Making muddy brass glimmer: a personal experience of copyediting

I grew up a pretty privileged kid. Let’s be honest, most who will read this post can say the same. However, the privilege to which I am referring is the joy of school holidays spent at my grandparents’ home. A home with white balustrades, a garden planned after an English style and always a warm hearth – in the historic sense of the word. My grandparents were quite particular about the cozy order of their home; those were days when you cleared the mantelpiece before dusting. Not infrequently, the labour or shining the brass would be taken on by the domestic worker. She would sit outside as the the relative cool of the early morning grew into a steady warmth. I too would be outside, waiting for my thick, just-washed hair to dry. I would watch her hands move over the murky surface, applying the cream-like cleaning agent to each nock and cranny. The brass would be left to stand in the shade, and later, after the haze of the afternoon heat had settled, she would return to her seat under the avocado tree and begin the slow process of returning shine to the metal.

I experience copyediting in much the same way. A patience, yet painstaking process of teasing the lustre out of the text so that the brilliant reflection beneath falls uninterrupted on the author. The most rewarding of the projects I have undertaken was for the Swedish-based, Austrian curator of Chinese art, Alexandra Grimmer. Examining the interviews with artists Sun Xun and He Douling, allowed for an immersion in the art and the world of the artists themselves. It tickled my fascination with visual art and emphasised once more the layered experience of reality as transformed onto canvas.

In addition to the immersive experience, the steep learning curve of contextual knowledge in an unfamiliar field is especially rewarding. It is also an important aspect of framing the text. In this way, when clarity is lacking, deductive reasoning serves its purpose.

The third, and last, aspect is the feedback loop between the author and I. It is almost impossible to describe the thrill of the collaborative process, sometimes under tremendous time pressure. Nevertheless, only together can we arrive at a result that accentuates the subject matter and the work of the author at the same time.

On those afternoons in small-town Mpumalanga, I scarcely recall to where the brass was returned after the day’s task was complete. What I do know is that I was somewhere else; playing piano, watching cricket with my grandfather or just being a kid. Those were the days when the embers of careless abandon burned bright, and the brass shone carefully with me.