What Editors Think Of Writers -- The Most Honest Advice Ever By Gina Barreca (Part Of A 10 Part Publishing Series)

6 years ago

“What do editors want?”

Adding to our discussion of real-life experience in the world of publishing, the fourth voice we’ll hear is from the Editor-at-Large of an internationally known and well-respected magazine, one with a professional as well as popular readership. A successful author in her own right as well as an experienced editor, “Hanna Errant” (her alias, as if you couldn’t tell) maps some unnerving changes in the publishing industry over the last twenty years:

“Young hopefuls stream into our offices wanting to write. A few are lucky to be selected as interns. They will write short pieces, help bloggers with their posts, open the many packages of books and perform other high-minded tasks for months, hoping a staff position opens up.

What is notable about these would-be writers is how crest-fallen they are when their first writing efforts emerge from the editors’ hands. A typical piece might bear the handiwork of two editors, one junior and one more senior. And even though the pieces are short, much has been done to them to improve them. And so, on a typical day, I might find an intern bawling in the ladies’ room moments after I have turned back to her the edited version of her copy. No one has ever told her before that she isn’t perfect. And yet, the recent crops of interns seem to learn less and less from the edited copy turned back to them for perusal. I tell them that the reason for changes should be self-evident and to ask about a change if the reason isn’t apparent, but seldom does anyone inquire. You mean they might have something to learn. What a quaint idea.

Nor does anyone much bother with research, even the minimal research of checking the archives to see what was done before on any given subject. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, right? Not these wannabes. There is no yesterday. History is irrelevant, even for stylistic purposes. I’m not sure what they read. Correction: whether.

Yet, a little humility would be in order. One such young-un was proofing a longer article and marking errors. Fine. A good training task, accustoming the eye and perhaps the ear to polished copy. But when the marked up proof was run by me to make sure the suggested changes were indeed fixes and/or improvements, I was astonished to see words such as ‘postprandial’ marked as bad word choice, when they were clearly in the writer’s style and used appropriately. The proofer simply hadn’t encountered such a word before and marked it for excision. These, by the way, are not 10-year-olds. They are 20-somethings. And the array of words they have never encountered is astonishing.

The biggest shock to their increasingly delicate systems occurs when they actually see Big Name Writer’s copy emerge from the hands of an editor. How disillusioning to discover that BNW’s article doesn’t arrive in perfect form, that thoughts may be muddy, that insights may be unobserved…and that an editor actually pushes the writer to think, to make the changes, or wades in and makes the changes on his/her own, usually after discussion with said BNW. It is a bruising business, and only the highly articulate need apply. The goal, after all, is to say something worth killing a tree for.

Once, when teaching the magazine editing unit of THAT publishing course, I handed back to the students the assignments they had turned in to me weeks earlier, in preparation for this day. I edited the copy exactly as if it were going into the magazine I was then editing. The students were stunned into silence as their copy was returned, with questions, comments, and lots of red marks (instructors were still permitted to use red pens then, however much they highlighted students’ errors). ‘But it’s no longer mine,’ said one of them, whose copy in fact bore fewer rather than more marks.

Call it separation anxiety. They cannot separate themselves from what they produce, do not see the need to try to be objective about it, to evaluate it by any criterion other than ‘I produced it. Isn’t that enough?’ Literature…c’est moi.

I used to think that publishing weeded out the weak ones. Now I think it just weeds out the poor ones, the ones who can’t afford a couple of years of internships.

It may be that over the past decade the best minds went into finance and law, and publishing got the bottom of the barrel, but there were always some who aimed for publishing from the time they toddled. It will be interesting to see what shifts there may be in the quality of newcomers, as finance and law lose their luster…or is it lucre.

But I think everyone now has the (largely mistaken) idea that they can write. Whether or not they have something to say. It is a generational thing.

There seems to be a confusion of typing and writing. There always was (all those monkey-keyboard jokes that used to make the rounds), but now that EVERYONE types and has at least one keyboard with them at all times, the distinction seems blurrier than ever.”

(Originally published on The Chronicle of Higher Education, Part 4 in a Series of 10)

By Gina Barreca

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Twitter @TheGinaBarreca

Credit Image: Rameshng on Flickr

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