“A small sheik escaped” and other editing exercises to energize your writing

Article by L.A. Ramsey

Of all the things in human existence to be ignited by-a skylark, Picasso’s man strumming a blue guitar, a flapper wobbling to the tune of the Charleston, a kid’s gap-toothed grin-mine was a small sheik.

It was somehow fitting that my inspiration would derive from a typographical error (it was supposed to be “a small shriek escaped”) I ran smack-dab into while editing a book.

We writers are crafty indeed. Male or female, we have to be connivers, collectors, coquettes, and charlatans. At least if we are successful we do.

The same goes for editing, for to be a good editor, one must be a good reader (meaning: a devout devourer of texts both arcane and profane). A writer, by the opposite token, need not be an excellent editor-something just now causes me to remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell his way out of a paper sack of Cutty Sark, but that’s another story best left to the 3 a.m. of the soul.

Nonetheless, I have read enough schlock, 99 percent of it spilled from my own fingertips like soda on a keyboard, to know that being a good editor can only strengthen your writing. I can only imagine that despite his genius, Fitzgerald’s editors (not to mention Faulkner’s, Joyce’s, or Eliot’s; bless their tidy little hearts) would sometimes throw their hands up in sheer failure, such was the task of deciphering his hieroglyphs without a Rosetta Stone.

Here, however, I want to talk about the daylight yoga with words that we editors-contortionists all-perform, to the hum of our mantra of yearning for the perfidies of the English language.

My father would likely call out this piece for its being riddled with “75-cent words.” But that is no matter.

I would like to begin at the beginning, which I reckon starts right about at Juneau. And I don’t mean Alaska.

My wrestle with mama tongue, uh, I mean English, is perhaps best typified in the young dork carbuncular. That is, me in sixth grade. I had ascended to likely my greatest, if wholly bathetic, moment in life thus far: the county spelling bee. And there fell flat with a sloshing of precociously preteen armpits slickened with sweat.

“Juneau,” I stammered. “Can I have that in a sentence, please?” Oh, I know this one! j-u-n-e-a-u. I’ve got it! I paused. Something wasn’t right. All the adult faces that pointed at me were just askew somehow. Again. J-u-n-e-a-u. I know that’s it. I have to make a decision; man, everybody’s looking at me. I have to make them stop. Now!

Incorrect!

What? I stepped down in confusion, much like an impeached president Nixon flashing “V for victory” and every bit as popular.

I had forgotten to uppercase the word, and, thus, didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to continue my inert flirtation with fame.

To this day, I kick my own backside-as I said, contortionism-around the room for missing that one. Who knows what yawning infamies I might have cavorted with? The weakly wrist of Coke bottle-thick (much like me at the time), glasses -faced Jason, the boy I had dubbed “asparagus lips” in a moment of anger.

To crank my kite down to reality for a moment, lest I get zapped by some editorial lightning (mind you, I didn’t write “lightening”; one of my pet peeves as a copyeditor), perhaps you also have a tête-à- tête going with the English language. For that, I can only offer my praise and some unrequited jealousy, I suppose.

Surely, it can only make us better. (I think I heard somewhere that what doesn’t kill us tends to have that sweet effect. And don’t ever call me Surely.)

As it stands, the craft of writing, humor or otherwise, dovetails elegantly if not eloquently with the exercise of editing and the relish of reading.

I won’t here regale you with other tales of whines, tongue-twisters, faux pas, neologisms, or the just-as-sweet roses that I’ve seen in texts or e-mails that have come across my editorial desk.

I can only advise this: devour words! Become a consumer of product labels, newspapers, magazines literary or otherwise, music lyrics, a love note fat pencil-scribbled in childish hand that by Serendip’s sweep lands in your yard.

Like me, you just might stumble on some sort of treasure in a “small sheik” you find singing its shriek there!

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Bio: L.A. Ramsey is chiefly a copyeditor and fact-checker, but she still hears the winged chariot at her back, and, so, makes time to write while caring for her 7-month-old daughter, 30-something husband, and dog of indeterminate vintage. She has been published in 52nd City magazine, in local newspapers, and on a satirical Web site. She’s a sometime-blogger at www.zofolitblogspot.com.

