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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

What you get when you work with me

The Baltimore Sun

You’re the writer; I’m the editor. Here’s how it goes. My job is to make you look good.

That’s why you can count on me to go over your text looking for typographical errors, repeated words, subjects that don’t agree with verbs, mistaken homonyms, minor errors of fact, and the other little slips that all of us are prone to. I’ll make sure you have clean copy.

Because I am also looking out for the interests of the reader, I’m going to react like the reader and ask you questions. What does this term mean? Can this idea be expressed in ordinary language? Are you assuming that I have information I don’t have? I’m having trouble following this passage; can you explain it to me? Are these things in the right order? Where did this come from? Who says so? Do you need this cliche, or is there a more effective expression?

We’re employed by a publication, so I have its standards in mind. I enforce house style. Sometimes it’s silly and there’s wiggle room, but sometimes you’re going to have to take it. If you turn in forty column inches and your article is assigned to a page with twenty column inches of space, you’re going to have a twenty-inch story in print. (For less severe trims, I can make cuts—deleting superfluous words, compressing phrases—that you will not even register in the final text.) And if the editor in chief says he doesn’t like it, it goes out.

We are colleagues, not rivals. A battle for supremacy will serve neither of us well. If we have a disagreement over wording or style or organization, I will listen to you and expect you to listen to me. I will not rewrite your text as I would have written it, but they gave me this job because of my demonstrated taste and judgment. You’re free to act against medical advice, but you should be aware that it’s risky.

We almost always work differences out, but, again, we are employed by a publication with lines of authority, and all decisions can be appealed. You should be aware that I seldom take a case to the Supreme Court, but when I do it is with arguments I have marshaled and expectations that I will prevail. I usually do.

And when the thing we have worked on is published, and praise and awards shower down, you will get the applause, as it should be. You had the idea, you did the research, you confronted the blank screen and found the words to put on it, you get the glory.

I’m not the mother; I’m the midwife.

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