Just a Little Off the Top

Originally Published: March 9, 2004

The room was roaring summer, so hot you’d never have guessed it was February outside and dipping into the 30s. Five, six, finally seven faces were seated in front of me, mostly looking at their shoes, rummaging in backpacks, or, in one case, leafing through a bathing suit catalogue. Catalogue girl giggled and flashed a page to her friend four seats down. On the wall, the standard-issue school clock gave us 5 minutes before class was to begin. I rearranged my stack of articles, still warm from the photocopier. Scalding air was blowing down on my head from a vent above, and I felt the first alarming signs of sleepiness, despite my discomfort in being the guest speaker for the evening.  

Marymount University couldn’t be called a top-tier institute of higher learning, though admittedly small and expensive and Catholic about sums up my composite knowledge of the place. My friend Kate, for whom I had agreed to “guest teach” is, however, a top-tier teacher, and I know at least one graduate of the school whom I would unhesitatingly classify as a top-tier person, so it all just proved my long-held theory that it’s really up to the student whether they come out of a school well-educated or not. That was beside the point that night. The faces in front of me waited for my words to enlighten, to entertain, to teach. To keep them awake in the wretched heat.

I sipped at my water bottle, peeking glances at the clock, and tried to feel wise and professorial, hoping top-tier, experienced Kate would pick up the pieces if I tanked. 

She had asked me to come to two of her undergraduate seminars on “Writing for the Social Sciences” and speak on the topic of being edited. I was to tell her students how it felt to have ones writing examined by experts - experts in the subtleties of narrative arc, poised phasing, scrupulous grammar. Yes, I thought, they should hear what it was like to watch as ones words were surgically dissected by the blue pen of death. They should be told about the relentless compacting of ones ego under the bitter jack-boot of disenfranchised, underpaid scholars until it resembles nothing so much as slug innards. They should know what it is to smile and nod as hours, days, weeks of work get excised - like cancerous tumors – leaving the bits oozing into the stained carpet of the editor’s windowless office. 

Or something to that effect. I was hoping to be uplifting. 

My own experience with editors has actually been very good. I admire them, and don’t envy their job of treading on eggshells while simultaneously hacking the bloat off ponderous writing. The inherent problem with editors is that they tell the truth … almost always. And that hurts … almost always. But I for one, love being edited. I do. For example, when my most recent piece was amputated from about 4,000 words to around 1, 600, I realized it was a better piece for it. No matter that a couple of months worth of research and reporting got rubbed out. My editor, a gentle and damnably nice fellow named David, felt that I was making a long story out of what was, at its heart, a short one. A mountain out of a molehill. He was right, bless him, and cut we did. Sure, I bled some, little drops, mostly, but the lesions are healing nicely, thanks.

The students in Kate’s seminars didn’t ask many questions, but listened attentively, blinking at me politely when I tried to inject some humor. Note to self: next time, prepare something. I passed out copies of a couple of articles I’d had in the Post, and then snippets from my first-draft, so they could compare. 

They sat in silence and read the two, which gave me a moment to look over the first drafts, which I hadn’t done since abandoning them for later versions. I then closed my eyes and said a silent thanks. Turns out, editors not only trim the fat, but the redundant, the libelous, the juvenile, and the just plain idiotic.  What were a paltry few drops of blood when you had such a person in your corner, keeping you from looking like a hack?

The seminars went well – mostly thanks to Kate. The students were consistent with my memory of undergrads – not easily engaged or impressed, but occasionally willing to overcome their habitual caution given the right questions. The biggest rise I got out of them all evening had nothing to with writing or editing. It was when I mentioned in passing that I’d gone to Berkeley. One young man stared at me from behind his glasses and breathed, “You went to Berkeley?” I nodded demurely. I didn’t add that in the late 70s, UC was more lax in their acceptance policies. I also didn’t add that I’d not actually graduated from Berkeley.  And I neglected to confess that I’d gotten an “F” on my first English paper. I was not, by any definition, a top-tier student. In truth, it wasn’t until I hit my thirties that I felt ready to receive an education. Timing has never been one of my gifts.

I was glad when the seminars were over. The less time I spent with these students, the less chance there was of exposing how under-qualified I was to lecture them about anything – much less the art of being edited. I suppose I could have told them the truth – that during the editing of my first piece for the Post, I learned more in one session with my editor than I had in all my college English classes combined – but I thought I might be going against school policy on that one. Hey kids! Stay in school! Don’t do drugs!

I am just finishing the final editing rounds of my newest piece for the Post Magazine. David had wanted me to construct a last paragraph, something to finish out the story in its new shortened form. I wrote what I thought was a nice little ending, and sent it off to him confidently. Nailed it, I thought smugly. 

He called to let me know, well, no. Too subtle and random, not tied in. Try again.

I went harrumphing back to the computer and reread what I’d sent him. Well, Ok, it might be a bit of a jump from the story. And what was this…? Oh, wonderful. One of the kids seemed to have switched off spell-check while doing his Spanish homework, meaning I’d sent David a non spell-checked draft. And here I’d just assumed my spelling had miraculously improved… Hesitantly, I re-enabled the tool and sighed as the red squiggly lines crawled all over my text. David had just been subjected to a draft of not only badly conceived, but largely misspelled writing. 

You couldn’t pay me enough to be an editor.

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