Pete McGregor is one of those people who make you wonder what the hell you've been doing with your life. He writes, edits, takes photos, travels, keeps two blogs, does a lot of complicated-sounding outdoorsy things, and goes out of his way to be kind. He is also maddeningly logical, and I mean that in the best way possible. Over the last few years I've sort of harassed him into being my friend, and I'm better for it (and he is probably more tired for it.). Check out his blogs. Read his stuff. You'll be better for it. Trust me.
1. In the context of your work, which bits of minutiae matter most?
What's my work? To what degree could what I do be considered work? I write, I edit, I photograph and a lot more, but, of those things, the editing contributes most to my financial survival—or, to be more accurate—to the postponement of my financial ruin. So let's accept that what constitutes my work is nebulous, ignore the minutiae of definitions of work, and simply say for the purposes of this question, much of my work is copy editing. This necessarily concerns details: punctuation, grammar, spelling and the like. Whether these details are minutiae could be argued—often they're so critical for meaning they shouldn't be considered minutiae (with its connotations of trivia—trivia being another matter altogether)—but in at least one sense they're small: therefore, minutiae. It's important to get these right, particularly when editing scientific or other academic manuscripts (the bulk of my editing): as anyone who's had to check APA style will tell you, academic pettifoggery reaches its apogee in the formatting of reference lists for science journals. On the other hand, many aspects of punctuation and grammar are debatable, so in more forgiving contexts what's important is less to get the minutiae right than to ensure that if you're going to get them wrong, at least to get them wrong consistently, thereby giving the impression that the error was deliberate.
The reasons these editorial minutiae are important are, first, that they're often essential for clarity or emphasis, and second, that one is paid to get them right. If neither reason applies, they don't matter and correcting them is a waste of time one could spend on important things like writing, photographing or living.
2. Which bits matter least?
Briefly staying with copy editing: if a punctuation mark makes no difference to the meaning or clarity of the writing, it matters only if it's required by a particular convention (a journal's style or a client's stipulation, for example).
More generally, minutiae that lack context (trivia, perhaps?) seem largely pointless and sometimes irritating. For example, knowing that C3PO was the first character to speak in the Star Wars films or that Captain Jean-Luc Picard's fish was called Livingston has little other than mostly mindless entertainment value for me, but if these were answers to questions at the Celtic's quiz night they might matter a great deal, particularly if knowing them facilitated the winning of a bar tab. To use a more powerful but fictitious example from Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal's knowing what Lord Rama holds in his right hand mattered a great deal. These examples (and other reasons, about which I intend writing) encourage me to be wary of dismissing knowledge of any kind as “useless”. On the other hand, minutiae that confuse rather than accentuate or enlighten are worse than useless (I'd give an example, but can't right now think of one).
3. In the context of your life, what types of minutiae once seemed important, but have since fallen by the wayside? Why?
I used to work for one of New Zealand's large science research organisations. Much of my work there entailed administrative tasks justified on grounds like the need for senior managers to maintain awareness of the organisation's efficiency, effectiveness and morale; however, these tasks impeded my ability to do my primary job: science research. Perhaps these tasks were necessary—without them the organisation might have gradually deteriorated and my research would then have been impeded by different organisational failures—but at the time it seemed my effectiveness was curtailed by the need to attend to minutiae ostensibly intended to improve my effectiveness.
However, those minutiae did not fall by the wayside. I abandoned them deliberately by choosing to live a different life: one not involving working for an organisation.
4. What types of minutiae, if any, have you had to train yourself to pay closer attention to?
None I can think of. Even the copy editing seemed to come naturally. Typos, grammatical errors and infidelities, and errors of punctuation seem to leap off the page. I make mistakes but I trust they're rare (they're more common in my own writing than in work I've edited, but that's to be expected).
5. Just for kicks — what are your favorite bits of minutiae (personal, from a book, a piece of music, a movie, etc.)?
Whoah, that's a big question. Where do I start? The more I notice details, the more I realise they so often say so much about the larger world: paradoxically, big ideas or pictures are often best revealed through detail. This is especially true of writing and photography. Examples and analogies are ways we understand: examples are details of larger ideas; analogies often so. By writing about or showing in a photo the detail of water streaming over a rock, or of an old woman's weathered hands, one creates a sense of something larger: in these cases, the river or the woman's life. Chains on an elephant's legs suggest something about that elephant's life beyond the chains and the legs. Understanding the power of details encourages me to pay more attention to details—what's happening in the background of a movie; what a writer mentions, ostensibly for no particular reason; or a quotation that seems to encapsulate part of life (most recently, Nicolas Bouvier's statement in The Way of the World: “Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you”).
But what are minutiae? Detail at one scale constitutes the big picture at another: the bristles on a robber fly are details of the fly, the fly is a detail of a summer afternoon, the summer afternoon is a detail of seasonal life in the Pohangina valley. Perhaps the world is only minutiae—or do minutiae not exist?
Thank you, Pete!