Divorcing the Merits from the Mechanics: The Zen of Editing*

As an editor, it is inevitable that you will at some point have to work on a piece whose proposition you find utterly ridiculous.  The members of the PELR have many responsibilities, including articles for publication and briefs for the Environmental Moot Court that Pace Law hosts annually.  These many documents include diverse subject matter and writing styles.  Each reader has their own preferences and interests when it comes to reviewing these documents, which makes for an interesting experience when the reader and the document come into conflict.

For those of us whose job it is to evaluate or improve the mechanics of a document, divorcing our judgment from the merits of the argument can be difficult at best.  Try editing a paper for grammatical errors while ignoring the fact that its premise is that gravity doesn’t exist.  Difficult as it may be, this kind of work comes with the territory.  Propositions of all shapes and sizes come through our hands.  The best advice I can give is to learn the rules of grammar, comma placement, and other punctuation so thoroughly that a comma splice is as disconcerting as the construction of the argument itself.  This will help you detach yourself from the merits of the argument so you can focus on your job; presenting the ridiculous proposition in as technically-correct a way as possible.  No longer will you be preoccupied with mentally pointing out the logical flaws in each paragraph, each one pushing you closer and closer to the brink of sanity.  Instead, your attention to grammatical detail will be twice as strong, and no mistake will escape your red pen!  (Or your Track Changes function, for those living in the digital age.)  As a bonus, your own writing will improve and the readers of your work will not suffer the same terrible fate you have narrowly avoided.

This is not to say that most papers fall into this category.  In fact, most articles and briefs that we receive are fairly reasonable and moderately well-written.  Decent writing is one of the benefits of being in an academic field.  Of course, this doesn’t stop us from trading commentary across the editing table about formatting errors or laughing at particularly unfortunate typos, but it does keep the righteous indignation at bay.  (For a while, anyway – have you ever sat in a room full of law students for three hours?  The total absence of indignation is a logistical impossibility).

Occasionally, we get the rare pleasure of evaluating an interesting, well-written paper with immaculate grammar.  It happens, maybe, about once a year.  If you are lucky, you get one once a semester.  Let me put this into perspective:  this happens so rarely that when one of these jewels pops up, we feel the need to proclaim our joy to the world (or at least our fellow associates) and write a personal congratulatory note to the author.  Well, some of us do, anyway.  To that end, to every one of you who can list seven comma rules off the top of your head, we extend our most heartfelt thanks.  It is you, and you alone, who diffuse the ever-mounting indignation and restore, however temporarily, our faith in humanity.

*This article employs gratuitous use of hyperbole as a illustrative mechanism. It should not be inferred that all law students are, in fact, on the brink of homicidal.

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