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The editor and the renovator

One of the things I liked about Roy Peter Clark’s The Glamour of Grammar was its reminder of the exuberance of writing. Yes, it’s hell getting started, everyone knows that, but once the work is under way, once the sentences and paragraphs start to form, it’s a romp through the language. Writing is exploration, a discovery of the connections between words, and a discovery of one’s own ideas as they emerge and amplify on the page.

Editing, though allied, is a very different experience, as I was reminded this morning when the plumber and the contractor stopped by the house. That’s the new contractor. The gentleman first engaged to remodel the bathroom in the basement, a three- week project, he assured us, tore many things out, drilled puzzling holes in the concrete floor, installed new copper pipe, and vanished. That was in September. For more than a month, we have had no word from him, he has not responded to telephone calls or e-mail—in fact, his telephone number seems to have been discontinued—and his tools lie dusty and unclaimed in the basement. Odd.

An editor is like our new contractor. He steps into a project not completed. Here, too, there is a period of discovery: He sizes up the dimensions of the task and gravely evaluates the work of the previous craftsman. He estimates the scope of what remains to be done, how much time it will take, in what sequence of steps he will perform the work, and what materials and tools he will require. Then he sets to it. Any of the previous work that is solid he leaves alone. Where something has been done improperly or amateurishly, he makes it good. He gives attention to the fine details and cleans up after himself. And when the job is completed, he checks to make sure that it conforms to the design and intent, and he sees with satisfaction that he has brought something to completion.

Writing and editing are allied crafts, making use of the same tools, but the approaches are distinct, and the temperaments required for the two crafts, like those of the builder and the renovator, are not evenly distributed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 PM | | Comments (3)


Nicely done.

I hope you didn't pay that a contractor anything. A letter to the Maryland Secretary of State might be in order. The love to hear stores like this in Annapolis, between trips to McGarvey's.

If only every word you wrote comparing an editor to a new contractor could be true for all editors. Regrettably, there are editors who step into a completed project and incomplete it.

I loved this part: "And when the job is completed, he checks to make sure that it conforms to the design and intent...." Please teach that to every editing student and every copy editor under you. Teach it to editors across the land. It is a great comfort to a writer to know that his editor hopes to help him achieve his design and intent.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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