The Nation Speaks … in a Manner of Speaking

I worry sometimes that I wrote myself into a corner when I told you about robo-editing. Most of the problems I will discuss here twice monthly are caused by the robotic enforcement of rules that demand human judgment.  

One of the hallmarks of robo-editing is the inability to read language figuratively. Robo-editors cannot appreciate that not everything you put on the page is meant to be read literally. As a consequence, they will alter or delete perfectly decent figurative language with notes like, “The nation doesn’t actually speak.” Many of my colleagues have received marks like this from critique partners. I’ve received marks like this. I imagine some of you have, too.

There is an unspoken rule between critiquers and the critiqued that one can’t say such marks are unhelpful. I will now break that rule for you. This is unhelpful.

During the happiest time of my life, the four years I spent at the University of Virginia, one of my professors passed out a drawing depicting what someone would look like if the figurative descriptions used in classic poetry were read as literal truth. This portrait, barely recognizable as a human female, had pearls instead of teeth, globes for eyes, rose petals for lips and cheeks, and a couple of melons protruding from the bodice of her dress.

She was hideous. I wish I could find it to show you, but we all got a good laugh out of it.

The point of this drawing is that the woman described in this way is not offended because she understands that her lips are not actually rose petals (fragile, easily crushed, and prone to wilting). Instead, the writer has taken the wonder of nature that is the single rose petal and put her lips on the same pedestal. Most of us get that.

Juliet isn’t actually the blazing ball of gas at the center of our solar system. No one’s spirit, to the extent such a thing is tangible, has ever actually soared anywhere. The nation does not actually mourn or rejoice. The reader is presumed to be sharp enough to figure that out, as well as what you really meant, with a minimum of hand-holding. Your readers are that sharp. Trust me.

Even if they’re not that sharp – and I assure you that they are – isn’t it better to behave as if they are, instead of leaning in the opposite direction?

The robo-editor, however, seems to honestly believe that your reader is incapable of determining that you are using figurative language when you say that the nation speaks (and you are, it’s called synecdoche). Alternately, the robo-editor hasn’t made that leap itself. Neither situation is good.

Eliminating all figurative language essentially forces you to tell instead of showing. Robo-editors are great at telling. Good luck eliminating figurative language if you write something with high emotional content. I dare you to try writing romance that way.

This component of robo-editing, like so many others, is based on some misinformation about the language. Many robo-editors believe that they are removing clichés. Let us be clear: figurative language is not per se clichéd. Things become clichéd with overuse. Don’t delete the fire in someone’s eyes because there isn’t actually a fire (ouchie!). Delete it because it’s been done to death.

The last time I was robo-edited in this way, I had written about something – probably bedsprings – protesting under a character’s weight. I got back a note that read something like, “Protesting is an emotional act, which springs are not capable of performing. J” I think the whole sentence had been deleted, but hey, nice of them to leave me a smiley face, right?

I resolved to take the robo-editor’s advice with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it took quite a few grains of salt, arranged around the rim of a glass.

My guess here is that the robot editor is the only one who thinks I carefully placed several grains of salt around the rim of a glass in order to cope with its advice. I suspect that most of my readers would think I had a drink. I cannot stop the robot from thinking whatever it wants, but the truth of the matter is that I am not writing for the robot. I’m writing for people who read the preceding paragraph and saw a margarita.

And now it’s time for me to see a margarita. Literally.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 thoughts on “The Nation Speaks … in a Manner of Speaking

    • That really does drive me crazy. And don’t start me on the whole “flying body parts” thing. Seriously, if I meant that someone’s eyes literally roamed over someone else’s body, I would make sure you knew that.

      That’s an annoyance for another post. 🙂

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