What We Notice

There’s a common joke “two Jews, three opinions,” and although it is not limited to Jews, it is still true enough of my family at least to crack me up. The copyeditor version would be “two copyeditors, three opinions, each backed up by a different style guide.” Less snappy, but no less true.

The other day I had a sentence that just didn’t sound right. When you edit science, many sentences don’t sound right, but you learn to spot patterns in the words you don’t quite understand. You know that certain words are used together, and sometimes it just doesn’t jibe. My authors were European, which made me even more on my guard against weird sentences. (With ESL authors you spend a lot of time playing the game Language Issue or Science Writing?) But I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

In the old days, I’d just poke my head over the cubicle wall and ask a colleague what he or she thought. But my dog is not very good at helping me out of verbal quandaries, and DP gives me a blank look that barely masks sheer terror when I read scientific sentences to him. So I emailed the sentence to a former colleague. He confirmed my suspicions that the wrong word was being used, and added that he wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

I might have not noticed during a different pass. My attention varies and sometimes only the very obvious mistakes jump out at me. Science copyediting has a huge tolerance for awkwardly worded text, but I like to smooth sentences when I can. I like the rhythm of scientific speech, its odd formalities and conventions.

I like the intimate impersonality of “Consider a grid with three axes, and orient an intergalactic gargle blaster parallel to the z axis.” It’s a guided exercise for the mind. I like how I can (sort of) tease apart the meaning of neuropsychopharmacology.  I like how scientists sneak in a little emotional color “Intriguingly, the dorsal metaplexus mochachino showed no response when 3 mL of salt water was administered.”

Sometimes I catch the awkward wordings, but other times I am too busy trying to remember the house style for “a.m.” and “p.m.” or trying to ignore the cat who has been begging for second breakfasts for an hour to notice. It’s impossible to notice everything all of the time as much as I feel that I should as a copyeditor.

Are you ever able to quiet the chatter in your mind?


15 responses to “What We Notice

  1. The chatter in my mind is never quiet, but sometimes they sing in chorus, and the arguments are always fun.

    I prefer my mochachinos without saline, by the way, but my gargle blasters in a salt-rimmed glass. You?

  2. Mountain biking. Preferably technical and down hill. You’ve got drops, and ruts, and cliffs, and tree roots, and two friggin’ wheels which make you go over all these obstacles rather faster than your mother might think was safe. So, you’ve got to stay connected, focused and chatter-free.

  3. What I notice is that editing science is a sort of frame, no? Trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense, trying to smooth out things you don’t understand…hmmm, there is something here I think, and it is something ENORMOUS.
    How would one with a certain history, if you will, end up in this particular field? What were the steps that got said person into such a field and what benchmarks along the way brought you to this point in time.
    Just wondering…scientific editing. Hmmmm….

  4. One of my writing teachers called the chatter, “the little voices in our head”. She smiled when she said that because we were in a padded room; not really but it felt like that.
    The chatter never, ever stops, it’s like breathing. If it stopped I might start thinking about bills or grocery and to-do lists. No, I’d much rather obsess over the flow of words rather than, car payments, that we are out of milk and the pile of laundry on the closet floor.

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