When a Writer Says, With a Smile, That Some Editors Should be Shot

Screen shot 2014-06-12 at 9.49.12 AMBy Jack Limpert

Bill Geist, a wonderful writer for newspapers and television, appeared with his son, Willie, at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest last Sunday to talk about their new book, Good Talk, Dad, in which they exchange lots of good father-son stories.

The conversation was moderated by Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who at one point asked Bill Geist about “the different joys of writing for print and for television.” From 1980 to 1987, Geist had written a twice-weekly column, “About New York,” for the New York Times; he then went to CBS where he has contributed to the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes and become a regular on CBS Sunday morning.

Geist said, “I like print more because you get more room. Wherever I’ve written anything it’s always been too long. Some editor who should be shot…”

Kogan interrupted and said, “Most editors should be shot.”

Geist: “Thank you, I’m glad we agree on that.”

They were smiling when they said it but the conversation does cause an editor to reflect on how you work with writers and how much you edit them.
Here’s one writer we didn’t edit at The Washingtonian; this is from a 2012 post:

Robert Hughes, 74, the art critic and author, died August 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. The New York Times described him as “eloquent and combative,” adding “It was decidedly not Mr. Hughes’s method to take prisoners.”

Hughes wrote one story for The Washingtonian. Published in 1989 and titled “Art & Intimacy,” it was about the Phillips Collection, a small but much-loved art museum in the nation’s capital. The story’s lede: “Everyone who loves early modern art loves the Phillips Collection and envies Washington for having it.”

Howard Means, an editor at the magazine, dealt with Hughes and the story, which ran about 6,000 words. One of those words had never appeared in any book or magazine I’d ever read. Being a believer in clarity and in Harold Ross’s favorite question—”What the hell do you mean?”—I suggested we change it.

The sentence in question: “And yet the Phillips has never lost its aedicular quality, its gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art.”

Howard remembers it this way: “You almost fainted when I sent the manuscript your way without removing that word. You wanted to rewrite the front of that sentence as ‘And yet the Phillips has never lost its nicheyness’—or something like that. I countered that Hughes was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments.”

Howard also remembers, “We might have changed eight words in the entire piece he sent in and even those caused great rumblings and trepidation.”

Howard, as usual, was right about aedicular. Can you imagine Robert Hughes getting an author’s galley where an editor had inserted something like nicheyness into his vocabulary?
But very few writers get the Robert Hughes leave-it-alone treatment. Those who did had very distinctive voices—like Hughes, George V. Higgins, or Ward Just.

More common was the writer who thought he had a special voice. One fairly successful book author, on seeing our edited version of one of his magazine pieces, complained to an articles editor, “You’ve edited the style out of my story.”

She came to me with the complaint and all I could say is that overwriting is not a style.

As for Geist and Kogan wanting to shoot all editors, sure, plenty of editors can’t let copy go through without adding or subtracting. I always thought the best approach was to almost never add—don’t insert your words or do much changing of words. If there’s a clarity problem, ask the writer to fix it. With the reader in mind, I did subtract, sometimes with a vengeance, and most writers accepted that as the price to be published.
I asked Ken DeCell, a longtime editor at The Washingtonian, if he saw writers the same way. He answered: “It seems to me that different editors have different ways of working with writers, and some editors have different ways of working with different writers.

“Some editors do a good bit of back and forth, others tend to make the changes they think should be made and, in the margins—or these digital days, in notes—ask the questions they think need to be answered. At bottom, the editor’s job is to help both the writer and the reader, and when that’s made clear, most good writers seem to appreciate it.”

Ken adds this note: This brings to mind the time my friend Bill Dunlap, a wonderful artist and a pretty good writer, did a piece for us on going to Italy’s Amalfi Coast to sculpt a bust of Gore Vidal. We titled the piece “Bring Me the Head of Gore Vidal.” (The bust does now or will soon adorn Vidal’s tomb in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery.) When Bill dropped off his author’s galley at our offices in downtown DC, on the outside of the manila envelope this declaration was written in block letters: “The poor damn adjective doesn’t stand a chance down at 19th & L.”
The Bill and Willie Geist conversation was broadcast last Sunday by C-SPAN as part of its every weekend book coverage. You can see it here, along with lots of other coverage of books, on C-SPAN’s website.

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