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The Important Editor-Writer Relationship

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

A teacher's final lesson to his students.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've been thinking about the editor/writer relationship of late, this while the evaluation of student manuscripts has been a major object of my attention. All semester, I've repeated a plea for my students to write with a market, a publication, a specific sort of reader in mind.

Writing in a vacuum, I kept telling them, is a bad idea. There has to be purpose as a writing assignment is developed and completed. There has to be a goal, that goal being to satisfy a selected reader. And, I reminded them, standing between them as writers and that selected reader is an editor, an editor savvy enough to know that reader's wants and needs.

Teacher as Editor

In the classroom, the editor is the teacher. At the final class, when I returned the students' final assignments, thoroughly edited, of course, I placed atop the packet a "To My Class" memo. It said in part:

"I've judged your work as a reader. That's what an editor is asked to do. That's what a teacher should do. What do I want as a reader? It's what I always ask myself as I read anything and everything, meaning your papers, too."

And I added: "I've attempted always to suggest changes not in my own writing style but as a guide for you to make the most of your own style, your own voice or hint of voice. Please know that: I've not been interested in turning you into a reflection, journalistically, of me, God forbid; I've sought ways to sharpen your own chosen and aimed-for image."

Now, I ask you to remember that. Even though you, as editor, undoubtedly have shaped a concept of your reader's wants and needs, you've come to realize, I hope, that your publication is not best served by making everything in it sound like you. Yes, you know the limits of what is acceptable for inclusion, but within those limits, you've allowed for flexibility and variety in expressiveness and approach.

Editing becomes sort of like gardening. The words planted, like the flowers planted, should blossom in an array of colors and shapes and fragrances. A gardener, with seeds and a plan, creates an atmosphere, an aura, a character, an individuality, a singular little world. An editor, with words and a plan, does the same.

In editing, you strive for correctness (all must be accurate), clearness (all must be easily graspable), effectiveness (all must be attention-getting), and appropriateness (all must fit into the publication's editorial concept). In editing, you seek, in every article, a controlling purpose and ample content. In editing, you work for impact (that which offers wallop or surprise or a quiet gem), timeliness (that which the reader wants now), timelessness (that which has lasting substance or enduring appeal), proximity (that which is close through geography or familiarity), prominence (that which holds importance or significance), and eccentricity (that which is unusual or different or astonishing).

You're aiming, with everything that goes into your publication, to create a personality that distinguishes it from all others. You accomplish this through content, through design, through approach, through point of view or perspective.

You do it by subjecting every piece of copy to rigorous inspection. And as you do that, you have to keep in mind that your task is to edit in as well as out. The difficulty in the process is how to retain an author's intent while smoothing, shortening, tightening, straightening out the copy.

It is important to attempt keeping the writer's written personality intact if, I trust, he or she has one. That requires sensitivity on your part. It means you can and will read the article with an open mind, thereby permitting yourself to consider what the writer had in mind, what the writer wanted to accomplish for you. It means you deal with copy flexibly, that you don't make everything sound like you, that you don't end up making everything an extension of your own wordsmithery.

Yes, you also do the editing in full knowledge of what you believe to be the publication's editorial personality. The article must fit in. After all, readers, over time, have come to expect a certain manner in the matter you provide issue after issue.

So, it's finding a balance: the copy that comes with a personality must fit into the personality of your publication. Getting that to happen is not an easy task. In the rush of things, you may find yourself editing self-centeredly, seeking the acceptable through what you know to be easy to come by and safe: imprinting the manuscript with your own tested-with-readers voice.

A momentary solution that may well be. However, if such editing becomes the norm, the publication's spirit, its personality, its distinctiveness will disappear. Readers will come to realize it. Their allegiance will be compromised. And that you certainly do not want, right?

As your guide, you might use a touch of wisdom from the legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer. He advised: "Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."

It's the editor's task to help the writer make that happen.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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