Is there such a thing as an obsessive compulsive editing disorder? If there is, then I think I have it. I’m not talking about editing my own work, although I am reasonably diligent at that. No, I’m talking about the irresistible compulsion to edit the writing of total strangers.
I was at the library the other day, making use of its excellent free computer use service, when a young woman next to me leaned over and said, “Excuse me – what’s another word for ‘lots’ or ‘many’?”
Why yes, I thought, as a matter of fact, I am a walking thesaurus, thanks for asking. Instead of throwing out a few synonyms, I got up from my chair, came around to her PC, and took a look at the document she was working on.
“Hmmm. ‘Many’ works fine in this sentence,” I said, “but you’ll want to change a few other things.” My fingers began to fly over the keyboard, changing the tense here, the punctuation there, the spelling somewhere else. The document appeared to be a creative approach to writing a CV, told as a narrative in third person rather than in dry bullet points. Whether it would succeed in its aim, I don’t know, but I was determined to ensure that I had done my part (even although I hadn’t actually been invited to play a part at all). She wasn’t doing too badly considering that English was her second language (at least, that was what I inferred from her accent and the information given in the text), but still, it could be improved…
Suddenly realising that I might have overstepped some bounds of propriety, I completed my edits, gave her a slightly embarrassed smile, and returned to my seat. A few minutes later, she had another question.
“Umm…it needs to be longer.”
“Yes. It has to be at least 300 words long. I’ve only got 220 words.”
I was up and over on her side of the desk like a shot. “Let’s see – you could expand on this part here.” I tapped the screen. “It says you had trouble when you went to Perth. What kind of trouble?”
“Well, my family didn’t really want me to go…” She trailed off. I could see from the timer in the corner of the screen that she only had a few minutes to go before her free hour of PC time would be up and the computer would shut down. There was no time for consultation; I cracked my knuckles, elbowed her out of the way, and set about telling her life story.
“Your family didn’t really want you to go,” I said, typing away furiously, “but when they saw how passionate you were about your dream of becoming the Best Pharmacist in the World, they relented and sent you on your way with their tearful blessings. Of course, the reader knows about your passion, because back here,” – I pointed out an earlier part in the text – “we’re going to tell them about the chemistry set you got for Christmas…no, not Christmas, you’re Muslim, silly me…that your rich uncle in America sent you when you were seven…”
Her computer timed out, and with a smile and a word of thanks, she took the USB stick on which the story had been saved and departed. I returned to my seat, secure in the belief that I had done at least one good deed that day, and she returned to her family, probably to tell them about the crazy lady in the library who tried to write her homework project for her.
All referrals to a good therapist gratefully received…