The Case of the Disappearing Editors

We few, we happy few…

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August 24, 2019

A few years after I joined the Weekly Standard, then-literary editor Joseph Bottum asked if I was more interested in writing or editing. I said the latter. I never wrote for a school paper and only had a few clips at the magazine. Over time, I hoped to gain the confidence to make writing a full-time occupation. But until then, editing would be my safety net, allowing me to hide behind other people's bylines, looking for typos, grammatical errors, and eventually matters of style. Bottum gave me all sorts of advice, sharing various tricks of the trade, and went on to explain how he stole the hands off Healy's clock tower in Georgetown. Did I mention this was at a bar?

Shortly after that, my former colleague Christopher Caldwell asked a similar question. When I told him my focus was on editing, he wondered if anyone ever read a piece and thought, "Man, that story was so well edited!"

Probably only editors have thought that, assuming they're familiar with a particular writer's raw copy. Everyone else is oblivious, assuming an author never confuses "its" for "it's" or misspells the word "public." The only time editors come to mind are when the goofs do make it into print. "Who is your editor?" one reader recently demanded.

Editing was considered essential to the journalistic process, and I kept at it for the next 20 years. But a few months ago writer Nick Ripatrazone posed the question, "Is Line Editing a Lost Art?"

"Line editors tighten sentences when tension and clarity is missing, but they also give sentences breath when constrained," Ripatrazone writes in Literary Hub. "Beyond removing clichés, they excise a writer's pet words and mannered constructions. Line editors help sentences build into paragraphs, and paragraphs flow into pages. They keep a writer's eye and ear connected."

As for the difference between line and copy editors, Ripatrazone explains, "Copyeditors tend to polish and perfect work at a later stage. ... Often copyediting is done from a distance, but as with [Albert] Erskine and [Ralph] Ellison, [Robert] Gottlieb and [Joseph] Heller, line editors have a direct relationship with the writer."

(Unless, of course, the writer happens to be a nudge, in which case the editor will sympathize with Michael Kinsley, who famously said the best writer is one who files his story and then promptly gets hit by a bus.)

Ripatrazone quotes George Witte, editor in chief at St. Martin's Press, who points out that "many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done." But beggars can't be choosers.

The Internet revolution brought with it an insatiable need for content, much of it free. Who has time to edit when you've got to publish seven posts a day? And when declining ad revenue and falling circulation led to industry-wide layoffs, who best to eliminate than those pesky editors? After all, they're not even writing, and writers can simply edit themselves.

And so, journalism survives but at a price. The editors who remain perform a variety of tasks, from proofreading and line editing to commissioning and managing personnel. Trust me, we'll take what we can get.

But there is only so much that can be done. Something will eventually fall through the cracks: Over the years, for instance, reporters have quoted a man on the street who says his name is Heywood Jablome. Mr. Jablome has appeared in print in the Charleston Gazette, the Bergen Daily Record, and the New York Post. He really gets around.

From time to time I give talks on editing for the Collegiate Network. Among the lessons I try to pass on: Fact-check your own work, less is more (write shorter sentences), create transitions, and spend time with seasoned writers and editors, ask them questions, learn from them.

"A great teacher is a gift. A great line editor is a miracle," Ripatrazone writes, pointing to his mentor at Rutgers, Jayne Anne Phillips. "Her pen-marked copies of my manuscripts were concise lessons in form and function. … She conferenced with students the hour before our workshops. Those weren't superficial conversations; Jayne Anne did real work. She went through the whole story, sentence to paragraph to page."

I was similarly fortunate to learn from some of the sharpest editors around, including John Podhoretz (move up that nutgraf!), Claudia Anderson ("so-called" followed by a term in quotation marks is redundant), and Jay Nordlinger, who explained to me the difference between "that" and "which." On multiple occasions. Richard Starr taught me that sometimes the easiest way to fix a writing problem is deleting it. And Joseph Bottum shared with me the trick of ending a piece by looping it back to the top. In fact, I think he mentioned that to me at the bar.