Editing for Knowledge
© 9 Aug 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Editing as a tool for understanding difficult texts.


Among many other activities, I genuinely enjoy some types of editing. One of my favorite editing styles is what I might term a “‍semantic edit‍”, the goal of which is to match text layout with conceptual structure. The process of taking a paragraph or two and trying to decide where to add line breaks, how much to indent each line, where to add Milne-style capitalization, what margin comments and footnotes might be added, etc. I don’t like reading the result, but I do enjoy creating it.

I discovered my liking for structural editing when I started using LaTeX for most of my documents, (including my journal, letters, and the like), and I have maintained the habit as I’ve transitioned through a mix of various TeX macro packages toward my own custom mix of XML, XSLT, HTML, DocBook, and CSS. The beauty of all of these toolchains is that what I write is a description of what will be seen, and thus I have the freedom to format the description differently than the final document it is describing.

But I digress from my objective in this post. A few months ago I was asked to teach a sequence of lessons on the account of Enoch found in Moses 6:26–7:69. Since I expected to have many notes on the passage and to teach from my computer but without the Internet, I took the passage and entered it into an HTML source where I could add all my little comments and highlights cleanly. While that objective was achieved, far more valuable was the experience of performing a structural edit on the text.

I have since become very fond of this kind of editing. Who is talking in Moses 6:60? Answer for the impatient: Enoch is reciting to Mahijah words that the Lord gave Adam to teach to his children I always lost a level of indirection on that question before doing a structural edit. And it’s not just structure: trying to copy-edit the text gives insights into ideas like “‍why the word ye instead of thou?‍” Often the smallest questions can lead to the largest insights.

Since making this discovery I’ve added a new level to my reading toolkit, particularly suited to for scripturesScriptures: dense texts written without quotation marks, paragraphs, or current idioms. and technical papersTechnical papers: dense texts written by people who can’t write.. I can skill skim for big ideas, or read for a decent overview, or highlight and annotate for a reasonable comprehension; but now I also know how to edit content and presentation to make the text my own.

Thus, to the old cliche “‍you don’t understand it ’til you’ve taught it‍” I add my own “‍you haven’t read it ’til you’ve edited it.‍”

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