15 thoughts on ““A small sheik escaped” and other editing exercises to energize your writing

  1. L A,
    I really enjoyed this. It made me think of some of the misused words and convoluted sentences I’ve seen as an editor. Many years ago, I was in a fiction critique group that had a lot of fun as we improved our writing. Our code word when something needed revisions was “cooking the general tonight.” That came about after we all burst out laughing when we read a sentence that went something like this: “They couldn’t risk lighting a fire to alert their enemies to their location, so there was no cooking that night except the general.”

  2. Hello, all. Lillie and Marie Ann: Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you had fun with my posting. I sure had fun writing it. One of my journalism professors–in the only journalism class I ever took–told us about a bad break in a headline that rendered “Palestinians” as “Pale Stinians” (on two decks of the headline). I’ve always remembered that one! However, it doesn’t rival your “general,” Lillie; thanks for sharing that gem!

    And thanks again to John for choosing my article, not to mention for the informative and engaging Web site. I’m honored and humbled to be among such fine company, of so many styles, genres, and subject matters. Hope you’re having a great vacation!

    Leighs last blog post..The Music of Words and Other Matters

  3. Leigh,

    Reading, writing, editing–what a close-knit friendship these three create, as we watch them cavorting happily hand-in-hand, like three youngsters skipping along the path to a magical destination they will fully recognize only after they get there.

    Thanks for a deeply thoughtful post and the many insights it contains!

    Jeanne

  4. I loved reading this. I now have visions of a small, and I mean mini, less than 1cm, tall robed figure running across my manuscript saying, “There’s one! Form not From.” Scamper, scamper, “Here’s another! Loose, not lose.” Hilarious. This has set me up for my ‘big edit’ I have planned for the Fall, when I need to go back to a stalled 40,000 manuscript and hack it down, before I get re-writing to get it finished – I am inspired. Go sheik, go!

    ABBs last blog post..The Road Home and Inglorious take the Orange

  5. Leigh,

    Kudos to one of a select group of people who display consummate talent in both editing and writing. Your command of the English language and love for the art of expression continue to inspire those of us who appreciate good writing but fail to undertake any creative endeavors of our own.

    Mary

  6. Thank you all–ABB, Mary, and Jeanne–for your additional comments. Seldom does a typo present itself as visually as does “a small sheik,” so I knew I had to do something with it (in my own writing) when I first saw it. Plus, it’s just plain hilarious to me. I, too, see a 1-cm tall robed figure scurrying across the page or screen.

    For some reason, in the fiction editing I do, I see a lot of confusion of “lightening” with “lightning.” Sometimes, I start to get a bee in my editor’s bonnet about such things, but then I catch myself and think, “hey, if no one ever made a mistake in writing that spell-check didn’t catch, I wouldn’t have a job!” : ) And, beyond that, no one is perfect, so it’s always good to have at least one more pair of eyes on any given manuscript.

    Again, it’s been such an honor to be featured on Poe War alongside such excellent and experienced writers (not to mention so many other editors). I can’t wait for the next article/essay/posting!

    Leighs last blog post..The Music of Words and Other Matters

  7. Leigh,

    Your “small sheik” is definitely a classic!

    About your editing pet peeve–here’s the paradox: The very inability to abide such errors as “lightening” for “lightning” is precisely what makes a good editor! Yet, at the same time, it is so, so true that without such errors, the editing profession would soon become extinct.

    I agree with you that it truly is an honor to join such a talented group of professionals in contributing to this project!

    Regards,
    Jeanne

  8. I’ve kept up with your blog on Zofolit and am glad to see you getting posted on other sites as well. I enjoy your Erma Bombeck style of humor and hope to read more of work soon.

  9. Pingback: Meryl.net » Links: 2008-06-13
  10. This is a great post! I love this piece of advice: “devour words!”

    I’m really shocked when I meet aspiring writers who say “Oh, I don’t have time to read.” Excuse me? It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a magazine or comic book. You should make time to read something. Not just for inspiration but to expand your knowledge base.

  11. Hi, Hana, and thanks for your comment. I’m sometimes afraid that I’m unconsciously duplicating something other writers have done, but reading other authors is necessary, as you suggest, to achieve any success as a writer. I can’t remember who it was–poet Ezra Pound, maybe–who said simply “make it new”!

  12. L.A.,

    Thank you for contributing your article to the blog this month. I wish you the best of luck keeping that small sheik in line.

  13. I’ll do my best! Meanwhile, thank you again for allowing me the honor of communicating with your audience through my article and reading and responding to all the others’ articles. I had a blast and hope you’ll do it again. And, finally, here’s hoping you got a lot of writing done on your vacation!

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