Friday, March 29, 2013
Everybody Needs Editing
Not too long ago, I tossed off a brief Facebook post before leaving the house for a few hours. It was intended to be a sardonic followup to a blog I’d recently posted, but apparently it didn’t come across that way.
In this case I didn’t check mail while I was out, and when I got back found a message from someone whose opinion I value, who had been confused and even disturbed by the Facebook post. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of those situations where you don’t argue or ask questions.
Immediately I went to Facebook and deleted the post, which fortunately hadn’t received any comments or “likes.” Then I replied to my correspondent, thanking him for calling the problem to my attention; thanking him again for doing it by email rather than commenting on my post and spreading it farther; and explaining what it meant, which, I think, reassured him that I had not completely lost it.
Then I began thinking of the late Ward Bushee, Jr., one of my great mentors at the newspaper.
The View From a Fresh Eye
Ward was — and this is an understatement — a great copy editor. Even when he was familiar with the elements of a story, he had the ability to look at it with a fresh eye and imagine how a less knowledgeable reader might react to it. He forced reporters to tell a story clearly and simply, and to leave no holes in the tale, into which a reader could disappear and be lost.
His persnickety questions could be infuriating at times, and he was occasionally wrong (or so I thought, anyway), but he had a complete and unwavering grasp of what was involved in making a story comprehensible, no matter how complicated the subject matter might be. No one who worked for him came away from the experience without having become a better writer — often a much better one.
After I had been at the paper about six months, and established a basic level of competence, Ward gave me a story to edit. It was one of his own; though primarily an editor, he would cover an event or write a feature from time to time. Halfway through it, I came across a sentence that didn’t make sense to me and asked him about it. I’ll never forget the response.
No One Is Exempt
“Well,” he said, after re-reading the passage and marking it up to fix the problem, “that just goes to show you. Everybody needs editing.”
Of course, and one of my great laments about writing and publishing today is that there seems to be less and less editing going on. A couple of decades ago, cub reporters used to be able to get guidance from the editors at smaller papers; these days they’re lucky if a story they write is even run through a spell-check program before being published.
Editing deficiency is rampant in the book world as well, and I’m not just talking about typos in self-published $2.99 Kindle books. The sorts of embarrassing tone problems I described in the first paragraph are creeping into mainstream, big publishing house literature. A few years ago I read (or started to read) a mystery by a really big-name author, who had created a character with a name that was a dyslexic version of an outhouse obscenity. Perhaps it seemed funny and clever over drinks the night before, but the author should never have still loved it in the morning. If the copy had gone through Ward, it wouldn’t have been allowed, and I’d like to believe the author would be grateful today.