Sunday, September 16, 2007

Writing for Style: Let Us Now Praise Editors 3

By Gary Kamiya from Salon

In an odd way, the exchange between writer and editor encapsulates the process of growing up. The act of writing is godlike, omnipotent, infantile. Your piece is a statement delivered from on high, a pronouncement ex cathedra, as egotistical and unchecked as the wail of a baby. Then it goes out into the world, to an editor, and the reality principle rears its ugly head. You are forced as a writer to come to terms with the gap between your idea and your execution -- and still more deflating, between your idea and what your idea should have been.

This isn't easy. You have to let go of your attachment to the specific words you've written and open yourself to what you were aiming for. You need enough confidence in yourself to accept constructive criticism, some of which can feel like your internal organs are being more or less gently moved around. More than just about any other non-artistic activity -- therapy and, yes, sex are possible exceptions -- being edited forces you to see yourself, or at least what you've written, the way others see you. It is a depersonalizing process in some ways, yet having to stand outside yourself deepens you as a person. You need to grow a thick skin in order to have a thinner, more sensitive one.

The good news is that you're not (yet) throwing yourself on the not-so-tender mercies of the readers, but putting yourself in the hands of a smart, sympathetic reader who only wants to clean up your dangling participles, remove your factually incorrect assertions, and turn your Rod McKuen-like treacle into something fit for public consumption. At a certain point, most writers realize this and come to truly value their editors. (Some authors, weary of what they see as a serious decline in the quality of editing in book publishing, go so far as to hire their own editors.) That doesn't mean that the relationship isn't capable of going wrong, or that a writer doesn't inwardly pop a bottle of champagne on those occasions when an editor sends a draft back with next to no changes.

Actually, some writers -- especially old-school reporters -- come to rely on editors too much. Every editor has had the experience of being the recipient of the dread "notebook dump," in which the disjointed, undigested contents of a month's reporting are dumped from a notebook onto the page. At this moment, the editor has to rip off his meek Clark Kent disguise and reveal himself as a writer or, more accurately, a rewriter. (Rewriting someone else's prose, no matter how convoluted or illogical, is never as hard as writing your own. It's still more like knitting or doing a jigsaw puzzle than inventing something.) It isn't just notebook dumps that require massive rewriting, either -- sometimes even good pieces by good writers go off the tracks in really weird ways, and an editor gets called in to clean up the mess, like Mr. Wolf in "Pulp Fiction."

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