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Are Editors Evil? Part I

Dear Friend of Frank,
   "If my experience is any guide," writes my pal Richard, "editors are there to kill you."

   And he's just warming up.

   Referring to my TouchPoint Press editor, Richard goes on:

   "Warning: Like all editors, she will be ruthless and uncaring and imperious, with no imagination or sympathy or kindness, with blinkered vision and a hard heart. Given half a chance, she will kill the best things you write. Kill them and be oblivious to what she is doing. Your heartfelt pleas will avail you nothing. She will be deaf and dumb and stupid. She will slash and burn. Wear a hazmat suit in her presence and carry a flame-thrower."

Sylvester Stallone, doing his thing.


   Richard doesn't know my TouchPoint editor, not even her name. He has never met her, never spoken nor emailed nor texted nor communicated with her in any fashion. He's just having fun here.

   It's serious fun though. Richard knows whereof he speaks. During an illustrious career, he wrote editorials for the Chicago Sun-Times, Des Moines Register and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, much of the time from Washington DC bureaus. His copy went through many hands.

   So has mine. I was a reporter,  writer and, yes, editor at many news organizations including The Associated Press, the Washington Post and my own publishing companies. I'm retired now, writing novels, and once again I am working with an editor at TouchPoint, which will issue my "Chicago Trilogy" novels sometime next year. I've been thinking a lot about the editing process, thoughts I'd like to share.

Is Richard Right?

   Resolved: Editors are sons-of-bitches, out to do you dirt. Let's start there.

      Richard's editor, hard at work.
   The obvious answer ought to be no. Why would they? Assuming you are the writer/reporter/author, isn't the editor's interest the same as yours: to help your copy sing?

   The actual answer is no/yes/maybe/it depends.

   Editors can be lots of things: facilitators, polishers, killers; acquirers, rejecters; spell-checkers and grammarians; cops; bosses with bosses of their own; human beings.

   That last is where the fun starts.

   Because in this relationship, that only-human editor has all the power, at least at the outset. And you know how humans can be when you give them unlimited power.

   Consider the roles. Assume you're the writer/reporter/author. The editor's job is to improve your work. That's problematic right there because your work already is ... perfect. I mean, it is, right?

   Now assume you are the editor. You have these piss-ant writers tugging at your skirts. One or two know what they're doing but the rest are bozos. You are under pressure yourself – to keep things moving, to send good stuff up the line – and you've been doing this long enough to know that your judgment is better than the average writer, your experience deeper, and probably you're a better writer too. Not to mention smarter.

   You see the problem.

   Two problems actually.

·       The writer's problem is humility. Everything can be improved. This is something writers learn over the years ... or don't. Looking at you, Richard.
·       The editor's problem is humanity. Being a drill sergeant may work in the military, where it's all yessir and nossir, and it can be satisfying to persons with ego issues. But it doesn't work so well in creative workplaces, where other egos may be fragile too and work products often are viewed the way a mother views her newborn.

   After all, this relationship really is – or ought to be – about improving things. That's the editor's role. He* is there to put his judgment, experience, talent and brains to work helping the good to become better.

   *For simplicity's sake, I'll use "he" going forward instead of "he/she/they."

What Editors Do

   There are a lot of ways to help the good become better.

   At the base level, there's copy editing and proofreading. Proofreaders check spelling and grammar; copy editors do that and more. A good copy editor sends a clumsy locution back to the author or rewrites it himself; catches 'missed leads,' e.g. where the story starts in the wrong place, and advises (or imposes) improvement; identifies potential legal liabilities such as libel; and sometimes kills stories outright.

   Moving up, there are boss editors. In a journalistic setting they have titles like foreign editor, national editor, city editor. They make assignments, generate story ideas, deploy manpower, hire and fire, deal with emergencies (there are always emergencies), go to bat for their people or discipline them. They're drill sergeants, coaches, cheerleaders, mentors, confessors. They can even friends.

   Above them are big-boss editors with titles like managing editor, executive editor, or just plain Editor with a capital E. They set policy and direction. They may hire and fire. The buck stops with them.

   There are other sorts of editors. Acquisitions editors acquire stories and books and cultivate writers. Celebrity editors do god-knows-what but they do it awfully well, viz. the New Yorker under Tina Brown and now David Remnick.

   And the lines aren't always clear. Book editor Maxwell Perkins, legend has it, discovered Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Thomas Wolfe, then may have rewritten Wolfe's work. The celebrated minimalist author Raymond Carver didn't start out all that minimalist-y, the story goes; his editor Gordon Lish allegedly invented and imposed the style that made Carver famous.

   Next: How it's gone for me.

Frank S. Joseph, author, the Chicago Trilogy

P.S. I have a new website! Visit www.frankjoseph.com for the latest news on forthcoming publication of the entire Trilogy from TouchPoint Press.

P.P.S. And don't forget to use my new email address going forward. It's frank@frankjoseph.com.


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