More on the Joys and Sorrows of Being an Editor

By Jack Limpert

Yesterday I wrote about Ben Bradlee, the importance he placed on damage control, the kind of problems that editors have to deal with, and how an editor can avoid be driven crazy by it all.  Here’s more on the subject from Dick Babcock.

Dick grew up in Chicago, graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School, clerked for a judge in Washington, D.C., and then went into journalism, working as a reporter at The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey. In 1980 Ed Kosner hired him as articles editor at New York magazine, where he rose to become assistant managing editor. From 1991 to 2011 he was editor of Chicago magazine, which won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2004. Dick now teaches and writes, mostly fiction.  His three novels, all set in the Midwest, are Martha Calhoun, Bow’s Boy, and, most recently, Are You Happy Now? He lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Gioia Diliberto.

Here’s his take on damage control and what he liked and didn’t like about being an editor:

It seems to me there are two kinds of damage control, both of which I really didn’t mind: What you might call pre-emptive damage control strikes me as the essential job of an editor—from spotting the important issues in a story to vetting the difficult sections. Sending the reporter back for more reporting, playing out every reaction scenario, that kind of thing. After-the-fact damage control comes into play when the ship has already sailed. That includes the furious calls from the wounded subject, fending off the media reporters who think they see a hidden agenda, working out corrections and apologies as warranted.

Maybe I’m an idiot but I sort of enjoyed that stuff—even taking the angry calls. Usually, I thought we had a good defense for whatever we’d done. And if it turned out we didn’t—well, candor works effectively to diffuse.

What really pained me as an editor were the things that seemed utterly unproductive—that had little or nothing to do with creation. Working out the budget. All right, everyone needs to live with a budget, but does it really have to take days of bouncing back and forth and trying to nail down every line? Give me one big figure, and I will come in under that at the end of the year.

Personnel evaluations. Again, I understand the need—for legal reasons, as much as anything else. That written record of performance can come in handy in a tiny number of cases. But I ended up working within a big company with a complex form to be filled out annually that had little or no relevance to the actual jobs we were doing. I spent agonized hours trying to come up with thoughtful things to say. Meantime, we had a relatively small staff (20) and evaluations of one sort or another were going on all the time—with every story or assignment. No one ever came in to me and asked where he or she stood.

Company-wide meetings. Except for edit/art meetings when we were brainstorming story ideas or tracking the production schedule, I can hardly remember a meeting in a 30+ year career that wouldn’t have been more effective reduced to a one-half-page memo. Meetings are just invitations to gas and waste time.

The worst: Working out a mission-vision statement. Once, at a meeting to articulate a m-v statement, I was actually asked: If you were a zoo animal, which would it be? (I’ve repressed by now how I answered, but I hope I said a hyena.) And the m-v statement we came up with after three days buried in an oppressive hotel conference room? Tucked in a drawer, never to be looked at again. When I think of the hours of productivity wasted on this type of thing across corporate America in the last few decades, I look at the subprime mortgage meltdown as merely an economic blip.

Editing is great when you are actually creating something or tending to your creations. All the rest is just work.

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Note from Jack: Bow’s Boy is a wonderful novel. Here’s how Amazon describes it:

Every now and then, a small American town produces someone with such out-of-place talent that he seems to have come from a different world. In the 1960s hardscrabble town of Laroque, Wisconsin, seventeen-year-old Ginger Piper, a high school sports hero and a disarmingly poised and articulate young man, is that sort of figure. Or at least G. Bowman Epps—a rich, lonely, middle-aged lawyer—believes he is.

Bow is something of a town legend too: Ungainly and scarred, brilliant and stern, famous for great inherited wealth, he seems a vestige of a time gone by in a town where the legacy of past greatness—embodied in the ornate, decaying, and defunct opera house—casts a literal shadow. But when Bow discovers Ginger Piper, he is energized and inspired. Where others have seen merely a charming basketball star, Bow spies the seeds of something greater and the drive, intelligence, and passion to carry on Bow’s legacy as a groundbreaking criminal attorney. When Bow offers the boy a summer apprenticeship in his orderly practice, it is an investment in a certain future, and the initiation of an oddly matched friendship. But when Ginger is accused of a startling crime that changes the town’s perception of him, Bow is not only surprised, he’s also implicated, and forced to choose between his fierce sense of logic and his admiration for the boy.

The story unfolds as the first agonizing repercussions of the Vietnam War are being felt and the American people are struggling to comprehend a new kind of war. It inspires a startling division between the generations at home, as politics and personal lives inevitably collide.

Bow’s investigator, Charlie Stuart, narrates the events thirty years later, adding a perspective colored by tortured memories of his manic father and his halting pursuit of a young woman in town. Anchored by a compelling mystery, Bow’s Boy is ultimately about greatness, heroism, loyalty, and justice, and the pain and solace of family.

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