Greg Bales

The Writer and the Editor

Our local poet sends along via snail mail a short essay by Miller Williams, a plea for writers and editors alike to be tactful—cooperative, not adversarial. Writers, he says, could stand a little humility: an editor’s skill at reading need not impugn their own skill at writing. And he gives the exact same advice to editors, adding specifically:

  • Don’t use the verb rewrite when describing to a writer what you’ve done to a writer’s work. (Very sensible advice!)
  • Be less pedantic about that and which and other narrow points of mechanics or style. (Also sensible!)1
Williams can however be precious. “Think what might be saved by a publisher if… all the editors paid attention only to what truly would confuse or jolt a good reader or embarrass the writer or the press.” How much is presumed by that truly! That publishers, editors, and writers all share similar conceptions of good readers; that publishers, editors, and writers agree on what is confusing, jolting, or embarrassing: no style guide exists that can bring all of those pieces in line.

It’s not really tact that Williams wants from editors, though tact is an especially good grease to help editors succeed at their work. What he wants instead is diplomacy. An editor should negotiate all the spaces between writer and work and reader, shuttling back and forth between them, understanding and acknowledging all of the competing interests, and working toward some win-win(-win) solution. None of that is possible if an editor has not read the work or read it so poorly that she misinterprets its purpose or misunderstands its message.

Which is also a sensible request, though it is a much taller order than “be tactful.” Fortunately for writers, there are a lot of hardworking editors out there, doing diplomacy just as Williams wants.

1 This is a battle I’ve fought—and often lost—with other editors. Their pedantry is often more deeply engrained than my insistence that the “rule” exists nowhere but their high school teachers’ grammar books.


Editing, Writing


January 01, 2011

you know, though cast as a letter to editors, i’ve always read it more as a letter to poets, who have a tendency to get all conspiracy theory on journals and editors and publishing when year after year they get rejected and don’t know why. but, it’s been a while since i’ve read it… or who love to bandy about poetic license on their typographical quirks and solecisms.

January 02, 2011

No, I think Williams makes as if to address both writers and poets, and he does recommend to poets not to be so conspiracy-minded, but nearly all of his anecdotes and advice (11 paragraphs—the essay is 23 grafs total) lecture editors specifically, meanwhile defining what editors should be doing with the works they read.

I suppose that’s not entirely surprising. What’s he going to say to writers, after all? “Write less shitty material” would never fly. “Be humble” is as strong as he can make it. That entreaty is coupled with the following capital analogy, though:

The young writer’s first defense against [critics] is the old and easy question, If she knows so much about writing, why is she working on my book instead of her own? This is specious, of course. For one thing, some editors are indeed writers. Most important, one can know very well the adjustments an expert needs to make in order to improve without being as skilled as the expert. If this were not so, Muhammad Ali would not have had a trainer, nor Van Cliburn a music coach.

Not coincidentally, Williams turns immediately to introduce diplomacy he wants editors to have:

It is specious also because the very critic a writer needs before a work sees print is also one who can represent, not other writers, but the literate and objective reader who is not a professional author.

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