Wick Communications

Pretend you are Patton

In Writing techniques on November 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Back in 1996, a newspaper writer named Paul Reid was asked to cover a routine gathering of World War II veterans for The Palm Beach Post. One of those vets was to be William Manchester, the great biographer of Winston Churchill. Manchester was sick and couldn’t make it, but Reid was so hung up on the guy that he eventually made a trip up to New England to meet Manchester.

That meeting changed his life. Reid was eventually drafted to complete “The Last Lion” series after Manchester died. Reid, an erudite reader and writer, was certainly one of the best newspaper guys in South Florida. (I didn’t know him, but we did work at the same newspaper for a while.) He quit the paper and threw himself into the book project. He thought it would take two years. It took 10. The book is coming out now.

Reid had never written a book, to the best of my knowledge. He wasn’t used to working with a publishing house editor. Hell, he wasn’t too keen on newspaper editors touching his prose, for that matter. His new editor, Bill Phillips, said something fascinating about his advice to Reid in a piece in the New York Times Magazine last week:

“Paul has little conception of what editing means. He tends to get fixated on what are copy-editing issues, although I repeatedly tell him to leave it alone for the time being and pretend he’s Patton, racing through to the end, leaving the task of picking up discarded gasoline cans for the end of the war.” …

We all know those copy-editing issues. Whether to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Dealing with comma splices. Arguing endlessly about adjectives. Maybe Phillips is right.

I had an old editor, a guy by the name of Alan Hope, who always said that if you were stuck, you should just right forward as fast as you can and then deal with what you’ve got. Get something on the page before you start picking up those discarded gas cans.

I confess that isn’t really my way when I write, but it may be helpful for me and others. Patton, Sherman and our great generals weren’t overly concerned with details. They had the big picture in mind.

You might try plundering the page yourself before you pick up the pieces.

Clay

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