Words carry great power. As much as this is true, synonyms and general social understanding does not always require exclusivity in communicating certain ideas. However, as we learned in the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, how our messages are received come largely from how we state them. How we state them determines their focus and what is being communicated. This allows the text to be centered around a subject and a particular angle, which literary criticism then expounds on.
Reading this chapter reminded me of two instances that I have run into in an English class and at my job at TommieMedia. I took an English class on Persuasive Writing, and for one of our assignments, we were supposed to partner with a nonprofit organization to write a quick brief for them. Embarrassingly enough, I can’t remember the name of the nonprofit that I worked with, but I do remember the experience. I was assigned to interview an elderly man who had received a drunk driving offense the year prior. The nonprofit had assisted him in his legal needs, and by the time of our interview, he had dealt with the punishment. My job was to write a summary of the offense, the trial, and the results of the case. The brief would be published in a booklet.
The brief was only supposed to be three hundred words long, which sounded like a piece of cake to me. Little did I know how much work was going to be involved. All of the edits I received from people at the nonprofit were in relation to word choice, but they seemed never-ending. The elderly man is African American and all of the workers that I saw at the nonprofit were white, and so there was a lot of work to be done to avoid connotations of “white savior.” And it was interesting, because it wasn’t even my intent, but nearly every word replacement I could come up with could be construed as insensitive, or at least that’s what my editor said. I could understand some of the comments, but when I would receive weekly emails on feedback for my latest string of alternative wording, I would go “C’mon! Really?” I understood the worry and thought it was very valid, and I actively tried to find words that I felt did not fit the “white savior” mold, but I kept coming up empty. And, just as I embarrassingly cannot remember the name of the nonprofit, I’m embarrassed to say that eventually I stopped sending back emails. By the time I did this, the class had actually been over for some time, just to give you some perspective of how long my correspondence with the nonprofit was.
In the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, it states that “textual criticism assumes that even small differences in texts can be significant, shaping different meanings as we read” (6). As an English and Communications double major, like I said, I knew that words carry great power, but I was operating under the mindset that as long as I typed in what I presumed to be “legalese” that those three hundred words would come in five quick minutes and never need to be touched again. I was treating the text I wrote as a short paper I had to write for a class, but this time only an “A” grade was acceptable. I didn’t bother think about the brief in its own entity, not bothering to look into what Kelemen describes as the “transmission history and…the history of aesthetic and political choices” (8). I did not think about how the man’s background and ethnicity could appear juxtaposed against the members of the nonprofit.
Another instance of the importance of textual editing came just a few weeks ago at my job at TommieMedia. I was set to host a video segment called “In Depth,” where I would be interviewing Father Snyder about an Interfaith Survey sent out via email to the student body. When it comes to interviews themselves, I am much more familiar with podcasts and long form discussions. When I conduct interviews for TommieMedia, some are a quick five minutes, while others last upwards of twenty. I prefer this method because it feels more like a dialogue.
However, when I submitted the script for the segment to my executives, I was told that my questions were way too long. The more they were edited down, the more I felt like they were losing the question’s original intent and that my voice was being lost. It reminded me a little bit of my previous example, in that my words felt like they were being crafted to fit a desired mold. Even though I didn’t feel like I was speaking with my “legalese” voice anymore, the process of creating the script made it feel like my words were being crunched down and inspected one by one. And because much of what was being amended was length, I felt that my paragraphs were being gutted, even though they were just developing clarity. As the questions were filed down to mere nubs of their former selves, one comment from my executive really irked me, “These questions need more focus.” I wanted to respond, “Well that’s because you deleted all of the context and explanations.”
But after looking through my original questions, I realized that they were actually fairly scattered. They were long because I listed research and data, but also because the prose was more representative of a stream of consciousness, and not so much deliberate and poignant questions. I wanted to ask complex questions, but they were getting suffocated by my inability to be direct. We were in some ways, leaving the viewers hungry for more, and by maintaining a good focus and directions for the questions, they would leave the viewers hungry for more, and not confused as well. If people were curious about Interfaith they would have a good base to go on, rather than feeling as scattered as my questions were. But did that perhaps affect the answers that I was given?
The video segment lasted around five minutes, but it felt too scripted. I had had a preliminary interview with Father Snyder in his office, a week or so prior to the segment, where my questions were more free form. He fumbled a little bit with some of his answers, not because he didn’t know what he was talking about, but because he was thinking out loud. He also got up to get his tea, which he had left on his desk on the other side of the room. Moments like these aren’t a part of the text, but the relaxed feeling that they give off certainly permeate into his answers. I was there to do my job and interview him, but we just ended up talking for twenty minutes.
The questions that I asked during the video segment were more succinct and direct, and so were Father’s answers. It didn’t feel like a dialogue, which was partly because we had broken the ice with the interview before hand, but also because we had three cameras pointing our way and fellow TM employees working on the technical side to make sure that the show was up and running. We were repeating a dialogue, but the changed circumstance both accidental and substantive changed the dialogue into a different text. Even Father commented after the fact: “Wow that was different than our original interview.” I had fun doing the In Depth segment but the two stages of it felt radically different, especially considering that the second step was in some ways a repetition of the first. The conversation juxtaposed with the studio lights was different than the one around Father Snyder’s desk.
Even though the editing was done simply to clean up my intentions for the questions, the scattered nature of them was part of what felt like a conversation the first time around. When the camera is rolling you don’t really have room to say “erm” or even something like “Can you talk about that a little bit more?” unless it serves as a segue into your next question. The original interview was fascinating because I asked many different questions, and during the video segment I felt like only one tangent was explored, and not even to the length that it might have been if Father and I were back in his office. Also, though it isn’t directly part of the text itself, our postures were different. I don’t think I was slouching in Father’s office, but I felt the need to be the image of professionalism while the segment was being filmed. My intentions were to get answers, but I felt like I was a filling a different role for the second interview.
As we read in the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, the slightest change in words can make a big difference in what we read, even if we don’t feel as though everyday conversation is representative of that. When preparing text for certain mediums, expectations may change, and the conversion and expectation may cause frustration, but it is in these steps that it is vital to keep one’s focus for the piece in mind. Though we may feel as though the conversion presents a different text, as long as the main message is communicated, you can leave the readers hungry for more, rather than feeling confused, or simply being presented with a different message.
Kelemen, Erick. Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2009.