John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You don't want your editor to be your chum

Your editor is your friend, but not your pal.

Your friend knows your strengths and your weaknesses, and is able to tell you a few home truths.

When I first took on the authorship of The Sun’s monthly copy desk newsletter, I inherited the title “Sgt. Friday’s Report.” The gimmick was that it came out on the last Friday of the month and led with a short narrative in which Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon discussed various writing and editing misdemeanors.

I thought that I handled the device adroitly, with some very droll passages. But when I took it to Dudley Clendinen — then an assistant managing editor — he shook his head. A little puzzled by it. Not sure how it worked or was meant to work. Maybe try something a little different.

I went away, and as I looked at my text, a terrible light dawned. It was not droll. It was labored. And, worst of all, not funny. I realized that Dudley had done me a great service. He had, in the friendliest way, told me something that I badly needed to hear.

Often when editors fail, it is because they misunderstand the relationship with the writers and want to be pals rather than friends. “Hey, buddy, anything you do is A-OK with me. Everything is jake.”

This does not do the writer any good. Buddy-editing lets just anything slide through, and the writer is not held to any particular standard. A colleague on the copy desk once marveled at the low-grade writing of a veteran Sun reporter: “Why, he’s had twenty-five years’ experience!” I muttered, “No, he’s had one year’s experience twenty-five times.” Not one in a succession of editors had held him to any higher standard.

There’s a degree of moral cowardice in slack editing, too. Editing done properly is hard work, but it is even harder to confront people with things they don’t care to hear. If the writer is inept or temperamental, it’s easier just to pass the stuff along — what on a different occasion I referred to as peristalsis rather than editing.

A friend expects the best of you, and you exert yourself to do your best to honor that friendship. When you need an editor — and all of you do — look for a friend. If you want a buddy, go to a bar.

5 comments:

  1. Well said, John. I'll look back at this on the frequent occasions when I feel that I, as an editor, have no friends -- because I'm an editor.

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  2. Amen. No writer is above the pencil.

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  3. Spectator: Except, of course, people writing comments on blogs, who don't get the benefit of editation.

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  4. A good editor doesn't understand what the average reader won't understand. The toughest question an editor can ask is, "What are you trying to say?"

    The problem is that editors can be wrong, even as reporters can be wrong, and when an editor is wrong, the mistake gets in the paper, under the reporter's name. It's a crime that reporters often don't know what words will appear under their names the next morning. Many mistakes could be averted if they did.

    There's something wrong with a reporter who wants an editor for a pal, and vice versa.

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  5. Amen to Patrick Lackey's comment that editors can be wrong. As a reporter I had the infuriating experience several times of seeing dumb stuff under my byline that I didn't write. Now, as an editor, I think twice about changing things without checking with the writer. Just today I had the thought "they can't possibly mean that" while editing a sentence. But I checked with the writer and she DID mean that (the sentence did need a little clarification to make the point better).

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