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Shared Perspectives

The lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s song include the repeated phrase “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” In his poem “The Road Less Traveled,” Robert Frost wrote, “And that has made all the difference.”

Because I’m both a writer and an editor, I have looked at the publishing world from both perspectives. I have done so for many years now in both of those respective roles. But I must often remind myself to continue doing so. When I write, I must do so with the editor in mind. When I edit someone else’s work, I must consider the writer and his or her thinking.

As an editor, I’ve seen manuscripts written by some really smart people who “knew their stuff” but couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag. They were well educated, so I know that they had been taught the proper rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, composition, etc., yet they obviously hadn’t learned those lessons. They could score well on a classroom test, but they did not know how to apply those lessons in real-life writing.

On the other hand, I’ve read material written by people who had excellent writing skills and a good command of language but no imagination. Worse, some of them had nothing worth saying, no message. Or the message they did have had no organization to help readers make sense of what they were trying to say.

But, thankfully, I’ve also worked with manuscripts by writers who had not only a worthwhile and well-organized message but also a “way with words,” and they knew how to apply the rules of language. That latter group is the one I most enjoyed including as clients. Moreover, they are the ones like whom I aspired to be as a writer myself.

As a writer, I have always tried to be considerate of my editors. I try to avoid making the mistakes I saw in other writers’ works. I try to make my manuscripts as “clean” as I can so that the editor’s job is easy. Hopefully, even enjoyable. Certainly not a pain to read or edit.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that my work is by no means perfect. Not even close! It always needs and benefits from a good edit. Whenever I read some of the things I’ve written, I often cringe to think that I wrote that! Even editors, when they switch hats to become writers, need editors. I’m no exception to that rule.

I’ve had some good editors, each with his or her own unique strengths, and I’ve learned a lot from each of them. I’d be a fool to say that any one of them was the best because each was best at his or her unique focus. For some, it was organization. For others, it was various parts of speech. For still others, it was ridding text of verbosity. But each taught me something valuable that I can now apply to my own writing.

The first editor for whom I ever wrote was the late Paul Poirot of The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education. I had a good reason for liking him. He accepted the first article I ever submitted for publication, “Help Wanted: Laborers.” He also accepted every subsequent article I submitted for his consideration while he was editor for that journal. And he made minimal changes to those manuscripts, but every one of his changes improved my work. For example, on that first article, he wrote in his letter accepting the submission that he had reworded the opening paragraph to “speed” the lead.

When I was a beginning editor at Martin Marietta (subsequently, Lockheed Martin) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the director of the Publications Division assigned me a mentor, the late Mary Guy, a senior editor who had been there since the Manhattan Project (or so it seemed). Among the lessons that Mary taught me was how to deal with deadlines. At first, I took the internal clients’ stated deadlines as gospel and almost stressed myself out rushing through their work to meet those deadlines.

But Mary taught me that the clients’ stated deadlines were not really their deadlines. She showed me that they were padding the deadline so they would have plenty of time to review the editor’s work before they really had to have the work completed. She taught me to negotiate with them, determining their “drop-dead deadline,” when they really needed it back. Then she taught me to deliver the finished edit before the promised date.

But Mary also helped me learn to slow down (a lesson that I still have to review every so often). “Haste makes waste.” Haste leads to mistakes. It leads to inaccuracies. It leads to bad organization of one’s points. In short, it makes for bad writing. Granted, sometimes one must hurry the writing. There are those deadlines, after all. But, more often than not, we have the time but don’t use it wisely. Rather, we rush our writing, and that doesn’t produce the best writing. Mary taught me to slow down enough to suggest better, more precise words; to catch errors that can easily escape notice; and to pace myself to produce the best edit of the client’s material.

Applying Mary Guy’s lessons allowed me to develop a reputation among my author clients of delivering a quality product ahead of schedule (something nearly unheard of among government contract workers!) while ensuring clean, logical, well-worded text.

Lest you begin to think that all of my editors were “late,” I must include a few who are still among the living. When I was a history textbook author, I had two excellent editors, Manda Kalagayan and Grace Geide. Manda not only was a qualified, experienced editor but also had a master’s degree in history, so she could ensure the historical accuracy of what I wrote as well as its grammatical correctness. And she wasn’t reluctant to tell me whenever I was wrong. (We also had some stimulating discussions on historical topics.)

Grace began working with us history authors as a graduate assistant and was somewhat intimidated by us. Therefore, she was reluctant to correct our writing or challenge us on anything, especially the historical content. She quickly outgrew that reticence, however, when she realized that we were just “people” with a real need for editorial help, and she developed into a detail-oriented editor. She and Manda did a lot to make our writing efforts much better.

I’ve also worked with dozens of magazine editors. I’ve had no major problems with any of them, although I’ve had better working relationships with some than with others. For some, I wrote only a single article. With others (e.g., The Freeman, Journal for Christian Educators, Homeschooling Today,  and Good Old Days), I developed a connection that led to multiple sales and long-standing relationships. Perhaps they simply liked my writing style, or maybe we shared an interest in particular subject matter.

But I soon learned that all that can change whenever an editor is promoted to another position, moves to a different publication, or retires and is replaced by a new editor. Following Paul Poirot’s retirement, for example, I couldn’t seem to get anything I wrote accepted by his successors at The Freeman. That situation later reversed itself when, after multiple editorial changes, the publisher hired yet another editor who again “liked my stuff.”

Some of the editors with whom I’ve worked simply accepted my manuscript, did a basic edit, and published it with no further comments or suggestions. Others checked with me about major changes or revisions (or had me do the revising) before publishing it. Still others, such as Dr. Charles Walker, former editor of Journal for Christian Educators, annually asked me to suggest topics for future issues and then selected several of those topics and gave me carte blanche to write articles on them, publishing them with minimal editing. He also wrote the foreword of my book Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught.

That brings me to my most recent editor, Kimberly Coghlan, who is editing my soon-to-be-published book from TouchPoint Publishing. She is a prime example (and the most recent one for me) of how an editor can go above and beyond making mere editorial changes or suggestions that improve one’s writing to raise the morale and encourage the efforts of a writer. Kimberly made my day last week when she returned her completed edit of my book manuscript.

Her e-meal read, in part, “In my 10 years of editing, I have never come across a manuscript that was so pristine. You have really worked hard on making this the best version. I am truly impressed. Your writing is phenomenal, and I literally only had to make a handful of simple edits.”

Knowing my own writing, I suspect that perhaps she was exaggerating a bit. Maybe even more than a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that was “pristine,” although I do work hard to make the editing task easier for any editor of my writing. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it does mean I work hard at it. But her comments do more than stroke my ego or make me feel good about myself and my writing. They make me want to bend over backward to please her, to make my writing better so her work is even easier, and even to give her the benefit of the doubt whenever her editorial changes might differ from my own editorial preferences.  When she finishes with my project, I want her to look back on the task with pleasure, with a desire to work together on future projects, rather than to rue the day she agreed to work on my first manuscript she’s seen. And that makes for a more honest, cooperative, and successful working relationship. It helps create a team effort and eliminates what all too often becomes an us-versus-them adversarial relationship.

So, to conclude this paean to the editors I have known, we writers should be grateful for the good editors we’ve been privileged to work with and do everything we can to make our writings as good as we can humanly make them so that the editors can enjoy working with our words. And we should also find ways of expressing our appreciation of them. Moreover, we should take the time to look at the publishing world from both perspectives, that of the editor and that of the writer. If we are writing, we should do so with our editor in mind. If we’re editing someone else’s work, we should do so with the writer in mind.

To paraphrase Frost, doing so will make all the difference.

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