'The Old Editor Says'
Find out why John E. McIntyre says in his new book, The Old Editor Says, that reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.
John McIntyre, author of the blog You Don’t Say and a veteran editor at The Baltimore Sun has published a delightful little book of writing and editing maxims, The Old Editor Says. Today’s podcast presents some representative maxims and additional comments.
The Old Editor says: Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.
When veteran Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez was temporarily assigned to the metro desk, this was his verdict after his first week’s experience, and from this observation several conclusions can be drawn.
First, from your editor, as from your butler, there are no secrets. If you have allowed yourself to be lazy, careless, turgid, or sloppy, there is no concealing it.
Second, everyone—everyone—is capable of shoddy work, especially in the first draft. That is why writers need editing, not just self-editing, but editing from an independent set of eyes.
Comment: Elsewhere, The Old Editor writes: “You surely understand that a writer who operates without an editor is like an aerialist working without a net. Even the Flying Wallendas occasionally take a tumble, and, with respect, chances are excellent that you are not a Wallenda.”
The Old Editor says: Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says “Waste my time”?
My former colleague Ursula Liu sums up sources of frustration shared by editor and reader alike: The writer who simply dumps a notebook into an article, without troubling to sort out the significant from the insignificant. The writer who circles around the same point repeatedly. The writer who can’t quite figure out what the focus of the article is. The wordy writer. The intoxicated-with-my-own-burnished-prose writer. The tell-them-what-you’re-gonna-tell-them, tell-them, tell-them-what-you-told-them writer.
Readers who discover that they bear that tattoo have one quick expedient, and they are not shy about resorting to it. They stop reading.
Comment: Barney Kilgore of The Wall Street Journal said, “The easiest thing for a reader to do is stop reading.” No one feels obligated to read what you’ve written. You have to earn the reader’s attention, sentence by sentence.
Next: What to Do When Your Writer Makes Sense
The Old Editor says: Always honor the writer's intentions. If they can be discerned and make any sense.
When you are the editor, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s the writer’s story, not yours. Your task is to assist the writer in accomplishing his or her purposes, not substituting yours.
That said, remember T.S. Eliot; “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” Few writers achieve their purpose without assistance. So you are obliged to divine exactly where the author set out to go, and when the author wanders off the path or gets entangled in underbrush, you will have to clear the way.
Comment: This entry echoes Wolcott Gibb’s famous advice to New Yorker editors: “Always respect an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.”
The Old Editor says: “Said” suffices.
Most of the time—nearly all of the time, in fact—it is fine to use said for attribution to quoted matter.
It is seldom, if ever, necessary to write that someone added, blurted, disclosed, explained, mumbled, quipped, wheezed, or whined.
Comment: The Old Editor allows an exception for Ring Lardner, who wrote in “The Young Immigrants”: “Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly. Shut up he explained.”
The Old Editor says: Giving a reporter a thesaurus is like giving a toddler a loaded handgun.
The restlessness that leads to multiplying synonyms of "said" is a symptom of the tendency that H.W. Fowler disparaged in writers for “elegant variation”: Such writers, he said, are “intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly.”
Their hands habitually twitch toward the thesaurus, by which they contrive to expand the sophistication of their prose, without recognizing that they are substituting pretension for precision.
One such writer moved The Old Editor to the composition of haiku:
Proud reporter asks, / “Don’t you think it’s lyrical?” / Shoot me in the head.
Comment: One of the other forms of elegant variation is the needless paraphrase or epithet. The classic example is “the elongated yellow fruit,” by a writer striving to avoid repeating the word banana. Homeric epithets are best left to Homer.
Next: That Big House Probably Isn't "Stately"
The Old Editor says: If the house you're writing about isn't Blenheim Palace, don't call it “stately.”
Inflate your tires, not your stories. You’re writing about some vulgar mini-mansion erected in what was a cornfield two years ago, inhabited by some jumped-up jobber who made a pile by flogging shoddy goods to the unwary, paid for this architectural excrescence, and allowed it to be decorated by his third wife, who is “artistic.” They may be what pass for gentry in your neck of the woods, but you needn’t write about them as if they claimed kin with the Cavendishes and the Spencers and the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts.
Comment: This isn’t just about the word "stately." It’s about the writer’s temptation to make the subject, and thus the writer, look more important. And it’s a violation of the old injunction from fiction writing: Show, don’t tell.
The Old Editor says: Be suspicious of all one-sentence injunctions about writing and editing.
Those “rules” of grammar and usage you were taught were often misguided or flat wrong. (Split infinitives freely. Put prepositions at the end of sentences.) Those “rules” from whatever stylebook you use aren’t statutory; they’re guidelines. One-sentence exhortations, the ones in this little book included, are not adequate for the complexity of experience.
What you need is judgment. And for that, gentle reader, you are on your own.