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April 02, 2008

On Editors

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some people consider me to be a pretty good editor. Well, the folks at the government agency where I used to work did. I suppose that's because I was able to strip out most of the governmentese phrasing, get the logic properly oriented and call attention to phrases that might cause us trouble if published or otherwise read by the wrong people. I was less skilled regarding the mechanics of grammar, however. Spelling, too.

And when I was in Korea, I was nominally the editor of the 7th Logistical Command's newspaper.

I'm not very fond of editors.

Editors are a necessary evil. I think that most writers really aren't very good at evaluating their own work, especially immediately after they finish a block of writing. Someone with a fresh eye is usually necessary. For works in progress, this is often The Long-Suffering Spouse. For scholarly works, the extra eyeballs come in the form of colleagues or peers. But, eventually, the writing meets up with an editor.

I wrote a book 30-some years ago, and the editing was minimal. Maybe that was because the subject matter was technical and an editor with the required knowledge wasn't available. I think the book suffered thanks to that production defect.

On the other hand, I used to contribute articles to American Demographics magazine and sometimes could hardly recognize any of my verbiage when the printed version arrived in the mail. I don't think what I had produced was all that bad -- a little trimming and polishing would have been good enough. What bothered me about the heavily-edited stuff was that it had my byline, and by that point it was barely my work. I didn't gripe much because I was running a tiny business at the time and needed all the publicity I could get.

For many writers, an important joy of blogging is that one can write without having the copy vetted by an editor. The downside is that a lot of the writing isn't nearly as good as it could be: I sometimes cringe when I reread some of my 2Blowhards postings.

Dean Barnett, who now writes for the Weekly Standard, mentioned that his policy was to wait at least 20 minutes before posting a blog item. I think that's a good idea, even for the political blogging Barnett does, when there is pressure to get commentary out the door as fast as possible while topics are still hot.

For what it's worth, I try to give a piece as many re-reads as possible, even when I need to post something soon. But waiting is better, and I breathe more easily if I can let an article sit overnight or even for a few days before going live.

I suppose that makes me my own editor. The quality of my copy probably suffers, but at least I don't take the criticism personally.



posted by Donald at April 2, 2008


Some years ago I began to ask myself who, among well-recognised authors of the last century, wrote the worst sentences. Just that: the worst sentences. The top of my black list would read something like this: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Lawrence Durrell, George Steiner, Simon Schama and Camille Paglia. Big prob: if most of these guys - with hardly a decent sentence between them - are regarded as critical luminaries, then who's minding the store? Quis Custodiat?

None of these authors writes ungrammatically or with incorrect spelling. The problem is an insatiable need to remind the reader of their presence by adding some verbal gesture or figure...relentlessly, sentence after sentence. Their authorial charisma seems to let them go unchallenged, by editors and public alike. The study of Flaubert and his pupil Maupassant wouldn't go astray - and I'm not talking lit-crit here, I'm talking about good bloody sentences!

Or maybe they needed the services of that 'editor of the 7th Logistical Command's newspaper.'

Posted by: Robert Townshend on April 2, 2008 9:17 PM

The job must require enormous forbearance and a rhinoceros hide.

No good deed goes unpunished is the escutcheon emblazoned over his office door.

Half the job consists in simply saying, "Cut it, cut your deathless prose," to the writer blindly enamored of his work.

An editor has to be enough of a child to wax enthusiastic about a writer's strengths but adult enough to sternly avoid indulging a writer's weaknesses.

No wonder great editors are few and far between.

Posted by: ricpic on April 2, 2008 10:26 PM

Page after page of Kingsley Amis is fine, and then he'll write a bit of reported speech that needs rereading a couple of times. People do say things that make perfect sense when heard - because intonation, stress and rhythm help the hearer - but are ambiguous or tricky when read. Should his editor have intervened?

Posted by: dearieme on April 3, 2008 7:27 AM

Editors and editing ... Funny things. I've worked with a lot of editors over the years. The good ones are great -- sympathetic to what you're doing, committed to making it even better, and skillful enough to see how. Then there are the journeymen -- people who know what a standard piece of writing is (for a technical manual, or a specific kind of magazines, or whatever) and who are skillful about crowbarring anything into that template. It sounds like that's what you were subjected to at American Demographics. Then there's a variety of crazy, useful, and inept ones -- frustrated writers, dealmakers, fantasists. I love getting a good editing and interacting with a good editor. The problem, as far as I was concerned, was that there are so few of them. Finally I decided that the batting average was so lousy, and the rewards were so lousy, that it simply wasn't worth the bother of putting up with them at all. Been blogging unedited ever since. Whee.

Plus there's something else that's happened over the years, which is that the balance of power has moved from writers to editors. The editor these days isn't typically helping talented writers deliver quality prose. He (or more likely she) is designing a magazine issue, or putting together a season of books ... Making deals ... Negotiating with agents and celebrities ... They have less interest in what the writer has to contribute than they do in what they themselves are creating -- the package, the publications, etc. The idea of "serving the writer" or "serving writing and reading" has pretty much gone out the window, as far as I can tell. So, as a writer you're either on board with the editor's schemes or you're bye-bye.

Exceptions allowed for, of course, but as far as I can tell those exceptions are fewer and farther between.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 3, 2008 10:39 AM

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