Letters to the Editor
On the December 2017 Townhouse Notes and Writing
To the editor:
Thank you for your thoughtful piece on copyediting and writing (“Townhouse Notes: Writing, Copyediting, and Your First Book,” December 2017). I entirely agree with what you say about copy editors and professors. Neither is equipped to teach writing. Copy editors tend to make minimal interventions, as you indicate; but even when they are more proactive, they usually limit themselves to applying rather mechanically the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White. If a point is really garbled, they do not have the knowledge necessary to sort it out and often make misguided interventions. Moreover, even when a graduate student’s professor makes detailed comments on a draft, these comments are usually on matters of substance, not style.
I think it is quite possible to learn how to write, however, and the best way is by imitation. Find someone in your own field who writes well—clearly, precisely, and gracefully, without undue elaboration or metaphor. Do not choose someone with a highly distinctive or embellished style; just take someone whose prose marches across the page. Analyze what he or she does. How does the writer get from one point to the next? What filler words are avoided? How is clarity achieved? Then try to write that way yourself. Even an awkwardly written first draft can be radically improved if you analyze and try to imitate the style of someone who writes well.
I wrote so badly in graduate school that one of my professors told me I sounded as if I were translating myself from the German. Then I had the good fortune to write something in collaboration with a senior professor and the wisdom to notice how much better he wrote than I did. “Why, I could do that,” I thought to myself. And so I tried. I learned over time that I could.
Institute for Advanced Study (emerita)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.