What I will say on the first day of a writing class . . . someday

you dont say

I’m sharing a delightful first-day-of-class speech from John McIntyre, teacher of copy editing at Loyola U in Maryland and columnist at The Baltimore Sun. His words ring true for anyone who has taught others to write for the real world. I’ll share this with students in the future. (Did I mention I’m on a sabbatical from teaching?)

It is only right, honorable, and just for me to tell you up front what you are in for. This is not a gut course. This is not an easy “A.” Some of you may be lucky to take home a “C” at semester’s end. Writing is difficult. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder than writing. We may be able to write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.

But before we can even think about the analytical aspect, we will have to attend to basics of grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the more than six hundred students who have preceded you in this class, you will be shaky on the fundamentals. It’s not your fault. You were either not taught, or you were badly taught. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught. You will have to catch up to be an effective editor, and there is not much time.

I must also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly, unrelievedly dull. A student from a previous term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” Exactly. So will you. Editing is done word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you scream.

I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can escape.

Now, for those of you willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I can explain basics of grammar so that you can shore up spots where you are shaky. I can advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I can show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

You are about to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.

Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns it by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.

I can’t turn you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters? But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by semester’s end be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead, parsecs ahead, of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. One previous semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.

One more thing. My manner and sense of humor may not be to your taste. That is not a course requirement. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can profit from this semester is sharpening your coping skills.

Now, shall we get down to the particulars?

Thanks, John. It’s nice to hear from a kindred spirit!  

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