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The Good Editor, a Rare Breed

Reading about editors the other day reminded me of two things: my own experiences as an editor and the editors with whom I’ve been privileged to work in my writing career.

Every writer, no matter how good, needs a good editor. Even editors who write need good editors. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I know the value of a good editor. Editors abound; good editors are rare.

For seven years, I was an editor with Lockheed Martin Energy Systems. (Before the merger, it was Martin Marietta Energy Systems.) I came in as a lowly Technical Publications Analyst I (the title makes the position sound more impressive than it really was) and was assigned a mentor, Mary Guy. Mary was a short, frail, chain-smoking, elderly woman who had begun editing at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant shortly after the Manhattan Project became public knowledge. She knew the Chicago Manual of Style like the back of her hand. She also knew the government bureaucracy of contract work and how to work it to her and other editors’ advantage. She was patient and taught me a lot, even sharing her work with me when things got slow after the Cold War ended and contract work dried up. Thanks to her, I quickly learned the ropes and advanced to TPA II and eventually Senior Editor.

When the layoffs came, shutting down the entire Publications Division, I ventured into independent editing for seven years. The Lockheed Martin years might be symbolic of the biblical seven years of plenty and the next seven (or maybe the first two or three) years the time of famine, but things got progressively better. I went from taking on any and all jobs that came along (eating when I had clients and dieting when I didn’t) to being more selective and even turning down jobs. All the while, I was writing my own stuff, dreaming of the day when I could write full time–for myself, not for a corporate boss.

When my last two daughters entered college, I got an opportunity to write (albeit for that corporate boss) history curricula. That’s when I was privileged to work with two great editors, Manda Kalagayan and Grace Zockel Geide.

Manda was a joy to work with because she was trained as a historian and knew and loved not only the subject matter but also editing. She was especially good at pointing out inconsistencies and redundancies in my work and was never afraid to challenge me.

Grace, although not educated in the historical content, was a stickler for the details of grammar and composition. She was also computer savvy and attuned to ways to fact check little details, especially the wording and punctuation of obscure quotations.

The examples of these three editors demonstrate to me the value of good editors. Each editor is–by his or her personality and bent–adept at a particular specialty, be it grammar, punctuation, capitalization, documentation, number usage, or any of the other myriad things editors must keep track of. An author is too focused on his or her content and often too close to the writing to recognize or identify such problems. That’s why a good editor is so valuable.

So thank you (posthumously), Mary Guy, for mentoring me. And thank you, Manda and Grace, for your patient hard work. All of you deserve more credit than you’ve received.

And if you who have read this are aspiring to write, be sure to find yourself a good editor. Find your own Mary, or Manda, or Grace to make your writing shine.

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