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About the ‘new media’

Good editors nudge, tug and prod the writer into providing just enough slack to allow wide-ranging exploration but just enough tautness to keep that roving imagination under control. Editors are the inspectors who worry about the internal architecture of writing, whether the supporting walls are in the right place, about whether the doors open into the right rooms

I have just landed in Pakistan after a weeks-long tour to a foreign land. I hope within a day or two, I will be back to the old normal.

But my newsroom reminds me about this regular piece. I have not forgotten the “assignment”. Now, for this weekend, I would like to share a wonderful piece, which was written by Stephen Hume. In a blog, he pays tribute to the newsroom people. I loved the piece and wanted to share it with my readers too.

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Just about every writer worth reading is indebted to anonymous editors who untangle syntax, correct spelling, repair shoddy punctuation and politely challenge assertions of fact.

I was thinking about this the other day as I waded through a series of semi-illiterate blogs.

The bloggers seemed serious about their subjects, they were topical — and they were living evidence of one great flaw of the unmediated blogosphere.

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It is the way in which this new culture of blogging renders editors a disposable and unnecessary inconvenience, feeding the notion that simply having language defines one as a writer and that simply expressing sincerely held opinions, however ill-founded, establishes credibility.

It doesn’t.

The late Canadian essayist Jon Whyte liked to describe his craft as taking the dog for a walk. In writing, he said, it’s important to know the country and to keep the central idea on a leash. Not too tight — no one wants to see the dog strangle as it’s dragged at the writer’s heels. But not too slack, either — letting the dog run away over the hills in pursuit of an errant idea, never to return, is a good way to lose the reader entirely.

Good editors nudge, tug and prod the writer into providing just enough slack to allow wide-ranging exploration but just enough tautness to keep that roving imagination under control. Editors are the inspectors who worry about the internal architecture of writing, whether the supporting walls are in the right place, about whether the doors open into the right rooms.

Or, to use a gardening metaphor, editors know exactly when to apply the appropriate fertilizer to the writer’s self-importance to promote new growth where it’s needed. They also know just when to apply the pruning shears and just what to cut away to create the most pleasing shape.

Editors mediate between the writer’s vanities and the reader’s needs. Writers usually possess the over-inflated egos necessary to create immense, complicated structures out of nothing beyond their own imaginations. Well, it must be vanity that fuels the endeavour; it can’t be the money — except for the tiny few.

Writers often complain about editors. However, the complaint is mostly offered with the same kind of exasperated affection the rest of us employ when we grumble about much-loved companions who don’t happen to be perfect.

Writers, from those who craft literary works of astonishing grace to grimy journalists who slop through the trench warfare of daily deadlines, dodging the whiz-bangs of dissimulating spin doctors, all rely on editors they frequently accused of being insensitive and uncaring.

Good editors do care, of course, but they are rather more for the words and less for the writers’ vanity. Some editors become famous, luminary bodies reflecting the light of the literary stars they bring into being.

Maxwell Perkins seized Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling, dishevelled and completely undisciplined manuscript and fashioned Look Homeward, Angel from its 1,114 pages. He discovered and nurtured the muscular literary style of an emerging Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings added to his lustre. Edward Aswell discerned a remarkable novel in a box of loose pages that came to him after Wolfe’s death and then shaped it into the acclaimed You Can’t Go Home Again.

Robert Giroux edited the poet T.S. Eliot, the tragic feminist heroine Virginia Woolf, novelist William Golding and iconic American poet Carl Sandburg.

Yet for each of these famous editors of literary superstars, there are thousands who labour without recognition. They edited — and edit –the lesser stars in the literary firmament, the many excellent mid-list writers. They edit magazine articles and technical manuals and the hasty, frequently semi-literate prose of newspaper journalists like me, who rip it off at the dead run without time for revision.

In my own writing career, reaching back to 1966 and beyond, I don’t care to recall how many times my backside has been saved by an editor catching an embarrassing typographical error, an egregious misspelling of somebody’s name or a factual howler that a four-year-old wouldn’t make.

Editors have reworked opaque, clod-like paragraphs into transparent lucidity and have frequently drawn to my attention the buried opening paragraph and the perfect terminal sentence entombed somewhere in the middle of a story instead of at the end.

I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that if Eliot and Hemingway needed an editor, I sure as heck need a good one. I’m endlessly grateful to my unsung colleagues at The Vancouver Sun who so diligently keep the egg off my face.

And every time they save me from me I wonder again, what’s to become of literature in a “new media” culture that values the unmediated voice and sees editors as tiresome and unnecessary frills?

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