Flashback: How Editors Can Help Writers Do Great Work

Screen shot 2014-05-10 at 1.19.23 PMBy Jack Limpert

A post from a year ago about how two editors tried to help writers.

A few  days ago I posted “How a Writer, With Some Help, Learned to Do Great Work.”  It was based on the book, Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, and most of that first post focused on Kidder and his writing. This post focuses on Richard Todd and his life as an editor, plus some comments about what I learned as an editor.

1. Todd on writers:

I was once on a panel with another editor, who said the most extraordinary thing. Asked why she went into publishing, she said, “Well, I just really like writers.”

Imagine liking writers! I mean liking writers as a class of people. Safecrackers or jugglers or dental hygenists, sure—but writers? Writers are by nature narcissists….In a way they have to be narcissists, at least while they are working. To maintain the concentration and self-belief necessary to see one’s project as preeminently worthy generally requires a distorted sense of reality.

2. Todd on editors:

Editing is a wifely trade. This is a disquieting thought for editors, certainly for male editors, and in a different way for some female editors, too, but editing does involve those skills that are stereotypically female: listening, supporting, intuiting. And, like wives, editors are given to irony and indirection.

3. Todd on whether editors also should be writers:

To write can have a good or a bad influence on your editing. Being edited makes you more sensitive to the way in which the editorial hand, so innocuous seeming when you are wielding it, can cause pain. On the other hand, if you think of yourself as a writer, you may too easily imagine that the answer to another writer’s problem is your own fine prose.

4. Todd on whether an editor should rewrite:

Editors, in any medium , should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting. Revision by an editor never works as well as when the writer does the work. If editors do add words, they should try to maintain the author’s style and idiom, in the spirit of those signs you used to see at dry cleaners: “invisible reweaving.” The surest way to do harm to a piece of writing is to impose one’s own style on it.

5. Todd on the most important work an editor does:

Editors need a hierarchical sense of a manuscript, book, or article. They need to see its structure, its totality, before they become involved in minutiae. A writer should be on the alert when an editors starts by fixing commas or suggesting little cuts when the real problem resides at the level of organization or strategy or point of view….Editors ideally can see and hear prose in a way that the writer cannot.

The best thing an editor can do is to help the writer think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.
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Some of Good Prose is about the Kidder-Todd collaboration at The Atlantic, the magazine where the writer-editor relationship started and blossomed, and some is about the books that Kidder wrote and Todd edited. Here are some of my thoughts about editing—with my perspective that of editing The Washingtonian for most of my career.

1. It made zero difference if I liked or disliked a writer—all that mattered was what appeared on the printed page. I had editors who didn’t want to use certain writers because they were too pushy or too needy—it’s not an editor’s job to enjoy the writer’s company. An editor liking the writer too much is a bigger problem—I’ve seen lots of editors let writers they liked get away with work that should have been better.

2. A wifely trade? And, like wives, editors are given to irony and indirection? Maybe that depends on your marriage. Writing is hard; editing is easier. When I write, there’s always some writer’s block, some worry about whether I can take reporting, research, and ideas and make something worthwhile out of it. Writing is hard until you get published, and then it’s often worth all the anxiety and effort. When I had something to edit, there was no editor’s block, not much reason to worry that someone would read the story and think, “That story was badly edited.” Todd is right that good editors want to be helpful and supportive, they need to be patient and good listeners, they provide fresh eyes and perspective. And, yes, they have to remember that the writer is more important than they are.

3. I always liked editors to do some writing as a reminder that writing is hard. I had editors who got so worn down by writers that they developed almost a contempt for them. I once heard an editor talk to a writer, slam down the phone, and say quite loudly, “Dumb beast.” Writing can drive people a little crazy; the editor should write often enough that you remember that going a little crazy sometimes comes with the territory.

4. I almost never changed the wording in a story. My goal was to speed things up, to take writing that was going 45 miles an hour and make it go 70. Then I’d ask the writer to fix any problems that couldn’t be cut. Some writers thought I cut too much:  “You’re taking away my style!” My unspoken rejoinder was, “Overwriting is not a style.”

5.   The most important part of the editor-writer relationship comes early: What kind of piece are we going to try to do? How are we going to do it? What kind of background research? Who are we talking with? How long will it take? What’s the main idea? What kind of head might we put on it? We were in it together—the writer got the byline and maybe the glory, the editor got a regular paycheck and the satisfaction of helping.
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Good Prose is a thoughtful and helpful book, the best I’ve read on the writer-editor relationship as it is today. It’s a good companion to Editor of Genius, Scott Berg’s wonderful biography of the early 20th century book editor Maxwell Perkins.

If you have suggestions for other writer-editor books you’ve found helpful, please send me a note at [email protected] or leave a comment.

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