Monday, February 25, 2013

Stuff the Old Editor says

Some people watched the Oscars last night, I hear. I curled up with a good book instead: John McIntyre's collection of newsroom wisdom, "The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing." It's not a long book, but for me it was a concentrated dose of nostalgia (for the copy desk days) with a chaser of relief (that I no longer work at a daily newspaper).

As the subtitle suggests, this is not a usage guide, though some language reminders punctuate the larger journalistic truths. These range from the time-tested ("The reader doesn't care how hard you worked on that story") to the thoroughly modern ("The people kvetching about the new editing software never mastered the old editing software either"). One of my favorites:
You can't fatten poor stock.  
Or, as Anthony Trollope wrote, "One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it."  
In editing, you can't make any text better than its inherent worth. Much routine editing involves taking texts that are defective -- sloppy, unclear, unfocused -- and rendering them merely mediocre. 
This may sound cynical, but it isn't really. The fact is, newspapers publish lots of stories that not only aren't wonderfully written, but don't even aspire to wonderfulness. It's more important to be clear and accurate, and that standard is not always easy to meet. (Ben Yagoda's latest book, "How to Not Write Bad," sensibly recommends the same standard -- basic, not-wrong competence -- as a goal for student writers.)

No more spoilers: For the rest, check out the links at You Don't Say or proceed directly to Amazon.

1 comment:

tudza said...

You could create another book titled "What People Say About Old Editors" but I suspect much of it would be unprintable.