To be a professional writer means dealing with editors.
The young writer may feel “Oh, glorious me! I am an inspired genius. Don’t mess with my stuff. Just print it.”
Oh, a sad reckoning awaits this would-be Hemingway.
In the hands of an experienced editor, an old street corner who’s seen it all before, the young prodigy will suffer. The blue pencil will adorn the erstwhile prodigy’s work everywhere: in the margins, in the lines, between and within the words.
But nowhere will the editorial wrath at egotism feel more painful than in the “bad-news room.” The little office where work is ripped apart and sent for re-write. Most often, there will be harsh words and a general dressing down.
Now, no decent editor I’ve known would submit just any newbie to this treatment. Usually, this savagery is reserved for a young, aspiring writer with talent. The aim is to kick ego back to the end of the line and bring up natural ability and drive for boosting and refinement.
Teary eyed and taken down a notch, the truly determined young writer will skulk back to the keyboard and go at the story again, working it until it is right.
So, what goes into a good editor?
Experience is everything – and an instantly provable ability to make a story better, more cogent. The old style grumpiness of movie editors is not enough. There must be leadership and guidance.
The judicious application of praise is another.
Most important is this: A good editor can see what a young writer is good at – and not so good at – and guide a young career in the right direction. One person may have a keen eye and interest in reporting day-to-day stuff. Spot news. Another may be a natural storyteller; many sports guys and police writers I have known fall into this category.
Writing is a craft, like carpentry. Ego and confidence are big – but delicate – qualities in all writers. Young ones especially. But really hard work and dedication to the trade is key – sometimes lying awake at night re-working the lede that might not have been perfect, wondering if all the quotes were accurate.
Your publisher’s first newspaper article – in The Medicine Hat News in 1985 – was, ironically, a piece on illiteracy. The first submitted draft was appalling. Flabby, and full of pretentious turns of phrase. My editor, though, was careful. He first pointed out all of the things I had done right (punctuation, mainly) and then cut the thing to ribbons.
The end product was good enough to run on Page 4. But run it did. My first paid byline. I still have the clipping.
My current editor is wonderful. We are both somewhat mature in this game and have a lot of respect for each other. But both of us – once young and aspiring writers – remember the “bad news room” and have learned from our experiences there.