Reflections from Seminary Students

Apostrophes Can be Fun: My Work as a Graduate Assistant

January 3rd, 2011 § 0 Comments

Editor’s Note: John Harrell is a guest contributor on the SOT Blog. He is a second-year, MDiv student in the graduate program.

The assignments in my basic newswriting course in college had to be turned in on time—almost to the minute—or I would receive an automatic “F” for the piece.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

It was good training for us journalism majors at my college on the East Coast.  We would be given a certain amount of class time in which to write a newspaper-style piece with the expectation that we would work quickly, record facts accurately, use proper Associated Press format, and get every single fact, figure, and name-spelling absolutely correct.  Style and grammar were important and would be reflected in our grades.  But there were certain drop-dead triggers.  Misplaced decimal?  Forgot to include the silent “e” in “Wolfe”?  Automatic fail.

Oh, and we weren’t allowed to use a spelling checker.

Sound miserable?  Actually, it was rather fun.  In high school, I was the copy editor for the student newspaper and became notorious for handing back article drafts coated in editing marks: missing commas, misspelled words, “their” versus “they’re” versus “there”, and so on.  I’ve always enjoyed working with the minutiae of grammar and punctuation.

So when I came to SPU, you can imagine what a blessing it was for me to work as a Graduate Assistant on the editing process for a professor’s book.  Much of the autumn and early winter saw me at a computer, music in my earphones, hunched over the screen, formatting the book manuscript for the typesetter.

I was given the entire manuscript by e-mail along with the publisher’s instructions on how the piece should be presented: code markings for boldface type, how to know where “em” dashes (—) should be used instead of “en” dashes (–), preferences on font and size, and so forth.  And so I set about putting the manuscript in order.

I look back fondly on those edit sprees—the choral music and soft techno, becoming extremely familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style, giving a new, orderly shape to the material the professor had already written, helping to get it ready for coming to life in book form.

To the casual observer, the document looked like chaos when I was finished, thanks to the hundreds and hundreds of red marks from Microsoft Word’s ”track changes” function.  But it was part of the inevitable birthing process of a book that is now in print and (hopefully) mechanically clean and properly formatted.  It was a process in which this journalism major was blessed to take part as a divinity student.

And to my former professors on the East Coast: if I misplaced a decimal, I’m truly sorry—but you can’t take away my diploma.

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