'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 E. McIntyre, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #367

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"


About the Author

John E. McIntyre, Writing for Grammar Girl

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