The Writer’s Best Friend

Editors are the best thing to happen to writers since the pencil. Blue or otherwise.

Toiling anonymously, practically in secret, the editor’s work on the writer’s text is almost invariably an improvement.

Truth be told, I haven’t always thought or felt this way. Back when I was both perfect and pithy, I’m certain I didn’t. Sadly, those days are long gone and I currently find myself imprecise and not always as coherent as I suppose.

An early experience with a daily newspaper editor taught me to get to the point. After crossing off my two lede paragraphs – almost certainly Pulitzer material – he growled, “You’re clearing your throat.”

I’ve used his expression myself. And without any attribution, anecdote or verbal footnote to indicate that it’s someone else’s cleverness, and not my own. And now, for the first time, here it is: the gentleman was editor for the Sunday magazine at the Trenton (NJ) Times.

Back then, when my writing was pristine, I suspect there was resentment when an editor fussed with my text. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Handing in a story about an art exhibition, the editor went to work, working-over the crystal-clear report peppered with interesting anecdotes and marvelously funny-while-insightful asides that would have made the late Tom Wolfe envious.

I wish.

In a huff, I withdrew the story from publication consideration. A day or so later, I bumped into the editor at an event. “Have you reconsidered,” she asked. “Nope,” I replied, “Have you?”

One doubts there’s a statute of limitations on snottiness.

Sending the story to a competing publication, I smiled with satisfaction upon receiving the acceptance letter. Vindication! All that disappeared when I read the published story, complete with errors and poor phrasing that any competent editor would have caught. And fixed.

One friend, a literature professor (you know, the people whose discipline is fiction – which is not what I write), must have run through a dozen red ink pens on one of my book manuscripts. My propensity for asides was such that he was compelled to inform me that I had exhausted my lifetime quota of em dashes and that setting off parentheticals inside (and brackets within those) was a violation bordering if not on a felony, then a high misdemeanor. Twenty years later, for another book project, he seemed to have barely dipped the quill into the pot.

What? That’s it, I wondered. Nothing else to change? Or suggest? Huge disappointment.

I suspect I’m a better editor than a writer. Or at least it’s fun to fancy that. Regardless of accuracy. And the fact that I still cannot diagram and label a sentence. And having edited, with or without the invitation of the writer, now possess another conceit.

Editors are writers best friend because no one is the wiser. Readers don’t wonder. (“Gee, who do you suppose edited this?”) They simply appreciate the narrative.

As they should.

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