Monday, September 21, 2020

'Worth Causing Trouble for Trifles'

 My youngest son, a senior at a boys’ boarding school in Ontario, has been named global affairs editor and senior copy editor of its broadcast team. The first title sounds grand, the second rather lowly but likely carries more authority. I worked formally as a newspaper copy editor for a mere six months but I think every writer worthy of the title is the first copy editor of his own work. I learned early to “editor-proof,” especially when you work under an editor who fancies himself a writer. Don’t give him an opportunity to botch the previously un-botched.


I warned David that editing the work of friends can be tricky. Your job is to produce excellent copy, which can put a strain on the hardiest friendship. Some writers accept their limitations and are compliant with editorial suggestions. Others, whether gifted or abysmally untalented, are prima donnas. Their every adjective is precious. Honest editing can be fraught with moral dilemmas. In 1974, C.H. Sisson freely translated Horace’s Epistle II.3, Ars Poetica, as The Poetic Art. He writes, in part:


“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless

Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,

And equally put his pen through elaboration;

He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,

Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,

Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense

About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.

Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,

Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”


Copy for a high-school radio station and its podcasts isn’t poetry. At least it shouldn’t be. But it’s never too early to learn the importance of clean, clear, concise, precise prose. It is “worth causing trouble for trifles.”

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