We All Have Our Own Languages, or, Why I Need Editors

I talk about being a writer here because that’s how I primarily see myself. I write fiction and non-fiction, creating stories on spec for open markets and writing essays and articles by request for a couple of different places, so that makes sense. But I also work as an editor, both for Dagan Books and for (more recently) another publisher. I’ve edited newspaper articles, academic essays, short fiction pieces, novels, book-length anthologies, poetry … As much experience as I have, when it comes to my own work I try very hard not to be my own editor.

Most writers will tell you that having someone else read your work is an absolutely necessity, a thing which must happen before you submit it to a market. This is because a new pair of eyes will often catch things that you missed. A common problem for writers is that we know what we meant to say, so we don’t always notice if it isn’t what we did say. Leaving a word out of a sentence? I do that. Using the wrong word, dropping off a letter (I did that tonight, using “to” instead of “too”) or starting one word but ending it with the end of the next word. Well, that one might just be me.

This is the obvious use of an editor – read and fix. This isn’t the main reason that I need one.

Our language is a combination of the words we know and the context in which we hear them. This is true regardless of which language we’re talking about.* The most obvious example of this is slang. Remember Back to the Future? The conversation between Doc and McFly about “heavy”, and how the good doctor rambled on about atmospheric and gravity changes because he didn’t understand that Marty meant something else? A word’s slang usage picks up meaning as it’s passed around, and the eventual definition can be miles away from anything someone unfamiliar with it would understand. This is important to comprehend when writing dialogue, but the truth is that the curve and flow of language gets across to us even when a character isn’t “speaking” on the page.

Think about the way that text messaging has changed our use of language. The surface example would be the way that we’ve learned to read abbreviated words, words with vowels pulled out or spelled phonetically with numbers, because it takes up less space that way. Another change to look at is how text has morphed into the main method of communicating for many people. This constant usage has usurped verbs which previously wouldn’t apply. Have you ever had a text conversation with one person, and then (when relaying it to the next person) used the word “said”? As in, “Bobby said he’d be here at 8.” Bobby didn’t say anything; Bobby wrote. You didn’t hear Bobby’s words. You read them. Yet this way of referencing written communication is everywhere today.

Another way that language changes on an individual level is the use of pronouns in writing, or the lack thereof. I am constantly guilty of this. For example, I will write to someone and say, “Long day. Worked, went grocery shopping, kind of ate dinner. You?” It makes sense to me, and so far seems to make sense to the people who read it, but it violates some big rules of the English language (depending on which school we’re talking about). Notably, I didn’t refer to myself with a pronoun. It’s a habit I’ve been aware of for years and one which slips into my speech as well, though not as often. I took linguistics two years ago and the teacher there insisted that I’d picked it up from too much texting in my youth – he was wrong, though to his credit it’s because he didn’t realize I was old enough to have become an adult long before I had a cellphone capable of texting. While I’m sure it’s from a combination of sources, the one clear example that I have is the way Manny, the narrator, tells the story in Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is A Harsh Mistress**. Manny’s excuse is that his use of the English language is influenced by the different languages being spoken simultaneously on the Moon, primarily the introduction of Russian (which often drops pronouns). My excuse is that it seems so much more efficient. After all, you know who I’m referring to, because I’m the one saying it.

Now you’ve learned a fact about me which explains not only what I might say in the future but the way in which I might say it. As humans, the factors that inform the way we write and speak could fill up volumes, each. Think about the way language use tells us who someone is. All we need to do is pay attention. If Bob says, “I grok that,” instead of, “I understand,” then you know he’s probably someone in his 30s to 50s, someone who’s read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or who lived with someone who expected them to know and use the term. He’s someone who assumes that you’ll get the reference, that you’ll in fact “grok” what he’s saying. You can infer more by how often he uses the word – male-identified people are more likely to use it, for example. Someone who uses it frequently is letting you know that they expect you to respect their choice of a word introduced into the English language in their lifetime, and one which implies a certain kind of geeky, literate, subculture.

There are far less obvious examples than that.

If I tell you that I love you, will it mean the exact same thing as it did to the last person who said the same words? If I tell you that I looked at a friend of the opposite sex across a crowded room and, turning away, burst into tears, will you automatically understand our relationship? If I see a crime and choose not to say anything, what does that tell you about me? Is it something different if I am the victim of a crime and still don’t speak? If I tell you that my grandfather was African-American, what does that say about me? And if I tell you that he was black, am I a different person?

If I tell you that my main character picked up a rock when he left a ruined church to find shelter outside of the war zone, does that tell you who he is? If the guy picks up a big rock, we can assume it’s some sort of weapon, which tells us that he doesn’t have anything more useful, but if it’s a tiny rock that he slips into his pocket, we’ll assume it’s a memento, and wonder why the damaged church means something to him. If I say “tile chip” or “stone” or “chunk of rock” or “broken statuary” or “detritus” instead of “rock” it will tell you more or less information, depending on how you understand those words.

This is why I need an editor. When I write, I know what color the rock was, how big it was, and why the man took the time to pick it up when he should have been fleeing for safety. I think that when I write, I put all of this information into the story. That isn’t always the case. I recently wrote a story where character A explained to B that she was carrying a dead man’s journal as a way of memorializing him, but when B gives a different object to C for the same reason (she’s hoping he’ll carry it with him to remember her), none of the readers understood that’s what I was trying to say. It made perfect sense to me.

Until I develop the power to know how anyone else will view any word I write, I am going to continue to rely on my readers and editors to help me understand what I’ve said. I am grateful that I have this ability to go outside of myself and get perspective on my work before I submit it to a market. I think that my publication rate reflects the efforts I make to change my work into writing both readable and clear, even when I’m being subtle and mysterious. My favorite authors do the same – writing and rewriting so that their readers will have that moment of, “Ah, that makes perfect sense. That’s how I would have said it.”

Does that make sense to you?

* English is my primary language but I’ve studied French, Spanish and Japanese. At this point I mainly use them for ordering food in restaurants, or picking up bits and pieces of coworker gossip.

** In my opinion, his finest work. I’ve read it more than twenty times.


2 thoughts on “We All Have Our Own Languages, or, Why I Need Editors

  1. Nicely broken down, good lady. Context is everything. And anyway, the dropping of pronouns could be seen simply as an extension of Hemingway-inspired stripping language of its nonessentials. If the communication is clear, why worry about whether it’s in a rule-following format? (I, for one, am quite partial to noun clauses, so clearly I’m on your side in this….)

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