For the last several months, I have taken up the responsibility of editing The Journal of Faith and the Academy, a publication of the Institute of Faith and the Academy at Faulkner University. The role of an editor, I am learning, is more complex than simply organizing and formatting articles. It is an amalgamation of duties, including writer, marketer, logistician, researcher, counselor, and politician. So taxing has been this new assignment that I have found little time for creativity, recreation, and writing of my own. I might spend some time lamenting this fact, but your time is short, so I will edit that digression and move onto more interesting thoughts.
Some people confuse editing with proofreading. In truth, proofreading is easy. Grammar follows a fairly standard set of rules. Convention and use have laid the path, and the writer needs merely to follow it. A proscriptive doctrine of subject-verb agreement, dangling participles, and (there it was if you just missed it) the Oxford comma acts as a railroad track to lead readers to clarity.
Leading readers to enlightenment, however, is a more arduous journey. As an editor, your goal is to ensure that the writer says what he thinks he says—in such a way, of course, that will make sense to the audience. Standing in as the imagined reader, the editor must walk the middle ground of statement and intention. In this respect, the editor should do as little revising as necessary out of respect to the author. Time, if not ethics, do not permit the editor to meddle. And yet, there’s always that one author who can’t seem to stay on the rails and whose train just refuses to climb the hill, that one whose lack of clarity screams out for a firm hand…
Nevertheless, revision errs in making the author say what the editor wants him to say. That impulse is always there—for surely I could make this idea more profound, could make this more obscure connection, could argue this point so much more clearly. But it is an impulse that can only be suggestive, not prescriptive. For if Dumbledore is correct, and words are the most powerful magic we wield, then the responsibility of handling the work of the author is a weighty one indeed.
Thought is composed of language, and language has the unique ability to affect thoughts, introducing ideas that can later become whole perspectives on the world. With this in mind, it is no large step from the grammatical to the psychological, even less from the psychological to the metaphysical.
What parts of our lives do we edit out? Surely we edit our past, as I have remarked elsewhere. But I think this is even more true when it comes to our interpretation and transformation. First, as believers, we attempt to edit out those behavior patterns, thoughtless actions, and evil intentions that prevent us from writing a masterpiece of our lives. We attempt—sometimes successfully—to delete gossip, lying, lust, or any other sin that would tarnish our divine likeness. This is, to a large extent, necessary. Yet at the same time, there is no good story without conflict, and the Father has chosen to make his kingdom out of sinful citizens. In the city of God, the weakest characters are those in whom Christ shines the brightest. He is, after all, the master editor.
But good editing can only occur when we have a good style guide and know how to use it well (I fear my metaphor is descending into obscurity and banality, but bear with me). Doctrine is fairly easy to grasp, as it is determined by scripture, tradition, and local (sometimes global) authority. Interpretation is much harder. One can become lost in the minutiae of grammar, denotation and connotation, and etymology, and never see the symbolism, allusion, paradox, and overall unity of the work. Sometimes I think we become so hung up on the task of proofreading that we neglect the more important work of editing. The Christ gives meaning to Isaiah’s echo of desiring mercy and not sacrifice, spiritual metamorphosis over religious purity. Focusing on doctrine means never making the mistake of revision (though doctrinal purists commit their own brand of revisionism as well). Yet it also means missing out on the importance of editing. The work of editing rises not only in laboring to make one’s life a reflection of the Author, but also in partnering with him to write a beautiful poem of one’s life in the larger poetry of humanity.
The task is not an easy one. It requires a right intention, an observant mind, and a steady hand with nimble fingers. But, when accomplished, the right words can create redemptive ideas.