The Last Word

Editors—Friend or Foe?

Editors—Friend or Foe?

By Robert Rietz

Why are writers and editors sometimes depicted in movies as natural enemies, like a cobra and a mongoose? Doesn’t the editor strive to make the writer’s work crisp and understandable without altering the underlying message? Don’t they both aspire to have the writer’s words jump off the page?

Editors in movies, such as The Post (2017), are often shown wielding a blue pencil with wild abandon. They’re portrayed as transforming the writer’s blood, sweat, and tears from drivel, in their opinion, to prose worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In Michael (1996), William Hurt confessed the reason he lost his job as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune: “I hit the managing editor.” Asked why he would commit such a reprehensible act, he replied, “He changed my lede.” That answer turns out to be a lie. Watch the movie, my all-time favorite, to discover the truth.

Eric, the editor-in-chief of Contingencies, need not fear a similar reaction from this columnist. Eric’s edits on my submissions exhibit a “light hand,” which invariably improve the article, and he is always willing to discuss his modifications. I do note, however, he has not, to date, changed my lede.

I’m approaching the end of my project documenting my aunt’s experiences as a Maryknoll nun in rural mainland China in 1950. Two editors, so far, have reviewed the text—a developmental editor and a line editor. Who knew editors, like actuaries, have differing disciplines? [Editor’s note: I did.]

The developmental editor caused the biggest rewrites, from start to finish, twice. Her advice improved the chronicle from a recitation of facts to a gripping saga (I hope) of my aunt’s near-death brushes at the hands of her communist captors. The two versions tell the same story, but the developmental editor’s guidance brought my aunt’s struggles to life.

The line editor also raised the quality of the narrative, which is now a credible recreation of communist repression 63 years ago. Her suggestions on dialogue—“Women don’t talk like that,” or “She would have expressed herself differently”—humanized my aunt. The text became internally consistent concerning geographical descriptions, character names, and village locations.

Both editors could have pleased their client with milquetoast advice, praised the raw manuscript, and progressed to their next assignment. However, each of them was blunt and adamant in their recommendations, and they explained the reasoning behind them. Are editors governed by a code of conduct, like actuaries? If so, there’s no doubt these two complied with it.

Neither editor spent much time on typos, spelling, or grammar. Online editing software identified and corrected most of those, plus provided metrics involving repetition, voice, filler words, sentence length, paragraph length, etc. A professional proofreader, yet another specialty among editors, will be the next (and last?) editor to leave her imprint on this story.

I need a specialized proofreader, someone who is an expert on the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). This 1,144-page tome is gospel for novelists, while I’m told essayists prefer the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. Once a writer chooses a style, like I chose CMOS, the decision determines formats throughout the text. Mixing styles in a work is a grave error, akin to wearing plaid pants, a madras shirt, and brown socks with black shoes.

An example illustratesone of the thousands of differences between the two writers’ Bibles. CMOS instructs authors to spell numbers up to “one hundred,” and round numbers above that, like “five thousand.” AP directs writers to spell numbers up to nine, and to use numerals beginning with 10. Eric uses the AP Stylebook, an appropriate choice for this magazine. He kindly accepts many of my CMOS choices, with the treatment of numbers being a notable exception.

(Eric and I did find ourselves on opposite sides of a controversy in 2016, a difference of opinion that took almost two weeks to settle. Cleveland pastries never tasted so delicious as when my Cubbies prevailed over his Indians in the seventh game of the World Series—in extra innings, no less.)

I’m not sure where or why the stereotype of writers and editors arose. I have experienced only positive interactions with editors, and they’ve always improved my final product.

But none of them has changed my lede.

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