A Hard Thing About Being an Editor

You have to love your writers but love your readers more. Some writers can’t understand or forgive that.

Comments

  1. Barnard Collier says

    Dear Jack,

    Seconded.

    I feel lucky to have edited a few writers who did understand, including Art Buchwald, Isaac Asimov, Lili Wright, Jaime Dantas, Pablo Neruda (in English), Cherokee Rose, and several scientific writers, plus a few novelists whose names are as yet little known but whose work is good.

    One characteristic of the all the best writers stands out: They’re easy to edit.

    Their take was: “I want my stuff so clear anybody can understand it, and if Barney gets it, anybody can.”

    I can’t recall the last time such a best writer quibbled or fussed if I asked them to suggest a better word or phrasing. They are passionate about clarity and appreciate precision. If a better idea pops up they grab it without hesitation. They do not fall in love with their clever but weak bon mots, and they do not mourn their disappearance.

    My job was to help them to unfuzz the too fuzzy, to sharpen the dull, to brighten the banal, to encourage them to pick the better word to replace the next best, to make sure their phrases were laid in the most beneficial order, to suggest the erasure of excess verbiage, to make the small changes that accentuate positive rhythms, to spot the sins of omission and help them rectify them, read the whole shooting match, out loud, to learn if proper punctuation lets the presentation truly trip trippingly off the tongue.

    For me, editing got to be like cooking. After preparing about 100,000 meals as a restaurant chef, I pledged I would never cook again for anyone I didn’t love. I’ve kept the pledge.

    After editing a million or so words, I eventually pledged never again to edit a less-than-best writer. I won’t break it.

    Barney

    .

    .

  2. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Was Art Buchwald a news reporter? I remember — I think from Ben Bradlee’s A GOOD LIFE — that Buchwald was based in Paris and in part covered the Cohn-Schine trip to American cultural center libraries in Europe. He was either based at International Herald Tribune or a wire service’s Paris bureau. But was he a humor columnist at the time?

  3. barney collier says

    Art Buchwald was a brilliant reporter whose insights were pure and clear enough to be almost always funny.

    I got to edit his columns thrice weekly when his office was just down the hall from the New York Herald Tribune bureau in Washington, where I worked. For reasons long forgotten, Art trusted my opinion to understand when he was missing the truth or just skirting. He always knew when he hit the bull’s eye. As payment for my labors, Art taught me to play a very vicious form of gin rummy, lessons for which I also paid quite dearly at 1/10th of a cent a point.

  4. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Thanks for the education.

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