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Editing and—beekeeping?

A swarm in Louise’s garden.

Like other professionals, editors do interesting things when they’re not at their desks. In my “spare time,” I keep honey bees. Now, editing and beekeeping aren’t always the perfect combination. For example, the bees will inevitably swarm just as you are racing to meet a deadline. If you want to get them back, you have to move quickly, abandoning one set of tools and grabbing another, donning veil and gloves as you go. But as with many disparate things, look carefully enough and similarities emerge.

First there is the learning. Take all the courses and workshops you can, and read all the books, but, at least in my experience, the crucial learning begins when you roll up your sleeves (or in the case of beekeeping, roll them down) and start work on a manuscript or open up a beehive—alone—for the first time. In fact, it’s the same every time: the learning never stops. The mysteries of language and the mysteries of honey bees are such that you can never know it all.

Since there is mystery involved, a certain amount of interpretation is required. There are basic rules that must be followed, but beyond those, everyone will do things in a slightly different way. Give a roomful of editors a paragraph to edit and there will be a roomful of different results. The elderly beekeeper who sold me my first hive said, “If you ask fifty beekeepers, you’ll get fifty different answers about every little thing.”

WCEA partner Louise Oborne, who has two of my hives in her garden, recently told me that an editor once said to her, “Editing keeps you humble.” Whether it’s seeing something you missed jump out at you in the final product or, on the flip side, having the good fortune to work with an experienced author on an extraordinary project, you are regularly reminded of your place in the world. A colony of fifty thousand honey bees, with an inherent genius that provides a glimpse of the divine, does the same thing. Especially when you make a mistake and all hell breaks loose.

Author Mark Kingwell describes the silences that sometimes descend during a long telephone call between author and editor, when both are thinking hard about an editorial problem. “For me,” he writes, “these silences are sacred forays into the void of collaboration.” Actually, if you were to listen really hard, you might hear in that silence a kind of hum—not unlike the deep buzz of bees when you are working in a healthy hive on a sunny summer afternoon. The bees are doing their work and you are doing yours, and all is right with the world. It’s the sound of pure magic.

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