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.
My father was a journalist, or a “newspaperman,” as he preferred to call himself. He began his career on a two-man weekly in a shipbuilding town on the Delaware River. Then he moved up to reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, chasing fire trucks and ambulances for stories. He liked to tell me about the editor who made him call back over and over with more and more details from the scene of a fire, until he finally got the point: get all the information you can the first time.
For several years he worked in public relations for Ford Motor Company in Detroit, but eventually he returned to newspaper work, his first love. During the years that my high-school essays and reports came under his scrutiny, he worked for a large suburban newspaper outside Chicago.
Perhaps from his delight at working under deadline pressure, he would always present my copyedited paper to me at breakfast, about an hour before I had to be at school. There it lay, beside my plate, marked-up with squiggles, circles, and carets—the arcana of the trade known mainly to professional editors. At a glance my poor essay looked like it had fallen overnight into the hands of prehistoric cave painters.
“All right, let’s start at the top,” Dad would say in a friendly tone. “The title is interesting, but it doesn’t really have much to do with what follows, does it?”
“No. Don’t make the reader work too hard. Draw the person in. Don’t confuse him.”
“I suppose not….”
And so it would go.
He would point out places where I had committed serious stylistic errors: writing sentences that began with long dependent clauses (“Don’t keep the reader waiting for the meaning.”); using a strident, hectoring tone (“Alienate the reader by preaching and you’ll never get him back.”); babbling on about something irrelevant (“The worse thing you can have a reader say is, ‘So what?’”).
The rest—punctuation, paragraph structure, verb tense—he expected me to know. Or if I didn’t, to look it up. He always did, despite years writing thousands of words a day. His shelf of reference works looked like a row of tools above a workman’s bench. Books on grammar, books on style, books on editing, books on narrative—each addressing some aspect of the craft of writing.
“I realized when I was in my 20s,” he told me, “that writing must be more than hit or miss. That there must be methods you could use to be a better writer. And that’s when I began reading about writing.”
Reading about writing! At 15, this was a revelation to me. Like most people, I had assumed that producing a good piece of writing was largely a matter of luck. Either it turned out right, like a soufflé, or it didn’t. But read examples of good sentences? Study models of good writing? As a student I had been forced to do this, but to find out these things had practical uses beyond tormenting children surprised me.
It was only a long time after high school, though, that I realized the favor my father had done me by editing my papers. I mistook his throat clearing at the beginning of those sessions as a not-too-subtle sign of superiority. But now, looking back, I know that he was nervous. He wanted me to learn to accept being edited.
If I couldn’t accept that—and gracefully, too—then I wasn’t going to make it as a writer. Everyone who succeeds as a writer gets edited.
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.”
Someone taking the time to give you the benefit of their expertise isn’t (as I thought my father was doing) finding fault with you, or proving that you’re not a good writer. It’s a gift, and a rite of passage into the profession. Be glad—you’re on your way.
I know a writer who refuses to let a word of his prose be altered. You’ve never heard of him. It’s a shame. His small-press books would sell much better if he allowed his work to be edited.
I also know a best-selling author of Civil War historical novels who recently released his third book. I came up to him at a literary festival and blurted, “You’re brilliant!” He blushed. “Shucks,” he said, “my editor made me cut 200 pages.”
But when I was a youngster, my understanding that editing is a gift was still far above me while my father patiently, carefully went over my writing with me. Finally, with a groan, I would snatch my “ruined” work from him, retype it in my bedroom, and run the mile to school at full speed, arriving a minute or two before the final bell.
In all my self-absorption and wounded pride, I forgot to say something, and now it’s too late:
Thanks, Dad. Thanks for taking the time to edit my writing.
Charles J. Shields is a nonfiction writer of trade biographies, history, young adult books, and e-books. His biographies include Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, 2006), and I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee (Holt, 2008), which received awards from ALA Best Books for Young Adults, Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, and Arizona Grand Canyon Young Readers Master List. His biography—the first ever—of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, 2011) was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011. He is co-founder, with biographers Nigel Hamilton, James McGrath Morris, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Debby Applegate, of Biographers International Organization, a non-profit organization that promotes the art and craft of biography.