Behind every good writer

I am the type of person who reminds her friends constantly that she loves them a lot. The obvious and common reason is that I’m very glad they’re in my life; they’re fantastic people. The other reason I do it is because most of my friends are one of two types of people: 1) journalists or 2) people who are brilliant but can’t write an essay or report for the life of them and definitely need a second pair of eyes to make sure all the ideas come across clearly. Both kinds of people end up on the receiving end, either intentionally or unintentionally, of me editing something for them.

There is a lot of give-and-take in this, however. There are friends I will hand my own stuff to without a second thought because I know that despite the fact I think they like me, they will tell me exactly what is wrong with my copy and what needs to be changed, and they won’t mince words either.

So I read this piece with a lot of interest. My favourite part is this following section, probably because it reinforces the idea that I’m coming to terms with, is that behind every good writer is a very good editor.

“How disillusioning to discover that (Big Name Writer)’s article doesn’t arrive in perfect form, that thoughts may be muddy, that insights may be unobserved … and that an editor actually pushes the writer to think, to make the changes, or wades in and makes the changes on his/her own, usually after discussion with said BNW. It is a bruising business, and only the highly articulate need apply. The goal, after all, is to say something worth killing a tree for.

“…And yet, the recent crops of interns seem to learn less and less from the edited copy turned back to them for perusal. I tell them that the reason for changes should be self-evident and to ask about a change if the reason isn’t apparent, but seldom does anyone inquire. You mean they might have something to learn. What a quaint idea.”

In this case, the one thing I have going for me is that I can be very competitive. Someone is as good as me or better than me? I won’t back down. I want to be just as good as them. In some cases, when I realize that there is a lot they can teach me, I will take every chance I get to pick their brain and strive to emulate them. During my internship, it became my own game to see if I could decrease the number of CP Style errors I had in my copy each week. I took a little bit of glee when I could find a CP error in my editor’s copy — who rarely ever slipped up — but more than anything, I just wanted my copy to be clean, like his. During the final proofs, he would take a yellow highlighter to the changes, to make sure he didn’t miss anything, and so the following day, when the paper was out and things were a little quieter around the office, I would ask him for the discarded proofs, so I could see how many yellow marks there were in my copy that week. When I saw him about a month ago, one of the things I was really happy to tell him was that my CP has improved by leaps and bounds.

In school, there was another editor on the board who used to tease me about the pains I went through to get some of the second-year copy into working shape. Despite our different views on the matter, we became sort-of friends, but I don’t think he ever admitted to understanding why I took the time I did to edit the copy into something decent. To his credit, he taught me how to relax about an unclear passage at 11 p.m. when there’s not a chance I’m going to be able to talk to the reporter, but I’m still glad I didn’t give into him insisting I relax completely. I still get frustrated when people don’t understand that the solution I’m proposing is just an alternative — they don’t necessarily have to do it my way, but I want them to at least take a step back and look at the way they’ve done it and then maybe we can find a comprimise between the two, because there’s obviously something wrong if I’m stumbling over the passage and have to suggest an alternative in the first place.

Finally, I like to do things quietly. People who know me know I don’t always need a lot of recognition, and if I can do something good for someone else to make them happy without them knowing, I think that’s perfect.

On the other hand, I have definitely uttered this passage, nearly verbatim (many times) before: “Try complimenting an editor sometime about a good piece in his publication, and you’re certain to get this eye-rolling response: ‘You shoulda seen it when it came in!'”


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