I groaned. I sighed. Beneath the table, I pounded my fist on my knee.
The old man was at it again: editing one of my papers for class.
"Now, I know this is tough," he would say, "but this will make you a better writer." Then, cruel as a Cossack, he would slash through a sentence--often one of my cleverest, I thought--with his red pencil.
More of my precious words fell dead.
If your writing has ever undergone the red-pencil treatment, you should find comfort in reading this month's guest article, "The Editor of the Breakfast Table," by Charles J. Shields. Author of the best-selling Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt & Co., 2006), Shields recalls the discomfort he felt as a teenager when his father, a newspaperman, imparted lessons about good writing.
Not until many years later did Shields realize that what his father had given him over breakfast was, in fact, a gift--the gift of editing:
You can't be thin-skinned when a wiser, more experienced writer or editor shows you how to make a sentence stronger, or how to cut the fat from a page. In fact, if you're really made of sterner stuff, you ought to be able to say "thank you." Writing is still a profession that is best taught person-to-person; the craft is passed between people.
Whether that person is a teacher or a family member or a bona fide copy editor, a good editor is one who serves as a guiding spirit--"the very best sort of guardian angel," as critic Walter Kerr once characterized the role.
Good editors don't take the easy way out by dropping false compliments and pretending that weak writing is great. Nor do they focus only on what's wrong with a piece without listening attentively for a writer's emerging voice. Good editors give it to us straight: fussing, correcting, encouraging, criticizing, suggesting. They guide us. And they take our work seriously--sometimes more seriously than we take it ourselves.
For all of this we might join Charles Shields in saying thank you: "Thanks for taking the time to edit my writing."
And thank you, Mr. Shields, for sharing with us "The Editor of the Breakfast Table."
Image: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt & Co., 2006).