As if to fulfill my need to demonstrate an especially nit-picky, real-life instance of revision, an editor with whom I’ll soon be publishing an essay (on the modest topic of love in Shakespeare’s plays) has been working with me for weeks on a single sentence from a 5000-word piece. The assistant editor first emailed me about the sentence, which occurs late in the essay and concerns the protagonist of Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline:
The ultimate point, though, isn’t Posthumus’s failure, any more than is his failure to act out of compassion, rather than in defense of his male honor, the end of the story.
The assistant editor sent me a suggested revision that didn’t catch the intent of the sentence, but that nevertheless illustrated how unclear my original periodic sentence was. I sent back another version, in which I merely moved the is to a place where I thought it would be clearer:
The ultimate point, though, isn’t Posthumus’s failure, any more than his failure to act out of compassion, rather than in defense of his male honor, is the end of the story.
Soon the editor-in-chief emailed me: “Would you give us a call when you have a moment,” she wrote, “as we are still not clear as to your meaning of that sentence.” I said I’d be glad to call, but sent along another attempt, just in case I could deal with the problem in short order:
The ultimate point, though, isn’t Posthumus’s failure. Nor is his failure to act out of compassion, rather than in defense of his male honor, the end of the story.
No go. She still wanted to have a phone conversation, which occurred the next day, on a speaker phone, so that the assistant editor could listen in. She asked me what I meant by “failure” in the first sentence. I said I wasn’t sure, but conceded that I needed to be. She asked me to revise again, taking as many words as I needed to be clear, as she would hate to lose readers at this crucial point toward the essay’s end.
Inspired by the phone conversation, I pitched a new version of the (now) two sentences:
The ultimate point about Posthumus, though, isn’t his failure to control his temper. Nor is his failure to act out of compassion, rather than in defense of his male honor, necessarily the end of his story.
I thought I’d nailed it. But no, I heard from the editor-in-chief again. (By now, I imagine, I’d become too hot of a potato to toss to the assistant editor.) Her attempt to revise yet again came in on a Friday night, when, wastrel that I am, I was out to dinner with friends.
The ultimate point about Posthumus, then, isn’t his failure to control his temper, nor his failure to act out of compassion rather than in defense of his male honor. Posthumus’ maturation is, even as the play ends, a work in progress. If he doesn’t complete the objective of developing his inner worth, he continues to try.
She said she needed to resolve this matter by Monday. On Saturday morning, I signed off on the revision with two tweaks: change the “nor” to “or” and omit the comma before that word. In this case, I noted, clarification involved using more words, although it often involves shaving words off until you get to the essence of your meaning.
What may seem like a ridiculous exchange to some people was a rare treat for me. As I wrote to the editor, I’m deeply grateful for the close attention to one sentence. Her response just came in: “We are home free!”