Back around 200 B.C., a humble physician named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra, a guide for living the right life. In this essential yogic text, Patanjali discusses the practice of ahimsa: harm no creature in thought or deed.
After September 11, 2001, I wrote about ahimsa (“a” means “not” and “himsa” means “harm”) and terrorism and forgiveness. I have discovered that the practice of ahimsa is a daily challenge: choosing to let the swallows make their messy nest under the eaves and dodging the excitable parents every time I step out of the garage; voicing a kind word instead of the harsh one that jumps to my tongue; keeping all ten fingers curled calmly on the steering wheel—and not lifting one opinionated middle digit—when the guy behind me gives new meaning to road rage.
Ahimsa is about trying to understand the points of view of others. I was reminded of this again when reading The Subversive Copy Editor. Author Carol Fisher Saller, editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online‘s Q&A, maintains that “your first goal as an editor is merely to do no harm.” She writes that it is a privilege to polish a manuscript and that those of us who edit (for fun and/or profit) don’t have an invitation to slash and burn in the name of style rules.
As an editor, I like consistency. I like bringing order to the lawless book manuscript, kicking promotional butt when I come across a brochure oozing with meaningless blah-blah, and cranking up the interest meter in boring newsletter stories. I see editors as super-heroes, quietly (yet dramatically) saving the day and then stepping back into the shadows.
Yet after spending time with Carol on her trip to the Twin Cities, I came to realize that rigidity—either on the yoga mat or while pecking away at the computer—serves no one. Relax. Unwind (not to the point of incompetency but into the warmth of compassion). In the end, the editor must do what is best for the work, the reader, and the writer.
We are not avengers of grammar. We lay down our egos and feel lighter. We are swallows swerving amid sentences.