Editor Interview #3 – Sherry NoikPosted: February 20, 2011
Sherry Noik published her first article in 1994 and continued to write as a sideline while engaged in another career.
She has been a professional writer and editor for the past eight years, first as a freelancer and now full-time at a Canadian media chain based in Toronto.
- What is it about editing that drew you to it?
You know how in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash (Russell Crowe) looks at pages of text, and pieces of it seem to glow and pulsate? I’m like that with a misplaced comma. It just jumps out at me, whether I’m looking for it or not. Is there such a thing as being a grammar savant?
We all start reading when we’re kids. For some, it sparks an interest in engineering; others discover that banana farming is their destiny. For me, it instilled a profound love of language, of how words are used, of how they can be arranged in so many ways to tell a story, impart an idea, evoke an emotion, paint a mental picture, inspire action. Isn’t it amazing how we all have the same words but put them together differently?
- What character/personality trait, if any, do you believe is necessary to edit well?
Call us persnickety if you like, but I think it’s a myth that editors are all just grammar Nazis. Editing is all about making sure the intent of the writer is communicated clearly. If readers have to pause repeatedly or re-read passages, the effect is lost. That involves more than just excising a misplaced comma. What some call persnickety I would call attention to detail.
We apply that attention to detail in order to take what the writer is trying to say and help them say it, making sure there’s consistency, flow, accuracy, structure, readability. That can involve fixing sentence structures, re-organizing sentences and paragraphs, removing unnecessary text or asking for necessary additions, questioning facts or assertions – and, yes, even correcting punctuation. It helps to have a little mind-reading ability, as Katharine O’Moore-Klopf pointed out in a previous interview. The best editors improve a writer’s prose without changing the writer’s voice and without injecting ourselves into it.
Also, it’s important to know what you DON’T know – i.e. don’t assume you remember the spelling or grammar rule and don’t hesitate to look it up. (Personally, I can never remember if “misspell” has one S or two. Ironic, no?)
I’ll tell you this: rigidity is NOT a positive quality for an editor. There actually isn’t one right way to write well, and good editors recognize this. There are rules, and then there are artful, effective ways to bend the rules. An apt analogy for this is music: look at any great guitar player to see brilliant examples of rule-bending in action (and remember that they spent years learning the rules first).
Add to all that the aforementioned love of language and desire to make every piece of text sound its best. You have to CARE.
- What’s the most common mistake you find when you edit?
I should point out that I’m not an expert on fiction. My specialty is non-fiction, whether in print or online: articles (mainly), blog posts, marketing copy, any non-fiction prose or document.
One common issue is that many writers mistake formal writing for good writing. Formality has its place, but in many forms of contemporary writing it comes off sounding stiff and dry, like a high school essay.
Another is that a lot of writers fall back on clichés – or empty generalizations, which are just as objectionable. I consider that lazy writing.
- What advice would you give aspiring editors or beginning writers?
For both writers and editors I would say learn everything you can related to the craft. Read a lot – and absorb what you’re reading. Note the variety of styles, what works, what doesn’t. Build your vocabulary. Get familiar with the rules of usage and grammar. Writing and editing both involve certain mental muscles that need to be exercised.
I would add this: please don’t work for free. This is a personal peeve of mine. No one expects a plumber to fix their leaky sink for free. It’s a myth that working for free leads to paid work. It typically doesn’t. It leads to the expectation that you will continue to work for free. It devalues your time and skill and education – and every other writer’s and editor’s, too. It tells the world this is easy and anyone can do it, which is not the case. That’s not to say you can’t do a favour for a friend or contribute a guest blog post (both of which I’ve happily done) as a labour of love, but if someone is hiring you, that’s a job. If you don’t get paid, that’s called volunteering.
- Would you share your favorite editing resources with us (books, web sites, conferences, etc.)?
I use a variety of resources depending on the task, and whether it’s Canadian or American. Reference books of all kinds are crucial – dictionaries, style guides, a thesaurus. Many publications and media outlets, including my own, have internal style guides, as well. Then, of course, there’s Google – the editor’s BFF. I’m constantly on the Internet to verify, say, the spelling of someone’s name or some other fact (substantiated by multiple sources, of course).
I also like to read some of the “classics” on language and writing: Strunk and White, William Safire, Stephen King’s On Writing. One of the best books I’ve found on this subject is Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax. She really breaks it all down in an accessible and engaging way, and her aim is not to wag her finger at your errors but, rather, to demonstrate real ways to polish your prose.
My favourite websites are Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage and Twitter, where I chat endlessly with other word nerds about things like semicolons.
- Anything else you’d like to add regarding editing?
The fact we all now have the tools to self-publish seems to suggest that editors are no longer relevant. But it’s my opinion that the more content is put out there, the MORE we’re needed.
Also, I hope this didn’t come off all pompous-y.
Sherry, thanks for doing this. I love your insights, and you can be all pompous-y here (even though you weren’t). 😉