Literary Undergarments

Editing should be like undergarments that do their job without showing up. You don’t need to see them nor should you see them, at least in public, but good ones are always there doing their job in a comfortable, unobtrusive manner. It’s when those undergarments become outwear that they cease to be effective supporters and instead displace the rightful outfit.

However often they are worn in public, there’s something that’s not at its best when these undies turn into outies. A variation of the same idea can be said about editing. Editing should be like good undergarments, best appreciated when undetected.

I’ve experienced a variety of editors—some rude, some effective, some kind, some a combination that taught me a lot. And I’ve learned something from all of them. But the greatest learning experience was also the worst experience  I ever had. It happened with the owner-editor was at the newspaper where I wrote reviews for nearly three years. The editor was a terrible joke. With the exception of two staff writers, he went through personnel at the speed of light. I could quickly tell where anyone was on his radar depending on what office and/or desk they were on when I went in once a week to pick up my mail.

Because I worked on a freelance basis, I wasn’t subject to that. But he did attempt control of my column through the editorial ropes he dangled. We had disagreements, but two incidents made a lasting impression on me. In the first he changed a short, snappy column title to one that publicly and brutally mocked the subject of the piece because of his political differences with the man. I was appalled especially because he had to squeeze the title into the space where the original one had been. Second, he rewrote the final paragraph in another column (while keeping the same word count) so the ending reflected his extreme views rather than the inclusive one I had written. I was livid in both cases not because I didn’t want to be edited but because in the first case he used my words to take a cheap shot at someone  he hated, thus making me look like a nasty person, and in the second he again used my words to promote his rabid political beliefs. It was his belief that he, not me, should “write me” when it suited him. I was so outraged that in each case it required much calming by friends to prevent me walking out the door. But I vowed that were I ever in a position of editorial trust and responsibility, that I would act in the most honorable and respectful manner of which I was capable. I would never repeat his actions.

Those two episodes, more than any other, became the editorial spine of BiblioBuffet. I determined that courteous communication and respectful editing would be the soul of our site, and I am extremely fortunate in that Nicki Leone also feels the same. We carefully select our writers, and then we trust them. The editing process has to honor that, and it does as can be seen in Nicki’s recent comments:

I liked your enthusiasm and your contemplative tone when you were talking about both books, it was a good fit for the subject matter and the angle you took to discuss it.

That said, you are going to see a lot of red commenting and edits, especially in the first part of the column. Don’t be scared off! On the whole your piece was very smooth, so there are only a few places where I made edits for tense agreement or for subject clarification, things like that. You can accept or revise those as you see fit.

What you are reaching for, I think, is  . . . If I’ve got that right, then that’s a great way to lead into the piece, and to connect for the reader why . . . these books connected for you, so that is what you should be emphasizing.

The other thing you will notice in the comments is repeated notes to “be concrete, be specific.” You sometimes fall into abstract language, . . . Writing about abstract things like “truths” has to be done with care and always is more effective when done with concrete examples. Jesus knew this—hence all of his parables. . . .

Your thoughts?

The e-mail was longer and detailed, but the gist of it can be seen here. Nicki’s editing is clear and she pinpoints what she sees as problems and offers ideas for the writer to fix them. But at no time does she “take over,” and overwrite the writer. Which is as it should be, and as BiblioBuffet is. So when you read the writers of your choice you get those writers dressed in their best with their literary undergarments unseen.


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