Learning to Write: What Working as an Editor Can Teach You

By Julian Faith

Taste in writing is largely determined by taste in reading. In my case I was the son of parents who had literally no books in their house but read two newspapers every day. I was an only child with lots of time on my hands and about age 10 discovered The Hardy Boys, then John R. Tunis, then Max Brand, then Zane Grey, then O. Henry, and then Hemingway, by which time I went off to college and thanks to the prompting of a couple of very good professors discovered a wider world of literature, much of it non-fiction.

Newspapers used be good training grounds, especially if you slipped into editing early on. But if you stayed too long in one place rut-think could set in. I moved around quite a lot, having worked at six newspapers in one period of 20 years. Magazine editing can be another good training ground for coming to understand how to write interestingly. It is worth noting how many former editors, whether at papers or magazines or publishing houses, became excellent writers late in their careers.

I have come to believe that John McPhee’s work is the finest guide for any writer of non-fiction. Style, clarity, curiosity, breadth of vision—nobody can touch him. His classes at Princeton must have been priceless.

I love the idea of writing fiction but haven’t been successful at it. I tend to over-plot. Good advice I’ve come across: “Follow the accident, never the plan.” This from John Fowles. A fellow English novelist, John Braine (Room at the Top), wrote a useful book about writing fiction.

The utility of learning to write through editing is that you learn from someone else’s mistakes—and, if attentive, you learn from the writer’s successes too. The challenge is not to be so annoyed by the ugliness of writer error that you’re blinded to the beauty of writer achievement.

Julian Faith worked mostly as an editor and quit more than one job because of frustration with writers, who sometimes quit out of frustration with him.
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From Jack Limpert: I’ve asked about a dozen journalists the “How Did You Learn to Write?” question and will post their answers in the coming weeks. If you have a story to tell about how you learned to write, send it to [email protected] along with a line or two about your writing background.

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