Reading maps or doing forensics

by little red pen

I’ve been skimming Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace today, remembering that first intoxicating year at university when I learnt about activism and philosophy and logic; friendships, crushes and politics; literature and organic compounds; Greek tragedies and how to write. They were all important lessons, but the last was perhaps the most important and one of my favourites, and at the heart of it was that quirky, empathetic, no-punches-pulled book. I’m still learning, of course. We all are.

Anyway, what it’s brought to the surface is that desire we have as readers for a map, a guide to how we might navigate a text. We want to know what we’re getting into when we start a text, what we might expect to find within. Some surprises will be lovely, thank you and yes, please, but we don’t — most of the time — want to wander in the dark.

This is with non-fiction, you understand. Fiction’s a whole other thing, and we’re usually happier there to see structure emerging slowly, perhaps in retrospect. We’re often even okay with a rhizomic path through the world, with snaking roots that offer us a way, one way among many, through dark and muddy ground. And literary or creative non-fiction can be more reflective too, more essayistic, with all that word implies of attempts and trials, and trails too.

But back to non-fiction, of the business, organised, information-laden sort. There the holy grail is structure: a logical and clearly defined order, with signposts that tell us where we are and what we’ll find — headings, introductions, formatting all working together to orient us and keep our footing sure, even if the content of the document is new or difficult. One day I’ll write a post or two about how to give your reader those maps and signposts, but for today, I just want to think about what I like in a text, and what our duties are to our readers.

Because of course, there are those of us whose taste runs more to the forensic or the archaeological. We’re called editors when your document needs some work. Literary analysts when it’s a masterpiece. (I’ve been both, but today I’m an editor.) We like to dig, to fossick, to piece together a whole picture from fragments, traces, and buried clues. And when we’re being editors, we don’t want your final text to look like an archaeological dig or a crime scene, but we do want to work with you to create order out of chaos, to draw a map from the ruins. My language is extreme, but we’re talking hard-core editing here, the sort that applies to badly written business documents. We want to figure out what you were trying to say, and we want to fit those thoughts into elegant, shapely prose your readers can grasp, and enjoy. We want to give you the map, the signposts, the key to the kingdom.

Or if your work is a masterpiece and we’re a literary analyst, we want to see how you did it, then step back, unfurl the banner, say, “there, that’s the magic, right there.” And then watch from the corner of our eye as the magic slips, evades our schema, our forensic tools, our detective mind. We want to solve the puzzle, even as we know that there are many solutions and none of them makes the whole.