Confessions of a Mean Editor

Mean EditorNot long ago, a client asked me to write a newsletter about something ghastly. It is the kind of work that I think of when I tell people that I’m a whore — that I’ll do anything for money. The client, who is a good writer himself (at least when it comes this this kind of soul-crushing, ad-copy, the only thing that matters is making a buck, writing). So when he got my final version, he changed it quite a lot. But given that he’s actually a nice guy, he apologized for it.

It wasn’t necessary. I’ve been writing professionally for coming up on 30 years. And there are a few things I’ve learned. One is that writing like this is about making money, not expressing myself. Another is that writing is a collaborative enterprise. Think of Finnegans Wake and Naked Lunch. Now you might think those were written by Joyce and Burroughs, but they were not. They were group efforts, that make quite a bit more sense because they weren’t left solely in the hands of their supposed authors.

Writing Is a Team Effort

I told my client that there was no reason to apologize. I understood that I was part of a team. And frankly, I did the hardest part: writing the first official version. It’s so much easier to take someone’s writing and improve it than it is to stare at a blank screen and come up with something new to say. But I understand why he apologized. Many writers would incorrectly think that what they wrote was thrown out and the whole thing was written from scratch. That almost never happens.

Writers too often think that they have a mean editor — people who take joy in destroying their great works of art. But editors are a writer’s best friend. Do a little experiment. Find a writer you really like. Then find them published in magazines and websites where you don’t normally read them. You will likely find that they seem rather different — in some cases like a completely different writer. This is the effect of a good editor.

The Real “Mean Editor”

There is a real mean editor. In my professional work, I just don’t have the time to be one. But I’ve been one in the past. I’m even one from time to time here at Frankly Curious. Such a mean editor really doesn’t care what the writer wrote — or even what the writer intended to write. What the writer created is used only create something that the editor feels they can use.

I ran into this some 15 years ago when a writer gave me an article for a popular website I was running. The article was totally unacceptable for the website. It was too simple for the audience. So I savaged it — totally rewrote it so that it was in a form where it fit. The writer was, to put it mildly, displeased. He demanded that I take it down. I understand now, but then I was flummoxed. I thought I had done him a major favor.

But now I think I was a mean editor. This was not, after all, a professional writer. And I was not paying. Just the same, I was offering him a huge audience that he could never have gotten otherwise. But I should have just sent the article back and explained why the article would not work and what I needed. Just the same, he did end up with an article that was far superior to what he wrote and he would have received a byline for what was mostly my work.

Helping Writers — Even When It Hurts

When dealing with professional writers, it’s much easier. No one pays for work that they can’t use. So if something is unacceptable, I just send it back. This is kind of mean, but writers seem never to see it that way. Sadly, “professional” writers don’t usually do much of a better job on their second try than they do their first. And that’s usually where I stop. I make a note that this is not a writer worth using in the future. And even if I have to make substantial changes to the work, few of these writers will think me a mean editor — because they can’t be bothered to read what gets published.

I do understand why my client apologized to me. At the same time, it was slightly offensive. He showed that he didn’t understand that I was a good and experienced a writer. I suppose he doesn’t want to be seen as a mean editor. And in a sense, he is. He could have sent it back to me and asked that I write it more in his style. But I now know his style and shouldn’t require much editing in the future.

But the truth is that all writers need a mean editor. The best editors help writers to develop their own mean editors — internal voices that tell them, “This sucks; let’s savage it; let’s start all over.” Otherwise, you’ll never be much more than a mediocre writer.

The mean editor: destroyer of the medicore writer.

Happy Birthday: Noam Chomsky at 88

Noam Chomsky 1977Today is Noam Chomsky’s 88th birthday. It’s remarkable to see him these days. We know that the human brain deteriorates distinctly around the age of 70. Yet Chomsky’s certainly doesn’t seem to have. Now part of this is no doubt that he was operating at such a high level before that he’s still sailing above most of us.

Noam Chomsky vs William Buckley

But it’s not that I don’t see it. I don’t think he is quite as quick as he was in 1969. Watch him debating William F Buckley. He was 40 years old at that time. It’s interesting in that Chomsky flails Buckley effortlessly. But it is clear that Buckley (no intellectual slouch) is working very hard and losing to a man who seems to be preoccupied with something else — perhaps a linguistics question that came up at the graduate seminar that day. It’s only because of Chomsky’s passive speaking style that conservatives think of this confrontation as something of a tie rather than an embarrassing defeat, which it obviously was.

After all these years, this exchange is well worth watching. It isn’t just because nothing has changed in a categorical sense. It’s also just wondrous to watch Chomsky at the peak of his powers (full debate):

I can’t speak to Chomsky’s work on linguistics. The basics of it are clear. I even put “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” into my most recent book to make a point about the lack of editing from certain small presses. But that is a subject for another time. For the last fifty years, Chomsky has been known for his political work. And it is the reason that he’s been important in my life.

Chomsky at 88

It is still amazing to listen to him or, even better, read him. He’s probably been the biggest influence on my thinking about foreign affairs. That has, in turn, changed how I’ve thought about domestic matters. But this interview he did with Mehdi Hasan is probably the most insightful thing I’ve seen about the post-Trump world. Given that I’ve highlighted it twice already, you’ve probably seen it. But if not, you really should take the time.

The down side of Noam Chomsky is that he can make you feel hopeless. His insights are so clear that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that those in power know. That’s what is so devastating in the Buckley interview: that it shows that Buckley understands what Chomsky is talking about, but that he just doesn’t care because all the pain that the country causes results in much better lives for people like Buckley — and let’s be honest: Chomsky and me as well.

Chomsky Still Has Much to Teach

The one thing that I can get almost no one to understand is the biggest thing that I learned from Chomsky: that all the stuff we tell ourselves about being a force for good in the world is a lie. That’s not to say that we kill innocent children for pleasure. But it is to say that killing innocent children would only get in the way of our policies if it might create an unacceptable level of blow-back.

The world — my world — is a far greater place because Noam Chomsky is in it. And even at 88 years old, he continues to improve it. I hope I can wish him many more happy birthdays.