Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Editor Appreciation Day

The last several posts have fallen in the "inspirational" category. However, I also want to make this blog something of practical use to you as well, and so for the rest of the week I've culled a few nuggets that I hope you will find helpful as you polish your own prose.

When I left Servant, my boss and mentor-friend Bert Ghezzi gave me a copy of William Zinsser's On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 1998). This classic guide on writing nonfiction, as it turned out, would have been of tremendous help to me on my first day of work at Servant ... but better late than never.

Today I'd like to share a passage in Zinsser's book about the value of a good editor that may be helpful for you to keep in mind the next time you are trying to negotiate what can be one of the most delicate ... yet, when it's done right, most satisfying, types of non-familial human associations: the relationship between an author and her editor. It's more of an art than a science, intricately tied to all kinds of intangibles such as personalities, expectations, past experiences, and future hopes. But when it turns out well, the results can be breathtaking. And so, I leave you reading from page 290.

Editors ... are they friends or enemies -- gods who save us from our sins or bums who trample on our poetic souls? Like the rest of creation, they come in all varieties. I think with gratitude of a half-dozen editors who sharpened my writing by changing its focus or emphasis, or questioning its tone, or detecting weaknesses of logic or structure, or suggesting a different lead, or letting me talk a problem through with them when I couldn't decide between several routes, or cutting various forms of excess. Twice I threw out an entire chapter of a book because editors told me it was unnecessary. But above all I remember those good editors for their generosity. They had an enthusiasm for whatever project we were trying to bring off together as writer and editor. Their confidence that I could make it work kept me going. ... There is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying a hundred inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read in two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences into short ones, putting the writer back on the main stage if he has strayed down a side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions, questioning matters of judgment and taste. An editor's hand must also be invisible. ... For all these acts of salvation, editors can't be thanked fervently enough.
The author goes on to describe how a bad editor does considerable harm by insinuating himself or herself into the author's content or style ... something for another time. (Or perhaps something to get you to pick up a copy of the book and read for yourself!)
In the meantime ... Is there an editor in your life who has been especially helpful to you? Why not forward today's column on to that person, and thank him or her for the work done on your behalf? (Thanks, Bert!)
UPDATE on April 20: I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank Kate Wicker for the lovely tribute that I found today on her new blog. Thanks, Kate!


Karen E. said...

Mike Aquilina was the first excellent editor I dealt with. As a novice writer, I submitted my conversion story to New Covenant -- it was twice as long as their guidelines specified. Mike kindly and deftly edited it down to fit their specs, and at first glance, I couldn't tell what he'd removed (very humbling to know I'd had so many extraneous words!)

Christine T. said...

Matt Pinto and Patti Armstrong were the first Editors I dealt with. They have become good friends and mentor's for which I shall always be greatful, for their advice and constructive criticism as well.

And I also appreciate all the other fine Editor's I have worked with...including our own favorite...Heidi, who has been very helpful and knows just the right things to suggest to help me tweek and article.

Heidi Saxton said...

This week as I've been writing about Tony, I can't help but think of an editor I worked with for about a year at Catholic Answers, Trask Tapperson. When I heard he died, several months after the fact, it surprised me ... but not as much as finding out he had died alone. (Surely not ... his angel was with him.) "Faithful" is a word I would use to describe Trask. May he also rest in peace.