Editors at Work: How Harold Ross Did It

By Jack Limpert

There aren’t many good books that describe how editors actually do their jobs—the best I’ve read is Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel. Ross edited the New Yorker from its founding in 1925 to his death in 1951, and Tom’s book captures how Ross hired and fired, how he edited and motivated, how he built the magazine into something that lasted.

One of the treats in the book is an internal memo written about 1937 by Wolcott Gibbs titled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles.” Kunkel says, “Though it has passed into New Yorker legend, ‘Theory and Practice’ was a working document and fairly reflected the magazine’s guidelines and tastes of the time.” Yes, it’s dated, but some of its wisdom is worth reading today. Here are samples from the memo that show Ross’s influence:
Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page, recently, I found eleven modifying the verb “said'”: “He said morosely, violently, eloquently,” and so on. Editorial theory probably should be that a writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he’s dead.

Word “said” is OK. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting “grunted,” “snorted,” etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.

Our employer, Mr. Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences begin with “and” or “but.” He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.

I almost forgot indirection, which probably maddens Mr. Ross more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects, or places or people, being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a Profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying, “His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings.” Should say, “He has a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.” Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.

The more “as a matter of facts,” “howevers,” “for instances,” etc., you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Some of our writers are inclined to be a little arrogant about their knowledge of the French language. Probably best to put them back into English if there is a common English equivalent.

Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talking, not writing.

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