Those Red Marks in the Margins

One of the true pleasures of my work with students is to deepen their appreciation of the red marks made in the margins of their papers. These are proof of their teachers’ efforts to improve their students’ writing prowess. Too often students toss papers after they’ve been returned with a grade, never to look at them.

Instead of seeing the red ink comments as criticism, I encourage my students to study the comments and to incorporate the suggested stylistic changes into their next papers. Keeping a portfolio of written work for future reference and noting improvements is one of the keys to becoming a stronger writer.

By happy coincidence, I have a wonderful story to illustrate how even the very best writers never escape the red marks in the margins. Sharing this story with students might help them feel less discouraged when challenged on stylistic or content choices they’ve made for a writing project.

Writing about commas in my last post, I found myself looking through an older edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. To my delight, tucked into the worn pages, was a memorial tribute to Eleanor Gould Packard written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editorial board member, on the occasion of Miss Gould’s death in February 2005.  Those sonorous names alone should keep you reading.

Eleanor Gould Packard joined The New Yorker staff in 1945, and for 54 years challenged the logic, syntax, grammar, flow, usage, punctuation and vocabulary of legions of our best-known nonfiction writers. Known as Miss Gould to the staff, her questions, comments and admonitions appeared as red marks in the margins of thousands of articles.

Miss Gould did not have a job title. She was neither a fact-checker nor a story editor, neither a copy editor nor a proofreader. As noted in her obituary:

She did not enter the process until an article had been examined by lawyers and editors and was in galley proof, close to the last minute. She worked her way down both margins, penciling corrections and suggestions in a legible hand, always providing her rationale.

Miss Gould cited as the pinnacle of her status the acknowledgement she received in the 1972 edition of The Elements of Style. The citation reads, “The coauthor, E.B. White, is most grateful to Eleanor Gould Packard for her assistance in the preparation of the second edition.”

As someone who benefited from Miss Gould’s pencil, Verlyn Klinkenborg was well-positioned to pay her tribute, and I include here the entire text of his appreciation.

The Point of Miss Gould’s Pencil

I never met Miss Gould. But deep in a box at home are the proofs of articles I once wrote for The New Yorker, and in the margins is the handwriting of Eleanor Gould Packard – the magazine’s venerable arbiter of style, who died on Sunday at 87. I thought I knew a lot about the English language at the time. I had a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton, an old-fashioned kind of doctorate with an emphasis on literary history and textual editing. So it came as a surprise to see those proofs. Broader questions had been settled. But it was clear from Miss Gould’s annotations – her very direct strictures – that a few details of syntax, usage and logic still needed to be fixed.

I reacted the way I suppose many writers did when they first saw a Gould proof – with disbelief and dismissal. But a writer soon learns to welcome anyone who can offer real insight into the nature of prose, and that Miss Gould could certainly do. I learned from her neatly inscribed comments that even though I was writing correctly – no syntactical flat tires, no grammatical fender-benders – I was often not really listening to what I was saying. That may seem impossible to a reader who isn’t a writer. But Miss Gould’s great gift wasn’t taking writers seriously. It was taking their words seriously. No writer, at first, is quite prepared for that.

Miss Gould managed to seem larger than life without ever leaving the margins of the unpublished page. To some people, I suspect, she came to embody the negative image of the copy editor: punctilious, schoolmarmish and blue-stockinged. But the grasp she had on the written word, on the inner springs and impulses of the language, made grammar and syntax and diction resemble the laws of physics. From one angle, those laws mark the limits of nature. From another angle, they define the very energies that shape the universe and make it intelligible.

The next time a student complains to me about a teacher’s red marks in the margins of a paper, I will pass on Klinkenborg’s tribute to Miss Gould.

By Posted in Working Smart on Jul 4, 2012

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