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The creative practice of editing

Most people wouldn’t deny that writing is a creative activity—it requires imagination to create scenes, characters, or story lines; it requires vision to tie together various ideas or narratives within a story or text. You literally have to make something (your text) out of nothing (the blank page or, let’s be serious, the blank Word document).

I don’t know about you, but I love to paint on top of old paintings. My fresh painting can interplay with the elements in the layer underneath; they commingle and augment each other so they can each stand out in a way that they wouldn’t be able to on their own.

In the same sense, editing and translation are also incredibly creative: you have to get into the mind of the writer or get into the form of the original text to be able to understand it and to play with it creatively, even if you’re just trying to make the language a little clearer.

Creative editing

Editing consists of technical, aesthetic, and creative decisions. I might want to add or remove some words or punctuation for clarity, or I might want to change the hyphenation or indent a quotation for easier reading, but I also might want to ask the author to expand on an idea or I might rearrange or rewrite whole sentences. Because writing is inherent in the process of editing, creativity is inherent in the process of editing. I may not be creating something out of nothing (the Word document facing me is full of words and ideas), but I can still play and interact with the text on the screen.

When I edit a blog post, academic proposal, or book, I dip into another person’s mind, writing, and creativity. It can be a collaborative process: all I’m really trying to do is help the author to express their message. It’s exhilarating trying to get into someone else’s skin—I might not have all the knowledge that they have (especially for highly specific academic works), but I learn a lot through this process and learn how to accommodate the author’s voice as well as clarity of language, consistency of grammar, and effectiveness of message.

Creative translation

If languages were one-to-one—in other words, if there were always a completely equivalent word in each language—Google Translate would be perfect. But we all know that’s not true. Language requires context to derive its meaning, and there is a lot of culturally attached meaning or implication to words and phrases.

The connotation (the implied meaning) versus the denotation (the dictionary definition) of a word can be vastly different and can make a difference in a text depending on its context or audience. In this way, when translating, I have to think about the format of the text and its intended audience and draw on my own cultural background to think about the most appropriate equivalent in English (rather than the most literal, which is what Google Translate usually goes for).

This can often make me dig a lot deeper into my own language than I might otherwise have to. I have to second-guess my own associated meanings with some words to find suitable translations for texts. It’s happened at least once or twice that someone has asked me for the definition of an English word and my association with it has been completely off the mark. Some of this has to do with cultural connotations, but these connotations can also sometimes be quite personal and need to be questioned.

Second-guessing or excavating my own use of language is half the fun of translation: I get to think about what types of associations I have attached with certain words or expressions and why, and which words can be used in which contexts, for example. As much as we know and live in our own native languages, we don’t tend to contemplate how we use language. A Dutch friend of mine told me that he’d heard that native English speakers can tell the difference between “close” (as in nearby) and “close” (as in to shut) when spoken; I had never thought about it before, but as soon as I said each word out loud, I realized that he was right! (Close, as in nearby, has a softer, proper “s” sound and close, as in to shut, has more of a “z” sound, in case you were wondering.)

Being able to or even being required to think so deeply about something you use in your everyday life (your native language) creates a lot of opportunities for seeing things from a different perspective, which is an inherently creative stance to take.

Creative freelancing

To my surprise, building up a freelance business has been one of my most creative endeavors over the past few years. After getting through the stumbling block of figuring out what being a freelancer means and after getting through the period of simply being desperate for work (any work), establishing a freelance business is a playground for creativity. Although some restrictions or rules are necessary for creativity, the authority and empowerment that comes with steering your own business requires some creativity: you have the freedom to decide how you want to market yourself, where you want to focus your energy, and, most importantly, the freedom to say no and draw your own boundaries.

Many people may see editing as a profession restricted by rules, but, in fact, I often feel the power to make creative decisions: a word may not exist in the dictionary, but it makes sense within the context of the text, so I’ll let it stand, for example; or a culturally specific expression in Dutch needs to be communicated to an English-speaking audience, so I need to make use of my own writing abilities and cultural background and come up with an appropriate alternative.

In art, rules are always meant to be broken; if they weren’t, we would never have anything new, innovative, or awe-inspiring. The same applies to editing and translation—there are guidelines and “rules”, but context and (creative) communication is key.

Curious about creativity in copyediting? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post, subscribe to my newsletter.


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