Purple prose

LinkedIn, the business networking site, has a place to type in one’s publications. This is rather useful for those of us who write things that are published. Since this option came along, I’ve typed in news of my last seven freelance articles.

Well, seven of the last eight. The eighth has just come out, and I got as far as … typing. Then I thought about it, looked at the article a few times, made some faces, and backed out of the site. Much as I’d like to show off my latest article, this one will remain a secret. (Anything printed, in print, for tens of thousands of people these days can be considered a secret if it then goes to pulp and disappears. It is, of course, also online — but I’m going to pretend that if I don’t call attention to it, no one will realize that.)

Now, why am I ignoring this latest piece of fine writing rather than showing it off? Because what started as fine writing got edited. Badly. Okay, I’ve been doing this for a while. More than 400 articles. They’ve pretty much all been edited, and more than a few times the editing has left something to be desired. Unfortunately, this was one of those times. I don’t know how many people were involved, but she/they not only changed what I wrote; she/they added new lines and phases wholesale.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse: This was a personal essay. Really personal. It was about me and certain well-known relatives. The editor(s) had me saying and thinking things I didn’t say and think, and my attitudes toward relatives in general and these in particular came off as not reflecting reality — even after delicate negotiations in the author galley. The result was an essay purple enough that I was grateful the piece was published a few hundred miles from home in a city where few people I know are likely to see it.

It’s not the first time that’s happened. An interview with an elected official earlier this decade was serious and carefully crafted to explain a major legislative issue to readers of the publication, who were eager to understand the official’s thoughts on nuances of the issue. The piece went through editing, and I was pleased with how it turned out. But the publisher decided to get colorful before going to press. Seeing the printed copy, I was shocked: The long introduction was ablaze with purple, a fawning kiss-up to the official in words and phrases I would never, ever use. Instead of a clip to be proud of and use with job applications, it rated a shudder and a quick burial.

One of the worst cases of editing in recent years did get salvaged, thank goodness. This one was more than a matter of pride — it was about accuracy and utter unprofessionalism on the part of the editor. The article was a meticulously researched, hour-by-hour look at how a medical staff saved the life of a young man in the middle of the night. The editor inserted thoughts and quotes on his behalf. I’ve never seen that before or since. When I objected, she said, “But he must have felt that!” How do you argue with someone who would do such a thing? I just said, “He didn’t. It has to come out.”

It’s a lengthy article, and there were dozens of other examples. Thankfully, I’ve put the pain of most of them out of my mind and don’t want to recall them. The piece as published isn’t perfect, but I can live with it. I guess you could say I no longer turn purple upon seeing it.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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