On Editors

“Napoleon once shot and killed a publisher. But he was aiming at an editor. His intentions were good.”

— Mark Twain

I got into editing for the money. Shows how smart I am. Editing pays a pittance more than reporting. The Brownsville Herald hired me as a copy editor for $6 an hour in 1988, three days after I’d been fired from my first newspaper staff job, in San Bernardino County, after a glorious inglorious tenure of three months.

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love. Then you do it for a few friends. And then finally you do it for money.”

— Moliere

On Day One in San Bernardino County my first and best editor, the late, lamented Charlie Hand, told me how they used to run newspapers. He told me this 10 seconds after Quinn the publisher had walked out of the newsroom, after telling Charlie to write a piece a certain way about a school board race.

“Sure, Quinn,” Charlie’d said, as I typed up a story about gangs on a tiny green screen on an Apple II computer.

Charlie could snatch a story off my computer any time he wanted, but he let me “send” them to him instead, across our desks. It was the dawn of something, though we didn’t know what.

“What was that about, Charlie?” I asked after Quinn left.

Turned out that Quinn’s wife wanted a seat on the school board: the first step for many an aspiring politician. Ordered to write a news story about it, in a certain way, Charlie had said, “Sure, Boss,” and let it drop.

“So what’ll you do when he asks you for it, Charlie?” I said.

Looking me straight in the eye, Charlie said: “I’ll tell him you couldn’t get the story.”

Then he gave me this advice: “If you stay in journalism, you’ll probably be made an editor. If you are, part of your job will be to blow off the boss if the boss is full of shit.”

That’s the way they used to do newspapers. Politics, too, I understand.

All hail Charlie! The late, great, lamented Charlie Hand!

“I hate editors. All editors. I shall hate them until the day I die.”

— Mikhail Bulgakov:

The best editing advice ever came from Mark Twain, in Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses:

“There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In ‘Deerslayer,’ Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require …”

And so on. After 11 “large rules,” dealing with plot and character, Twain followed up with “some little ones. These require that the author shall:

“12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

“13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

“14. Eschew surplusage.

“15. Not omit necessary details.

“16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

“17. Use good grammar.

“18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

These 39 words are not little rules for writing. In fact, they anticipate the state of American writing after Hemingway corrected our style nearly a century ago, and made it embarrassing to write in a certain way anymore — two generations after Twain pointed it out. Of course, most of our politicians violate these rules every time they open their mouths, but politicians are not writers, they are … What are they, really?

Speaking of Hemingway, the greatest editorial stare-down of which I am aware came between Hem and his editor Maxwell Perkins.

Hemingway ended a chapter of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with a long disquisition about the smell of death. It ends with Pablo telling Robert Jordan to put an old whore’s underpants over his head and inhale.

Maxwell Perkins said no, absolutely not.

Hemingway said Oh yes, you will.

Perkins said no.

Nevertheless, Hemingway persisted.

The next chapter opens with the clean smell of snow, which will lead to the hero’s death, as the fascists follow his tracks in new snow.

No one likes editors, and I know why, having had editors and being an editor myself. But everyone needs an editor, if (s)he wants to appear at the top of her form.

I have tried assiduously this week (farting around on the internet) to find out who edited P.G. Wodehouse. Alas! I failed.

Maybe Wodehouse didn’t need an editor. Shakespeare did. His editors were his troupe.

So to all you younger writers out there, here is a bit of advice from a survivor of 30 years of the editorial wars: You ain’t Shakespeare. You ain’t even P.G. Wodehouse. I know you have an urgent message to bring to humanity, as I did. God bless you for it. But to carry it over the goal line, please understand: You have to follow Mark Twain’s rules 12-18.

This will be on the test.

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