Friday, May 17, 2013

Writing, Editing, and the Power of Three--A Guest Interview with Writer and Editor Jeri Reilly

Jeri Reilly is a writer and freelance editor. She is currently writing a book--a manifesto for baby boomers--with co-author Eric Utne. She blogs about word matters at and can be followed on twitter @jerireilly. She lives in Minneapolis and sometimes in Ireland.

Tell us about your background as an editor and writer.

I fell into editing because I was a writer. For many years I worked for a cultural organization where I wrote and edited all kinds of communications for management.  

One day I told my boss I needed to get some credentials--so that when I told this or that manager that they had to change a word or a sentence, I would know which rule to cite. So they wouldn't take it personally. My boss agreed, and so I flew to Chicago and took an intensive course taught by the managing editor of the Chicago Manual of Style.  

I returned to work elated: I had my University of Chicago Publishing School certificate, I knew my way around the latest edition of CMS, and I had a lovely box of (erasable) colored pencils for marking up pages.

Editing has given me a lot of freedom. It made it possible for me to live in Ireland after I left that full-time job. When I moved to a 200-year-old stone cottage halfway up a mountain, I brought my American clients with me, via dial-up internet. One of my writers, a memoirist, did not write on the computer but was undaunted by the distance between us.  

He would mail his drafts to me in a sturdy box, and when I was done marking up his 350 or so pages, back they would go into the box and across the Atlantic to Hackensack, Minnesota.

When I wasn't editing and writing I was trying to survive in Ireland. The day's chores included keeping a fire going in an enameled Rayburn range, and that involved tongs, a metal bucket, and lots of turf, coal, and ashes. A wayward ram kept a peaceable eye on me from where he had newly settled under a large ash tree outside my kitchen window. A primordial band of horned and bearded mountain goats sometimes passed the woods beside my cottage--etching the air with their feral emissions.

I was no longer living an abstract and hygienic existence. I was living through my senses, and that changed my writing, pulled me out of my head.

Also, I was immersed in what is really another form of English, and that shook up my diction and syntax.

But to get back to your question--although editing and writing seem to be closely related, they are completely different kinds of activities. I recently wrote a blog post about this because some people say you can't be a good editor if you are also a writer. I know you can be--but only if you take off your writer's hat while you are editing and lock it up.

Why are you passionate about editing/writing?
I write and edit because I love language and words. And because reading and writing are humanizing activities. Writing roots you.

To be a writer is not to be a technician of language as much as a fortifier of language. Marketspeak exhausts, if not corrupts, our language, and we writers have to charge it up again, word by word. We preserve language by refreshing it. That is one of the pleasures of being a writer.

Some people say we are moving to a post-literary culture. Maybe this is so. But despite all our digital technology, I think language remains our coolest invention. Stories will always be as essential to our survival as food and water.

Your recent post on the power of three in writing--can you recap the most important points? Why is this topic interesting to you?
When I am editing, I sometimes have to invoke the Rule of Three, that is, whenever the cluster of items the writer has used is more or less than three. It seems that groups of threes are naturally most pleasing to our mind, eyes, and ears. As I said in my post, when you present a list, you do it most indelibly if you do it in threes.

I was moved to write The Power of Three after discovering the rhetorical term for this phenomenon, tricolon, in a piece by Sam Leith on Draft, the New York Times writing blog. Tricolon refers to a sentence with three parts such as, I came, I saw, I conquered.

I've since discovered a related term, hendriatris, which refers to the use of three words to convey a single concept or image, such as "cool, calm, and collected" and "tall dark, and handsome."

While our affinity for threes still seems a bit mystical to me, there is, reportedly, a neurological basis for it. We humans are pattern makers, and three is the smallest number required to make a memorable pattern. It's no wonder then that we carry so many threesomes in our heads: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; blood, sweat, and tears; beg, borrow, and steal.

We writers, then, can work some magic when we summon the power of three.

Imagine if Julius Caesar had written, I came, I saw, I conquered, I went. Surely his report on the war against Pharnaces II in 47 BC would not have been remembered--and quoted--all these millennia since. 

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Read Jeri's post, The Power of Three, by clicking on the title.   

2.  Think about how you use the power of three in your own writing.  Are you taking advantage of this tool? 

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