It's OK for editors to be fussy and writers to be touchy

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 4:03 PM

I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop, Nirvana for English Majors. All around me people were clacking away on keyboards, reciting poetry in mellifluous tones and reading books like "Silas Marner" and "Moby Dick." Except for two patrons.

At first their voices were insistent but controlled. Soon they became more strident.

"I am so tired of you changing every word I write!" said one. "You criticize everything I do. If I write affirmative, you change it to yes. If I write no, you change it to negative. If I use a dash, you change it to a colon. If I put a comma here, you move it there. Nothing satisfies you!"

"You won't listen to me!" said the other. "I feel as though I can't make the simplest, most obvious suggestion without your becoming indignant and defensive. If I revise a sentence for clarity, you tell me I've made it worse. If I eliminate a wordy expression, you tell me I'm nitpicking. If I delete a comma, you put it back in. You take offense at everything I say!"

"Pardon me," I said, as one of them was reaching for the other's throat. "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation."

As they turned, I thought for a moment they were going to pounce on me.

"Now, hold on," I said. "I think I can help. What we need here is a little candor and self-awareness. You," I said to the editor, "are fussy."

"That's just what I've been saying," said the writer.

"And you," I said to the writer, "are touchy."

"Precisely," said the editor.

"And that's your job," I said. "That's the way it's supposed to be."

They both seemed taken aback.

"Editors are supposed to be fussy," I continued, "but not too fussy. Writers depend on editors to eliminate things that might annoy or confuse the reader. Writers need editors who know the rules of language well enough to catch embarrassing errors, but who also are sufficiently conversant with current usage to avoid applying those rules rigidly."

They appeared to be listening, so I went on.

"Writers are supposed to be touchy," I said, "but not too touchy. Editors expect writers to be passionate about their subjects, to care deeply about language and to be deliberate in their word choice. Editors shouldn't expect writers to accept every revision without question, and writers shouldn't take every suggestion as a personal affront."

For a moment they sat without talking. Then they looked at one another sheepishly.

"Well," said the editor, "I guess you do have the more challenging job. Creating something from nothing is not easy."

"And you," said the writer. "You're caught in the middle, trying to respect what I've done while making sure it's palatable to the reader."

"Excellent," I said. "Now I want you to hug each other."

"Embrace would be the better word," said the editor.

"There you go again!" said the writer.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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