Last week I had a bit of required at-work writing I had to do. When I completed it, I had 14 pages of text, double-spaced. Only thing is, there was a page limit of ten pages. So, I began cutting. I rewrote sentences. I deleted redundancies. I dropped paragraphs or, when I could not live with throwing away the words, I judiciously consigned them to footnotes. I eliminated articles of speech, giving the text a more immediate, punchy feel. The word "certainly" and phrase ”in conclusion" had to go. After three revisions, I pared it to exactly ten pages. I smiled, enjoying the quiet delight of a pruned argument, hit "print," pulled the paper off the printer, felt its warmth, smelled its ink, laid it out on my desk like a new set of clothes. Sad, isn't it?
I don't have a lot in common with Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, who spent more than three decades in The New Yorker magazine copy department. But I did identify with her glee in finding a spelling error as a foundry proofreader. The writer of a Christmas shopping column (the kind of thing you read in The New Yorker back then) was in the basement of Bloomingdales shopping for food staples and had included in the list sacks of sugar and "flower." Bingo! That's what a proofreader lives for. The error had slipped by two readers, and she was the last before publication. She was thrilled and went across the street for a lunch of beer and peanuts at The Alonguin to celebrate. I can identify. . . with her glee, not he beer and peanuts. Later, Norris received a note via inter office mail that said "I thank you, Eleanor Gould thanks you, the proofreader thanks you, the fact checker thanks you, we all thank you for doing what we in all our numbers could not do: catch the flower for flour in the Christmas list on food." Signed by Gardner Botsford, an imposing name for a man she described as a "regal editor," she said "It elated me. I had made my first catch."
If you love words, you take delight in such findings, in the precision of language and the pruning away of excess. However, the far better words are those of a friend, a child, or a mother who write with excess and inexactitude but say words like “I’m sorry” or “I love.” Those sloppy letters deserve no red pen but can be riddled with redundancy, grammatically off, and verbose. It’s OK. Love and forgiveness allow for that, are even better for it. Even the Comma Queen might agree.