from the time that I was ten. I was the kind of kid who could catch a typo on a cereal box. Perfect spelling was a matter of course. If I wasn’t sure, my father would say, “Look it up.”
“Do I have to?” I would whine. “Can’t you just tell me?” I can’t remember where the unabridged dictionary lived, but it wasn’t readily accessible, the way Google is today. I do remember that the Encyclopedia Americana lived in the basement. Kids today can hardly imagine a time when all of human knowledge could be compiled in twenty-six volumes.
My whole family had the eagle eye that pounced on every typographical sparrow and spelling mouse. I suspect it’s genetic. Does anybody know? I haven’t been following the mapping of the human genome, but I wouldn’t be surprised. That went for grammar too. I winced every time they used the egregious “to boldly go” on Star Trek. A split infinitive makes my teeth ache. For the young and innocent, that’s putting anything—anything—between between “to” and the verb. I’d have been drummed out of the family if I’d ever said “to better understand.” What’s wrong with “to understand better”? Nothing.
I worked as an editor for fifteen years. My job was recasting textbook and reference book authors’ infelicitous language and catching every typo. I remember once my boss gave all the editors a horribly mangled piece of prose to fix as a text. Afterward, she said my edit improved the piece beyond her own conception of a perfect score. It was downright embarrassing. But I couldn’t help it. If I saw it, I had to fix it, and I always saw it.
In recent years, I’ve endeared myself to agents and editors by turning in a compulsively clean manuscript. If anything, I have to watch the successive revisions like a hawk to make sure those through whose hands the manuscript passes leave things the way I wrote them.
Reading the printed version of Death Will Help You Leave Him when I first got my copies of the book, I was mortified to see a proofreader had “fixed” one of my jokes since my last look at the galleys. A secondary character has very heavy eyebrows, so bushy that they meet above the bridge of his nose. When he’s mentioned again, Bruce says, “I don’t like his eyebrow.” He adds (to the reader), “I waggled mine like Groucho Marx,” just in case either we or the character he’s talking to missed it. But what did the proofreader do? Yep. In the printed book, he says, “I don’t like his eyebrows.” I can’t do anything about it, but it makes me crazy.
The latest incarnation of my editing bug has surprised the hell out of me: editorial changes in my own songs. I’ve been a songwriter (on and off, with long stretches of off and bursts of on) for fifty years. Many of my songs were copyrighted in 1975, most of the rest in the late 1990s or in 2000 to 2002. I have performed them many times. My music has been on the back burner as I’ve pursued my mystery writing career. But recently I picked the guitar up again.
I had to relearn the songs before I could sing them. My aging memory considers 1975 or later “recent” and therefore forgettable. (I have no trouble remembering songs I learned in Girl Scout camp in the Fifties.) Luckily, I have the melodies taped and the lyrics written down. I didn’t expect the flaws to start leaping out at me, the same way infelicities in a mystery manuscript do. I had to change the rhyme I’d always thought sounded forced, the musical phrase that would sound better going up than going down, the line that was just a little weak. I couldn’t help it.