By: Matt Ferguson
My fiancée prefers to sit at the high top tables in the bar area, but I’ve always preferred the bar itself. If you get a good bartender, you get some good banter, and if you get the right crowd, you can meet some characters and hear some amazing stories (true or not). One day this past June, I won the argument and found myself sitting with my love at the bar of a quiet Irish pub in the suburban Orlando area.
It’s always hard to tell whether it’s okay to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Sometimes, they don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes, you know from the moment they open their mouths that they’re not going to shut up. With that second variety, you also don’t really have the option of keeping quiet, because they are going to talk to you.
Well, on this day, I’d found a bar stool next to a talker.
Bob asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a student,” I said, “but I’m finishing up my year with the Disney College Program right now in merchandise.”
“Oh, I work at the power plant down there.” After a year in the area, I learned this couldn’t even be considered a coincidence. If you live in Orlando and don’t work for Disney, you know at least twelve people who do. “The College Program is horrible. They treat those kids like crap.”
Well gee, thanks, Bob. I just told you I’d worked there for a year, but go ahead and tell me all about how bad it is. (He did.) Now, I have a lot of nice things to say about the program, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s interested… with the caveat that you have to put up with a lot of crap. You’re underpaid, overworked, put in poor housing, and given whatever end of the schedule no one else wants. Those things are all bearable, but I was done with the program by this point. I was ready to finish my degree.
“But you’re a student. What are you studying? Engineering?”
He proceeded to spend 10 minutes explaining why I should have studied engineering. Why no one knows how to think anymore. Why kids would have it so much better if they went down the right path. You know, that path he went down—or was it the one he wished he’d gone down? To be honest, I started to zone him out for a bit, but I was brought back when I heard, “So what are you studying, then? Business?”
“Nope. English, actually.”
“Hah. So you’re going to be a teacher.” That’s the way people say it. They’re not asking a question. They’re telling you.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m looking at a career in editing.”
“Don’t they have spellcheck for that?” he laughed.
Instead of laughing in his face myself, I briefly tried to explain to him the difference between proofreading (still an important trade, regardless of spellcheck) and editing. When he asked what I would edit, I explained that with words surrounding us everywhere—newspapers, books, magazines, websites, advertisements, and manuals, to name a few venues—I could really edit anything. I’m just looking for the right job openings.
He wished me some sarcastic luck with finding a job doing that before returning to his sermon on engineering.
This encounter is fairly typical of the kind of conversations I have about my career choice. People are downright offended when I say that I’m studying English and don’t intend to teach. They’re immediately horrified of the degree that I’ve wasted. And when I tell them I’m training to become an editor, they cautiously try to explain why editing isn’t a viable option—for one reason or another.
I’m not going to argue about the importance of the humanities. What’s the use of trying to convince a mathematic or scientific mind? I’ll explain why the humanities are important when I have children, but it’s not a conversation I’m otherwise interested in.
What does interest me? Well, for one, the fact that several readers will laugh that I—an aspiring editor—just ended a sentence with a preposition. Because English is the unofficial language of our country and because most of the people we know speak it, we all think ourselves authorities on the language. It’s true that we’re all experts in speaking English, but most of the people I know don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Instead of stopping to understand their language, they spout off random rules they learned in school. It’s wrong to finish a sentence with a preposition. Double negatives are bad. Fragments are an affront to the English language.
Not so—at least not invariably. As an editor, it’s often my job to determine when one of these “rules” should be followed or ignored. No technology will ever be able to determine which prescriptive rules for grammar are situationally appropriate at any given time. As an individual with a seemingly unusual interest in the structure of our language, that’s where I come in.
In many ways, I edit for rhetoric. I may decide one word is more impactful. In that sentence, for example, should I have used impactful? Will my audience reject my use of a “made up” word, or will they accept that language changes and that the word has a meaningful place in our lexicon? Or what about the way I started this blog post? Should I have led into this topic with an anecdote? Did I spend too long talking about Bob to get my point across? Will using this many interrogatives in one paragraph sound jarring or natural? These are important decisions to make, and we’re often too close to our own writing to be able to make them ourselves—even for wonderful writers like myself. Someone else will edit this content before it’s posted to BrickHouse’s blog.
An engineer can see why he’s important to the operation of a power plant, and since I would not be able to do what that engineer does, it’s easy for me to see that he’s important, too. I don’t fault Bob for not understanding why my job is meaningful and understanding, because the fruit of my efforts are a great deal more intangible. But when I read the work I’ve done to make sure someone else’s writing is effective, I know why my job is important. I am happy in my meaningful work, whether he will ever see it as meaningful or not.
No, I don’t blame him, but I wish I’d listened to my fiancée and not sat at the bar.
Matthew Ferguson, an Assistant Editor at BrickHouse Books, is a graduating senior at Towson University majoring in English with a concentration on the writing. Matthew lives in the Baltimore area with his fiancee Sarah, and he is looking forward to a daunting and arduous career in the editing and publishing industries.