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Writer, editor, and intimacy

Last week, when I posted about training oneself to be an editor, someone commented on Facebook: "I'm curious, does any part of editor training involve breaking it to people gently? I would be surprised if it did, but I think that would be the hard part of editing, handing/sending back the document without making the writer want to quit writing."

Writer and editor experience an odd intimacy. Much as professionals school themselves to think that the text is an artifact, a product rather than an extension of the self, that text is still a personal expression. And the editor knows, or should know, that questioning or altering that personal expression, however necessary, risks pricking the writer's amour-propre.

For writers and editors involved in the production of books or extended projects, the intimacy comes to resemble a marriage, with a history and shared understandings. (We know, too, that there are good and bad marriages, the latter often foundering in veiled resentments, passive-aggressive responses, and open breaches.)

But even in an operation like a newspaper, where a handful of remaining editors deals with scores of reporters, where a reporter after finishing one article must hurry on to the next, and where the copy editor may handle the work of a couple of dozen writers in a day's shift, a degree of intimacy remains.

If no man is a hero to his valet, no writer escapes the eye of her editor. We on the desk see the rough product. We know, and applaud, the writers with an eye for the apt metaphor, the skill to select and present the telling detail, the clear and succinct voice. We also see the writers who are careless or sloppy with factual details, who produce slack and rambling prose, who can no more resist a cliche than a drunk can stay away from the bar.

We know their strengths, we know their weaknesses, and they have few secrets from us, at least in their writing.

That means that we have to develop the tact that marks a good marriage or a close friendship, the trust that enables us to speak the painful truth about the work to the writer. It is the kind of intimacy that enabled Ezra Pound to be blunt with T.S. Eliot as he excised whole chunks of The Waste Land. I assume that Maxwell Perkins must have had extraordinary tact to get Thomas Wolfe to go along with the reduction of half a dozen pages to a single sentence.*

I have told people before that your editor should be like the friend who advises you that you have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe, just before you walk up to the dais to receive your award. Better to suffer a moment of private discomfort than endure public embarrassment.


*Readers owe Maxwell Perkins a huge debt. I recall thinking, years ago during an attempt to slog through Look Homeward, Angel, what Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost: no man ever wished it longer.



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