Editors at Work: It Was More Fun With Colored Pencils

By Jack Limpert

In a Sunday New York Times review of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Charles McGrath wrote:

Pinker is not as pithy as Strunk and White: There’s nothing in his book to rival their succinct, often-quoted dictum “Omit needless words.” But his book is more contemporary and comprehensive than “The Elements of Style,” illustrated with comic strips and cartoons and lots of examples of comically bad writing. His voice is calm, reasonable, benign, and you can easily see why he’s one of Harvard’s most popular lecturers.

He means to take some of the anxiety out of writing, and when it comes to questions of grammar and usage, he’s a liberal, much looser and more easygoing than the copy editors at this newspaper, for example, whom he would dismiss as “purists.” At several points in “The Sense of Style,” Eleanor Gould, the legendary grammarian at The New Yorker, would have written in the margin, as she used to on proofs that particularly exasperated her, “Have we completely lost our mind?”
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Editors were known to write comments like that on galley proofs. At The Washingtonian, most stories went through three editors: the editor who worked directly with the writer and did the first edit, then the copy editor, who mainly edited for grammar and consistency, and I almost always did a final edit. One of my roles as editor was to look for potential legal trouble and sometimes a story was put on pause while we ran something by the lawyers. Sometimes I raised clarity issues and often did some cutting—I liked to think I could take a story going 50 miles an hour and make it go 70.

In the pre-digital age, as the galley went from editor to editor, we used different colored pencils so we knew who was saying what. I used blue—I never went anywhere without a couple of blue pencils in my shirt pocket. The story editor usually used a regular lead pencil, and the copy editor used a red pencil. When we were finished editing, some galleys had a wonderful multi-colored look.

And sometimes there’d be a comment similar to Eleanor Gould’s “Have we completely lost our mind?” Harold Ross, the legendary New Yorker editor, liked to write “Who he?” or “What the hell do you mean?” on galleys and I sometimes used those. Our state of mind as editors was that the three of us were talking in pencil to one another and we could be sharp-edged because only the three of us would see it.

Sometimes we used a version of “This is an affront to Western civilization” or “Block those adjectives” in notes. Dick Victory, one of our editors, once was wrestling with a story that had a lot of good reporting, writing, and thinking but there was something wrong with it. Dick finally came by and said, “I’ve figured it out—English is not his native language.” That line lived on in galley notes.

We also had a “DB list” and suggested in galley notes that a writer maybe should be on it. Being on the DB list meant over my dead body will we ever use this writer again. But that mostly happened if we discovered that a writer was too careless or not truthful with us. Just being an arrogant jerk didn’t put a writer on the DB list—if writers are good enough, it’s the editor’s job to live with it.
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The pre-digital age ended in the early 90s and after that all our editing was done on Apple computers. They made editing faster and easier, but they changed the way we talked to one another.

Yes, an editor could make digital comments in a story that other editors would see but it was different. With pencil and paper, we felt we could send messages to one another and no one but us ever would see them. Once the galleys were tossed, the black, red, and blue notes were gone forever.

Editing on computer was wonderfully efficient but it dawned on us that once you put that acerbic-caustic-profane comment into a story, it was there forever. There were many conversations in the early digital days when I’d tell someone not to write something like that about a writer or a story and they’d say, “No problem, I’ll delete it.” It took time for everyone to understand that once words are in the computer they’re there forever. Our lawyers liked to remind us that the first thing the plaintiff’s lawyer will do is ask for all e-mails and other communications about a story.

We missed the privacy of paper and pencil. No more letting out our frustrations with comments like “This guy thinks everyone is guilty until proven innocent” or “She thinks she’s getting a dollar a word for what she writes not what we publish.” No more tearing up that galley so no one would ever see what, in our dark moods, we really thought of the writer or the story. When we sat down at the Apple computers, we knew we had to be more careful what we said.

I still like to write with a blue pencil. That kind of editing was fun while it lasted.

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