Sunday, April 17, 2011

Writers and editors butting heads

I moved to a newspaper years ago feeling confident about my writing. Then I encountered an editor who turned everything to mush. When we got a great story off a wire service, he'd edit it down to his level. If he got a good story from one of us, he edited it down. If he got a crappy story, something that didn't happen often, he edited it up to his low level.

Within a few months, I almost gave up. No matter what I wrote, he ruined it. When a story didn't fit, he whacked it.

I once wrote a story about a Frenchman swimming for a local university. The man looked like Ivan Lendl; his first name was French, and his last name was German, which was appropriate. He grew up in Alsace, France, on the German border. This editor cut out the part of the story explaining his name and his accent! That, of course, was the purpose of the story.

My protests fell on deaf ears -- he was too busy -- so I did something that could have gotten me fired; I went into the computer and re-edited the story, putting the information back and making it the length he wanted. Then I told the people in the back shop to swap out the stories. If he noticed, he didn't say.

A year later, I left that newspaper less of a writer than when I went there. It took two or three years to get it back, then move forward again.

I've seen editors
and editors who pretty much hated each other. That aforementioned editor and I had that relationship. When I worked at my next newspaper, all of the writers acted like my job was to answer the phone and tell them that their stories were in. Later, when I covered sporting events, they seemed surprised that I could do their jobs as well or better than they did.

One writer, a friend of mine at another newspaper, once was talking loudly about how writers had it so badly and how editors had it so easy, how writers had to work hard and editors did nothing. A friend of mine and I laughed, and we both told him that editors work much harder than writers. We knew.

The sad thing is that my friend became a sports editor, and I'm sure he still felt the same about editors. I imagine his copy editors loved him; or not.

Some writers say they don't care what mistakes they make; it's the editor's job to fix it. And some editors cut a story to fit and put a headline on it. They don't care if the story's screwed up; if the writers don't care, why should they? In fact, some editors say they want certain writers to look bad! I was stunned when I first heard that, and it still bothers me.

And many writers think it's the editor's job to infect their stories with mistakes. It's happened to me, but I can tell you that editors don't do it intentionally. Like writers, they sometimes screw up.

I've worked with editors who are bossy, who will tell you exactly how you should do the story and then yell if you deviate an inch from orders. Some editors will suggest a story, then are delighted when you come back with a better angle. And I've worked with editors who offered no suggestions at all.

I worked with a great editor who often liked to rewrite my leads or endings to his taste. He loved his rewrites and asked what I thought. He ruined the rhythm of the story, but, hey, he was the boss. I didn't complain; the checks didn't bounce.

But every once in a while, there's a great collaboration between editor and writer. Some editors have injected my stories with pertinent information that I didn't know. The stories were often better, and I thanked them. No, I saluted them.

On an occasion or two, editors have saved me from making embarrassing mistakes. Some have praised my work, then told me how I could have done it a little better. And I've appreciated their help.

I've worked with pain-in-the-butt editors who kept asking questions, trying to make the story a tiny bit better. It was excruciating, aggravating at the time, but I had to thank them.

One day, I introduced my wife to a friend. Holly knew that Mike is a writer, and I told Mike that Holly was then a copy editor. His response? "Thank you," he said, shaking her hand. Mike was thanking her for an often thankless job.

It's a shame that more writers don't thank their editors and that more editors don't appreciate their writers. They'd both be better for it.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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