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Open Letter

Mind if I pick the scab off your discussion of good versus evil in the world of editors? I'd like to dig a bit deeper before a final dab of Neosporin is applied.

To recap, Rich is best known for his authoritative political newsletter and blog chronicling Illinois state government, The Capitol Fax. He now also writes an Op-Ed column for the Sun-Times. Eric is a veteran metro columnist at the Tribune and pioneered columnist blogging there - his is now called Change of Subject.

Last week, Rich noted on his blog that Sun-Times Editorial Page Editor Steve Huntley is shifting positions to concentrate on his own column. According to Rich, Steve Huntley "has been a great editor - meaning he approved all my column ideas and never touched my copy."

Eric responded in his own blog that he believes "a great editor is not just a middleman with a rubber stamp."

Fruitful ground to be plowed, or whacked at with sharp implements, or blown up. Dangerous, though; what if you criticize editors and end up with a typo? I've asked my current editor, Steve Rhodes, to look at this letter very closely indeed. Ironically, then, any badly written editorial jabs will be an editor's fault too.

First, full disclosure: Rich, we've never met. I'm taking liberties by addressing you in a familiar tone. Eric, you're a long-time pal and literally the most reasonable person I've ever known . . . so you won't be offended by portions in which I side more with Rich. Since you put up with our mutual friend Neil Steinberg calling you names in print, I feel confident in having plenty of latitude. (Let me know if you'd prefer some new insulting monikers, though - I can always add them in later, thanks to the beauty of Internet publishing.)

I know Steve Huntley. Steve Huntley edited my Sun-Times Op-Ed column for four years. You are no Steve Hunnn - wait, that doesn't work. Start over.

I think Rich was probably employing a wee bit of hyperbole when he declared that Steve "never" touched his copy. Steve would not let stand a split verb. If I sent him a column with the same lede as this letter, I would expect "pick the scab off" to become "pick off the scab." Still, I agree with Rich in spirit, which spurred me to wallow into this.

I was sure if I ever sent Steve something factually incorrect, he'd catch it. That's why I triple-checked every fact I sent him. I was absolutely terrified of sending a mistake to an editor at a major daily newspaper. (Actually, I'm terrified of sending mistakes to any editor, anywhere.) Fear of editors is good; knowing they exist as a safety net, when fear is not sufficient, is nice too. This is the editor's most basic and important function. Also, as Eric put it, "a great editor" can "help you say exactly what you want to say in the best way possible."

But Rich is his own editor and publisher most of the time, so he's used to filling that role himself. And the reason I, too, think fondly of Steve as "never" touching my copy is because of all the equally important things he didn't do. Most editors I've known, like Steve, have resisted the following temptations. I just wish it was all of them.

REWRITING. There are editors who don't understand that a rather large point of columns is for the writer to have a distinctive voice. If that voice is no good, get a new columnist.

When an editor asks me for one or two changes, I automatically agree, or rework the sentence myself to our mutual satisfaction. Eric said "a great editor does touch your copy, though lightly and with Midas' fingers". Yes; and you want to cooperate with editors who have that light touch. But occasionally great editors may also choose to keep their hands to themselves.

Problem editors change 50 percent of your words, rearrange all the punctuation and strike every adjective. Or adverb, if that's the part of speech they personally abhor. Then the process becomes editorial flea market bargaining - I'll take this change, if you'll leave that alone. Writing should be more valuable than a flea market purchase.

Sometimes editors must rewrite extensively for new writers, lazy writers and bad writers - but then none of these types should be writing a regular column. (To be clear, even seasoned writers expect more editorial nip-and-tuck on longer articles. It still shouldn't become a rewrite.)

Am I picky writer? Yes. I don't understand writers who are uninterested in the craft of writing itself. I recall the case of a local columnist whose unedited column appeared in one edition of the paper, while the edited version appeared in another. As reported by the Reader's Michael Miner, the difference between the two versions was astounding - a testament to what a great editor can accomplish when duty calls. Later, the columnist merely admitted to being a writer who recognizes the need for editing. Well, kudos and combat pay to that editor. In such cases, however, you have to question who should get the byline.

I think the best writing takes place if you're convinced, when you hit "send," that every word and comma should be set in stone. Of course it's not true - but if you don't think it's true, then you should go over it one more time. Hence, if you're doing your job, you may experience an initial tug of resistance to perfectly fine editorial suggestions. That little tug need not interfere with the editing process. You take it into account and compensate, as if adding ballast to a boat. A little mental ballast helps read an edit with a steady mind. The time lapse between "send" and a return edit helps too. Even a half hour can make you look differently at a semi-colon.

Picky writers may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but isn't that better than ghost writing someone else's work?

SCREWING UP FACTS WITH POINTLESS REWRITING. Editors can insert mistakes by simply rearranging words in a sentence, and for no apparent reason. It's happened to me. To this day, if someone should pull up a particular column from a particular archive, I sound like an idiot. Don't even ask me which column. I can't stand thinking about it.

SCREWING UP JOKES WITH POINTLESS REWRITING. See above.

MAKING CHANGES WITHOUT TELLING THE WRITER. Those last two problems, and a few others, would never happen if editors always ran changes past writers. Editors aren't omniscient either. And between e-mail and cell phones, we're all reachable - even on deadline.

Here's an example of nearly every problem stated above, albeit illustrated by an article rather than a column. I once wrote a feature for SPY about insanely restrictive dress codes at Manhattan companies. Most companies forced people to dress badly, such as IBM, which basically required male employees to wear a grown-up Catholic school uniform. The initial editor had a great idea: See if New York fashion magazines silently enforce hip dress codes. They did, and it made a neat extra section (Score one for editors!).

