Monday, September 17, 2007

Writing for Style: Let Us Now Praise Editors 4

By Gary Kamiya at Salon.

It's good fun now and then to tear apart a piece and put it back together on a short deadline. Your brain is humming like a Ferrari, you've got sections marked A and B and Z and arrows going everywhere; you're rewriting the lede, racing through tricky transitions, doing some fast spot-reporting, getting rid of clunkers from every graf, and pulling together this whole 4,000-word piece in six hours. When you're done, you emerge from your office with smoke pouring from your ears. You've earned your salary and you pour yourself a well-deserved drink. You won't get any fame and glory but as an editor you don't expect any.

Some writers and editors work like this all the time. If a great reporter who can't write has a killer line editor, and they have a good rapport, it's much more efficient to work this way than to make the reporter agonize over how he's going to modulate his conclusion and the editor tiptoe around him. Not every reporter has to be a great writer. Conversely, some people who are good at moving other people's words couldn't pick up a phone, or write a piece themselves, if their life depended on it. This is why in the old days newspapers had "legmen" and "rewrite men." Sometimes I think it might not be a bad idea to bring them back.

The worst-case scenario for an editor is dealing with a writer who by talent should be a legman but who has somehow gone through his career remaining blissfully unaware of this fact. And, I suspect, some writers are aware, but like cunning parasites that attach themselves to larger animals, they ride through their careers clinging to their long-suffering editors. Years ago, I was handed a piece that was written in some unknown language, between Esperanto and pig Latin. Seizing my Rosetta stone, I descended into the foul-smelling cave and emerged hours later, having successfully translated the cryptic runes. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that the writer had used "his" piece to get a job at a good magazine. All I could do was laugh and say a little prayer for whoever would be editing him.

In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.

Still, editors and editing will be more important than ever as the Internet age rockets forward. The online world is not just about millions of newborn writers exulting in their powers. It's also about millions of readers who need to sort through this endless universe and figure out which writers are worth reading. Who is going to sort out the exceptional ones? Editors, of some type. Some smart group of people is going to have to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the more refined that separation process is, the more talent -- and perhaps more training -- will be required.

We already use other readers to sort things out for us: My bookmarks are mostly referrals from writers I've learned to trust. Some utopians may dream that an anarcho-Wikipedia model will prevail, that a vast self-correcting democracy of amateurs will end up pointing readers to the most worthwhile pieces. But that is only "editing" in its crudest, most general form -- it's really sorting. In the chaotic new online universe, the old-fashioned, elitist, non-democratic system of sorting information will become increasingly important, if only because it enforces a salutary reduction of the sheer mind-swamping number of options available. The real problem is glut, and it's only going to get worse.

In any case, real editing is something different. It takes place before a piece ever sees the light of day -- and it's this kind of painstaking, word-by-word editing that so much online writing needs. If learning how to be edited is a form of growing up, much of the blogosphere still seems to be in adolescence, loudly affirming its identity and raging against authority. But teenagers eventually realize that authority is not as tyrannical and unhip as they once thought. It's edited prose, with its points sharpened by another, that will ultimately stand the test of time. There is a place for mayfly commentary, which buzzes about and dies in a day. But we don't want to get to the point where the mayflies and mosquitoes are so thick that we can't breathe or think.

The art of editing is running against the cultural tide. We are in an age of volume; editing is about refinement. It's about getting deeper into a piece, its ideas, its structure, its language. It's a handmade art, a craft. You don't learn it overnight. Editing aims at making a piece more like a Stradivarius and less like a microchip. And as the media universe becomes larger and more filled with microchips, we need the violin makers.

So here's to you, editors, whose names never appear on an article, who are unknown except to their peers and to the writers who owe you so much. Keep fitting those delicate pieces of wood together. Use the skill it took you years to acquire. Don't give up and just slap the thing together. Make it light and tight and strong so that it sings. Someone is noticing. Someone is reading. Someone cares.

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