Everybody needs an editor. That's been my precept for as long as I can remember. Probably not when I was my daughter's age or a little younger and first started writing. Youth has surety -- it doesn't need an editor.
A year or so after I started working for the government, I was assigned to do information work on the hog cholera eradication program. The veterinarian who headed up the program at that time was a Dr. Gil Wise. And he was well named for he was a very smart and respected individual. Rose to be Associate Administrator and probably would have gone further if a stroke hadn't hurried retirement.
Anyway, whenever I took a press release or a fact sheet or something else to Dr. Wise for review, the first thing he did was to take out a pen or pencil, then adjust his glasses, and start reviewing, ah, spell that "editing."
I said "everybody needs an editor." And that's true. But sometimes you need one more than others. I find that in general I have two extremes of written works. On the one hand is the polished piece that only needs a momentary glance from the editor or reviewer. On the other is the very rough draft for which you need mounds of advice and guidance. Very possibly, you may not even know if you're headed in the right direction.
Well, Dr. Wise had this uncanny knack of going over my polished documents with a fine-tooth comb, while with a floundering effort, I swear he'd merely glance at it -- sometimes, not even take his pen out of his pocket -- & hand it back to me saying, "Looks good to me, Larry."
And then there was Dr. Tillery and his thoughts about writing and editing. Dr. Tillery succeeded Dr. Wise as head of the hog cholera program. And he once said, "A veterinarian, of course, is well skilled at healing animals. But a veterinarian is also a pretty good carpenter. He can do electrical work. And he can handle simple plumbing jobs. But, above all, a veterinarian is an editor!"
But the best editor is not necessarily a grammarian or someone with a good knowledge of syntax and sentence structure. No, what makes an editor valuable is his or her position relative to your own. For instance, if you're the boss, getting someone who works for you to edit something isn't always the best idea because they may not be completely honest in their appraisal for fear of hurting your feelings. Getting your supervisors to review something isn't really the best idea either, because then you're pretty well forced to accept any changes they make or suggestions they have, whether you like them or not.
So the best editor is a peer -- get some one whose opinion you value, but whose advice you don't have to take. My wife Mary is good that way. After all, she always says I never take her advice on anything. (But I do -- I just don't let on.)
I've tried my mother, with somewhat equivocal results. I mean, I appreciated the comments ("It's marvelous, son, just marvelous! I really liked it -- you mean you're actually writing a book!"), but wonder perhaps if they weren't somewhat colored by a mother's lack of objectivity.
And, lately, I've been getting a little long-distance editing advice from Cindy, who's away at college. When I write, I often enclose a chapter or two. If nothing else, I can be sure of an opinion, since she is of the age (and temperament) to make instantaneous judgements on almost anything.
Maybe it isn't the age. Maybe it's because she's female. I mean, I can go into a store and look at a shirt and ponder to myself, "Gee, I kind of like that, but on the other hand the color isn't all that great. Hmmmm." Or if someone asks my opinion on a piece of clothing, unless it's really ugly, I'll tend to equivocate. At the very least, I'll take the other person's feelings into account and -- to differentiate myself from the women in this family -- take at least five seconds before rendering a judgement.
In contrast, Cindy will pick out a dress and ask her mother, How do you like it?" "It's awful," Mary will immediately reply. Or I'll ask Cindy her opinion of something & she'll come back with a "yes" or a "no" in an instant, but hardly ever a "Hmmm, I don't know."
Anyhow, a week ago I sent Cindy several chapters & day before yesterday got her reply (addressed to "Mom & Dad, 6912 Vancouver Rd., Springfield, VA 22152" in pink magic marker with a big heart on the back . . . well, it was Valentine's day). I quote selectively (that's the joy of being the author) from her letter:
"(Drying oneself w/a towel has nothing to do w/ washing hair & makes people think you are one mighty strange individual!) One does not think you utterly cookoo until this chapter. This is the best chapter, tho -- I laughed quite hard."
Well, Cindy, I will have to confess that I burst out laughing all by myself in the kitchen when I read that cuckoo remark (& please note the correct spelling).
(As an aside, and as the last word, do you ever notice the juxtaposition of words at the top of the page of a dictionary? You know, the ones that list the first and last words on the page? For instance "crossopterygian * crownet" on page 310 of Webster's Ninth. Just now I flipped open the dictionary to look up the "bird word" just to make sure I was right on the spelling & the two words at the top of page 308 just happened to be "criticism * cross." So I guess the moral is to never be too cross with your criticism.)
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