But that editor got promoted and my finished article went to a new editor. SPY was famous for changing copy - to make it funnier and meaner. Instead, my new editor went through the copy and changed all the strong adjectives and verbs to weak ones. It was very odd. I had to choose between seeing a namby-pamby article with my byline, or risk being labeled a "troublemaker" at the best magazine (in my opinion) of the 20th century if I spoke up. Eventually I sent my list of objections to the first editor. To my joy, he agreed, and most changes reverted to my original version. This should have been a happy editorial fairy tale, but alas, it didn't end there.

When the article came out, one of my anonymous fashion magazine sources called up to say she'd been fired because of the piece. A copy editor had gone over the article after I read the final galley, and changed the source's ID from "editorial staffer" to "fact-checker," no doubt thinking this was more precise. It was; the magazine only had one fact-checker.

I still can't believe I got someone fired, possibly ruining her New York magazine career, because of a silly article about company dress codes. That's why I still worry about individual words.

Let me also comment on your brief discussion about editors spiking column ideas. Eric said that a "good walk through the thought process" between columnist and editor "can and probably should every so often result in a joint agreement to nix a column idea." Rich countered that given his nonstop statehouse beat and "ample time to develop [column] ideas," it's not likely an editor would need to spike his ideas.

This sounds like a practical difference between your jobs. Eric is a Tribune staffer working in a traditional newsroom hierarchy, writing several times a week in addition to his blog. Rich, as an Op-Ed columnist, operates as a freelancer and appears in the Sun-Times no more than once weekly. You're both columnists, yes, but it's not the same job and it's not the same kind of relationship with the editors and organization.

In my experience, a regular Op-Ed columnist normally thinks up the column idea, reports it, writes it, and hands it in without advance discussion. Typically, there's no post-discussion either. If your ideas and execution don't meet expectations with any frequency, you'll get canned quickly.

It helps that Op-Ed columnists usually write only once or twice a week. If you can't make a coherent argument in 500-700 words, you have time to kill it yourself. And if you can't hone your prose on that deadline, you have bigger problems than editors. In Rich's case, he's constantly reporting on state government for his newsletter and blog; no wonder he has a wealth of material from which to distill a short Op-Ed column.

By the way, if great editors occasionally spike ideas, exceptional editors also sometimes approve ideas they don't like. I particularly remember two cover story ideas that I just couldn't sell to Reader Editor Alison True when I was a staff writer there. They probably sounded pretty nuts. Alison still let me go off and spend about a month of company time on each one. How cool is that? They worked out wonderfully, too. Probably because I was even more afraid of screwing them up than if she'd liked 'em.

I think it's unfortunate, and unfair, that extolling the virtue of editorial forbearance is often translated as undervaluing or disliking editors. I've also edited, and I would say it's often easier to rewrite someone than to figure out the one or two tweaks that will fix a piece but leave it largely intact.

I stand second to no one in my ability to appreciate editors with whom I've enjoyed working. That also includes Pat Arden, Bruce Dold, Mike Lenehan, Stephanie Russell, and Steve Rhodes. See? I can suck up to editors with the best of them.

Cheers,

Cate Plys

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Corrections? Typos? Mixed metaphors? Hanging prepositions? Open Letters is open to letters: cateplys@sbcglobal.net.

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See who else Cate has been writing to in the Open Letter archive.

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Comments:

1. From Mike O'Connor:

Cate Plys's Open Letter reminded me of Dave Feldman, the late, legendary horse racing guru at the Sun-Times. When I was doing agate on the Sports Desk, I had to do all Feldman's stuff too. Feldman still used a manual typewriter to make his picks and comments for the races. It was my job to put it in the ATEX system. Feldman did a column each day, too. When there was no ad opposite the column, it was often cut, in part or sometimes entirely. When this would happen, Feldman, as vain as any other writer, would begin to circle the Copy Desk slowly, muttering. Then he would stop and look at the bottom of his shoe. He would then announce at the top of his lungs, "What's that! There's something on the floor. Why, it's my blood, you butchers!" (said in the direction of the copy editors. I miss him today. He was an
anachronism even when he was alive.

2. From Margaret Burke:

Hi, Cate:

I feel your pain, even though I'm not what most would call a writer. I'm a software engineer who occasionally writes documentation, so I appreciate the need for precision in language.

My favorite editing story goes back more than 20 years, to a chunk of software I was releasing to the masses of computer operations folk at the company for which I worked (not there any more, thank God). The gal who did the actual release decided she didn't like the way the release notes were phrased, changed a couple words without running the changes past me, and sent the release on its way.

The problem was, the changes had the effect of telling the operations boys to run a series of jobs backwards. They all did it, given that I tended to be very careful about the way I worded my releases. They all had hosed-up databases as a result. I spent the next week on the phone, walking each of the 22 (was it 26? not sure now) operations centers through recovering their data. All because of a little careless editing.

This was back in the days before e-mail, and to send written notice would have meant the company was effectively shut down until the notice arrived and databases were fixed, which would have taken even longer than fixing it over the phone. I thought at the time, this must be a weak version of what shell-shock is like.

So writers aren't the only ones who have to worry about rewrites. Too bad about the gal who got fired; that editor should have lost his/her job, too.

Keep the faith,
Peg



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Posted on July 10, 2007


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