Be Kind to Editors? No Way

Be Kind to Editors? No Way

Writer's Note: For some reason, the editors of The New York Times published this submission with all of their editing marks showing — for all the world to see, including my mother, who was my 8th grade English teacher. There were some 20 "improvements." The piece appears below as I wrote it, more or less:

Most everybody knows that Sept. 3 is Labor Day, but not many are aware that Sept. 1 is Be Kind to Editors and Writers Day. Once again this year, I won't be celebrating this obscure holiday. As a writer, I don't want to appear ungrateful for having my own day; I simply would rather not share it with editors. Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are editors. In fact, I married one. So I know from editors.

I feel about the subspecies (certain individuals excluded, for obvious reasons) much the same way Mark Twain did. He wrote the following to a fellow author: "How often we recall with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity that his intentions were good."

While the world has become an infinitely more dangerous place since Twain's time, the practice of shooting at editors appears to have declined sharply. One explanation is that modern editors can be difficult to locate. They are forever in conference, unavailable, at meetings, away from their desks, off at conventions, or even out golfing.

Also, modern American readers are discernibly kinder and gentler, as evidenced by holidays that begin with "Be Kind to ..." We may say, "I could shoot an editor" just as we might say "I could eat a horse," but we don't really mean it. Most of us don't anyway.

I don't mean to imply that we can do without nitpicking margin scribblers. Heavens no. They are to publishing what St. Peter is to eternal bliss. No misspellings, redundancies, improper grammar, wordiness or bias shall pass — unless, of course, an editor approves it. When mistakes are made the blue pencil brigade invariably insists: "We stand by our story." When this ploy is too satiric for popular consumption, an editor will generally hang a reporter or two out to dry.

To be fair, my spelling is so atrocious that if the genus emendator (which includes hominoids from copy editors up to editors in chief) had not yet evolved from primordial ooze, it would have to be created — and pronto. One of my early journalistic endeavors recounted how local garden club members had been "wedding" and "prooning" about the town green. My editor had failed to read the opus on the assumption that it couldn't possibly contain anything controversial. This was my first inkling that the breed was flawed.

Now it goes without saying that no self-respecting editor was going to stand by a story that he or she had't read, so my alleged superior directed the surging throng of aghast horticultualists to my desk. Had I completed grammar school? they demanded to know, among other sarcastic inquiries. Having observed my boss in action and being a quick study, I listened to their tirades until the wind died down before replying, "Madames, I stand by my misspellings."

My stock at the paper rose dramatically after this performance, and I soon became an editor myself. I was elated (editors, even lowly ones, get paid more than crackerjack reporters) but have since seen the error of my ways and returned to writing.

With such a diverse background I am well acquainted with the tricks of the trade. When an editor begins a conversation with, "I loved your story," it usually means she wants you to rewrite the piece word by word.

And if an article is perfect, as mine frequently are, this affords no protection from the word posse — in advanced stages of journalism, a half dozen or more people can edit a piece. They will always change something, anything, no matter how niggling. In doing so they kill two birds with one stone: they annoy the writer and they justify their cushy lifestyles.

Editors, of course, admit nothing. They stand by their editing. They speak of writing with economical directness, of eschewing cliche, of cutting to the heart of the matter. They then mail out rejection letters to freelance writers with stirring phrases like: "We thank you for submitting your recent compelling submission. Though it has merit, it unfortunately does not conform with our editorial needs at this particular time. We fervently appreciate your interest in the Tri-Town Assassin."

I hope to live long enough to experience time travel. I will journey into the future and retrieve a story that has been edited to a fare-thee-well. Then I will return to the present and submit the mangled article to the very same editor and confidently await numerous additional changes. It is the nature of the beast.

No, I won't be celebrating Be Kind to Editors and Writers Day, wouldn't even if the billing were corrected. You see, few editors can write and those who can generally don't. Writing is hard. The late Red Smith once explained that there was nothing to it: just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. The gentlemanly Smith was too polite to add: if there is any blood left after the creation, it will be shed during the editing ordeal.

Postscript: The Times' editors added this note at the end of my column: [And, as any writer will tell you, editors always have the last word. — Ed.]