The best editing job I (didn't) do

For many years one of my roles was to commission articles for a student association magazine. Convincing busy postgraduate students to pen articles (for no pay or tangible glory) was a tough gig. Most of the contributors I managed to garner were international students, many of them from non-English speaking backgrounds. Editing their articles was a delicate task as, while they might be adept at academic English, the brief was to write accessible copy pitched to a general audience. Tricky even for a native speaker to write about a complex thesis topic in everyday language. A subtle hand was needed to improve the copy while not losing the original voice.

However, it was a native English speaker (albeit one of Indian-English) who presented me with my most daunting task as editor. Indian-English can be quaintly quirky, but this piece of writing took ‘quirky’ to unheard of heights. Some of his word choices were so odd I was totally flummoxed as what actual word should be used! Was part of the issue due to the fact that he was a PhD candidate from (ring stereotype ahead warning bell) the Faculty of Engineering?

Yet strangely, the piece flowed. I decided to take a walk.

When I came back, refreshed from my walk (plus a bite to eat) I read the piece again. Odd as the word choices were, with their literal meaning, on the surface, out of step with the context, the words worked! Somehow the shape, the feel, the texture, the ‘I don’t know what’ of the words he used gave an emotive response that was totally in tune with the narrative. It struck me that this brilliant boffin from Engineering had the soul of a poet.

The lightest of copy edits followed, a little tweak with punctuation, the correction of a typo, and that was it. I still consider the article one of the best I ever published.

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