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To Edit or to Butcher -- That Is the Question

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2020 at 3:19 PM

Some thoughts about the writer-editor relationship.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Shakespeare once said: "I'll call for pen and ink and write my mind."

Do that. Let writers write their mind.

Remind them of their responsibility and your expectation, of course. But let them write their mind.

On matters of responsibility and expectation: these might well parallel what the late William Shawn of The New Yorker said he always looked for. "Honest writing," he called it. Writing that's more than effect, more than manners; writing that's straightforward, accurate, clear, truthful; writing that sees into a situation; writing of substance rather than merely attractive surface; writing with style."

But along with that, let your writers write their mind.

Don't Cramp Style

Fear not a writer's personality. Encourage it.

Certainly, copy the feel and mood of your publication. But be flexible. Permit a wider rather than narrower range for suitability. Demand quality, but accept variety of approach. Not all writing in a given publication should sound alike. (All too often, it does.) No piece of writing in fact, should sound like any other. If it does, the editor probably has gone too far, and formula has taken hold.

Be an editor. Be not a butcher or tinkerer. The butcher slaughters copy. The tinkerer fiddles with it endlessly and aimlessly or pointlessly. Be an editor. Build on a writer's strength. Pay allegiance to his ideas. And cut out stuff that seems to get in the way of her message.

The results of the writer-editor relationship should be an article that says what the author wants to say and in a way that the editor believes the reader would want it said. And as much of this with the knowledge of the writer. Let that lonely soul feel part of the editing process, buy into the editorial decisions being made.

A Collaborative Effort

As someone once put it, to be a writer is to be a talker, and to be an editor is to be a listener. That makes the writing-editing process a dialogue. The writer, through scripted words, does most of the talking. The editor, through reaction, does most of the listening. And if in the listening the editor fails to grasp, fails to get pleasure, fails to be convinced, then he has to talk back and make the writer listen. The best magazine articles and best magazines come from the collaborative cooperation of editors and writers.

Consider yourself the hired help whose task is to help the writer get everything right and bright and clear. Consider yourself a gatekeeper whose task, based on editorial policy, tradition, and intuition, is to invite and keep out. Consider yourself the maintainer of perspective. The writer is immersed in subject matter. The editor must stand back at least a step or two and consider thoughtfully what the writer's material means, what issues, what trends, what ramifications are involved. The writer deals in the currency of events. The editor deals in the currency of ideas.

Steven Gittelson, when he was articles editor for Chicago magazine, once told a class of mine that editors are "links between writers and readers." He said he always looked for articles that were "immediate, personable, and literate," for pieces "with a specific voice to establish a tone, for stories that unfold at a precise pace, and prose that unfurls with a precise cadence."

Gittelson labeled these sought-for components as fragile. "When editing a story," he said, "I must assume that the writer thought good and hard about each word, sentence, and paragraph. An editor must be even more sensitive to these elements. If you're worth your salt as an editor, you don't capriciously delete some sentences and rewrite others just because you would have said it differently. One of the best compliments an editor can receive is that he has helped an author say what was intended, but in a more clear and readable fashion."

Writer and editor collaborate in the fight to prevent the reader's ho-hum. It's a common attitude among those you consider your audience. They're neither pro nor con; they're non-committed, passive. To drive away the ho-hums and ignite the passion is the editor's grand challenge.

Perilous "P" Words

Watch for the dangerous "P" words. Warn against them. Weed them out.

The previous -- subject matter that suggests it was, so it shall always be in the pages of this magazine.

The predictable -- a lack of surprises in your publication.

The perfunctory -- work that shows evidence of having been forced out of writers or rather than having been there enjoy to originate and do.

The phlegmatic -- tired work.

The pedantic -- academese.

The pompous -- self-important boosting and boasting, phony loftiness.

The preachy -- soapbox or pulpit sermonizing.

The prevaricating -- speak the truth as you see it; don't lie.

The piddling -- cut stuff that's unimportant or likely to be interesting to the reader, even though it may be interesting to you.

The porous -- plug the holes in copy and coverage.

The precious -- material that’s simply too-too, that's unnatural.

The processed -- material that seems like fodder from an assembly line, lacking originality.

Advocate Exemplary Writing

Never forget as you evaluate copy, the reader must be served fully with every word, in every moment he or she agrees to share with you. Encourage discipline, the discipline to stick to subject, the discipline to make every word, every sentence fit, the discipline to leave out those words and sentences that don't, the discipline to remove those ideas and those pieces of information that prove non-essential, all this in your effort to inform and entertain the reader.

Strive in the evaluation/editing process for accuracy.

Strive for brevity, but completeness, too. What you offer the reader should answer all potentially proposed questions. Be aware of thoroughness in reporting.

Strive for clarity. As E. B. White once commented: "When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair."

Strive for flow. From sentence to sentence and idea to idea, let there be linkage.

Strive for structural integrity. Determine what sort of organization or plan best unfolds the information in each article.

Consider also the focus of the article under your mental microscope. That focus should point toward your particular readership and none else. It should make the article in every way appropriate for your reader. Determine whether everything in that manuscript is suitable for your magazine, the subject, and the reader.

Be alert for style, meaning the writer's personality hatched in words.

It is for you, the editor, to complete a writer's good work. That makes you colleagues. That makes you friends. Testy ones perhaps. But friends engaged in a common cause.

This article, first published in Editors Only for July 1994, was the late Peter P. Jacobi's first contribution to EO. We reprint it now in tribute to our longtime writer. Future issues will continue the tribute with a few more of his classic pieces.

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