words mean things

Words mean things. It seems obvious,  cliché even, but there it is: Words bear meaning.

In an argument, the person who controls the words wins. The one who holds the definitions succeeds. Words mean things.

The culture may try to redefine them. It may use them incorrectly, but still they have inherent, objective meaning.

They are delicate things. Use one incorrectly, snap it in two, and you’ve lost an entire sentence.

They are powerful. They start wars and end relationships. They linger throughout history and are impossible to forget.

Words mean things.

That’s why I take the title of “editor” seriously. I have a small complex about it. When someone asks what I do, I tell them I work for The Lutheran Witness. I have a hard time saying that I am an editor or a writer, because those words—writer or editor—mean something.

To be an editor does not simply mean that a person knows how to use Microsoft Word’s Spellcheck or can spot a misplaced comma. It doesn’t mean that he notices when my should be may or when a sentence should be capitalized but isn’t.

An editor must have opinions but know when to hold them, ideas but realize where to use them. He must know the difference between a punchy first line and a sentence that won’t draw a reader in or hold his attention.

He must know how to take 1,500 words of copy and make them say the same thing with an equal amount of vibrancy in 800.  He knows the value of less rather than more, of setting a scene without painting a picture.

An editor must be strong enough to have the last word. He must give his work credibility, trustworthiness. He must have an eye for the big picture and one for detail. He must watch for errors and admit when he doesn’t catch them.

He must check facts, delegate, organize, direct content, nag, set editorial calendars, and live by deadlines. He must know the difference between an em dash and en dash, the number of spaces between sentences, what a dek is, and how to spot the perfect pull quote when he sees it.

He must live by the AP Style Guide, by the 15th edition of Chicago, by Merriam Webster. He must never assume. He always double checks. He sets the course and redirects the content when it veers away.

An editor must do the hard work of writing and editing so that his readers can enjoy what they read, so that it makes sense, so that they are stretched in their understanding, so that they come to a well-informed opinion.

You can call yourself an editor, even if you’re not. You can call yourself a writer, even if you’re not. But when you meet a true editor, a true writer, they’ll know. Because words mean things.

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7 thoughts on “words mean things

  1. Thank you for taking your vocation so seriously. I certainly have appreciated the changes in The Lutheran Witness.

  2. When I read this, it made me wonder what the underlying psychological meaning of your use of the male third person pronoun was. Although gramatically correct, I’d have rather you used she, her, hers. At least, in this case. 😉

    • I’m old fashioned. I’d rather use masculine pronouns that “she and he” and “him and her” fourteen times in a sentence. It takes up too much space!

      • I, for one, am glad you used the old fashioned masculine pronouns. Aside from the space the extra words take, I find I am embarrassed by people who can’t read what the writer was trying to say without being offended by pronouns.

        Thanks for your post, I forwarded it to my daughter (the one who wants to be an editor one day). I guess I’ll contact you when she’s ready to intern.

  3. I don’t mean to be a smartalec, but when you write of a word’s “inherent, subjective meaning”, do you not really mean to say “objective”?

    Or were you just trying to see if some smartalec would try to edit the work of the editor?

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