Lost in the details

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Ameena Golding/Staff

My poor mother was about to ban me from using the dictionary.

It was a Wednesday night in 2006, and in Ms. Weingarden’s third-grade class, Wednesday nights were reading nights. Each week, we were assigned a chapter from “Little House on the Prairie” or similar such fare, and we were encouraged to read the chapter aloud to family members.

I assume that reading night was a calm, lighthearted affair for most families. Students and their relatives, I imagine, came together to follow the Ingalls family through its rugged exploits in the Great Plains, perhaps stumbling over an obsolete word or an unfamiliar phrasing here and there, but closing the book with an overall grasp of what had happened in the chapter.

In my family, however, Wednesday nights were tense at best, and they resembled a war zone at worst. My mother and I represented two approaches to reading that were polar opposites of each other — to sum it up, I found it reasonable to make sure I understood the meaning of each and every syllable of each and every word of “Little House on the Prairie”; my mom, for her part, thought this was batshit.

“Stop getting so bogged down in the details! Focus on the big picture!”

“But I don’t get it! What does ‘pannikin’ mean?”

“It doesn’t matter!”

And back and forth.

As she is with everything, my mom was completely right about this. I’ve never been particularly good at grasping the main idea — details are more of my forte. You could plant me in the middle of Yosemite, and I’d probably wonder why I was surrounded by such a large number of individual trees before surmising that I was in a forest.

Throughout the years, I’ve seen this tendency crop up in various aspects of my life. For example, my inability to see the big picture is probably why, on every standardized test I’ve ever taken, my lowest score has been in the “reading comprehension” section. It’s why topic sentences and conclusions in writing give me so much trouble, and why I find titles of essays nearly impossible.

My fixation on detail, however, has served me well in some applications — especially in my work as a copy editor. Though her quest to get me to look at things through a broader lens was a valiant one, my mom never could have guessed that I’d end up having a job that required precisely the opposite.

Many a copy editor has quipped about developing an ability to edit stories for grammar and style without even understanding what they’re about. While this approach tends to be poor editing practice — as it can result in stories that are grammatically correct but structurally incoherent — it is an inevitable truth that the more articles one edits, the paler the main ideas become in comparison to the nitpicky details.

But even at the copy desk, my detail-oriented refuge in a turbulent world full of evasive bigger pictures, I am not completely free from the consequences of my tendency. Editing articles is only half of my job; the other half involves writing headlines and photo captions, which rely rather exclusively on main ideas.

Throughout the year and a half that I’ve been a copy editor, headline-writing has always been my relative bane. Compared to copy-editing articles, which tends to be a more meditative process, writing headlines and captions stresses me out. Articles say all sorts of things — how am I supposed to know which of them are important enough to go into the headline?

Perhaps this is all for the better. Because it forces me to eke out headlines whether I like it or not, working at the copy desk has probably improved my ability to get the gist of what I’m reading. Practice makes perfect, of course.

But to tell the truth, much of the time I still can’t really see the forest for the trees. And, come to think of it, I still have no idea what “pannikin” means — maybe I ought to look it up.

Nick Schwartz is an assistant night editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @NickSchwartz11.