Wick Communications

Here’s to gruff editors of yore

In Editing on 5 Feb 2015 at 1:50 pm

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Do you think newspaper editors today are too polite? I’m asking, because I may be overly polite myself.

There was a time when editors didn’t pussyfoot around. There was also a time when writing was routinely more clear, more clean and more clever. Perhaps we lost something important when editors became coaches rather than grouches.

The thought came to mind when reading a passage in a slim volume called “The Writer’s Home Companion: Anecdotes, Comforts, Recollections and Other Amusements for Every Writer, Editor and Reader.” First published in 1987, it’s a collection of dozens of tidbits about the authors we love and their thoughts about the craft.

One recounts Eugene O’Neill’s time as a reporter at the London Telegraph. Apparently he was a better playwright than newsman. One of his early stories came back with this note from an editor:

This is a lovely story, but would you mind finding out the name of the gentleman who carved the lady and whether the dame is his wife or daughter or who? And phone the hospital for a hint as to whether she is dead or discharged or what? Then put the facts into 150 words and send this literary batik to the picture framers. … Man, I wish I had written that – the scolding note, not the literary batik.

These days almost all of us newspaper editors are much, much more understanding. And rightfully so. The idea is to teach and mold and bring readers the information they need, not cut writers down to size.

We’ve learned that – over the long haul – we want to be helpful and not hurtful. I will say this: When my very first professional editor kicked my Thermos across the room on my very first day at a real newspaper, it got my attention and I’ve never forgotten it. In the interim, I’m sure I’ve gotten hundreds of kind, thoughtful emails from editors gently pointing me in the right direction. I wonder, on balance, which technique is more effective?

Clay

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