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The editor's frailties

The other day Shane Arthur of Editing Hacks invited me to answer his questionnaire for editors, and, constitutionally incapable of keeping my mouth shut, I did so. You can read the responses here.

Since l’esprit d’escalier* haunts us all, I’d like to add a piece about the editor’s limitations.

The greatest limitation for an editor is the inability to get beyond whatever level of quality is inherent in the text. “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it,” said Anthony Trollope. When I said previously that much of my work over the years has been to take the execrable and leave it merely mediocre, I was hardly exaggerating.

But similarly, the editor is trammeled by the limitations of his or her skills. That is why it is essential for you, if you work as an editor, to be honest and clear-headed about your own defects as a craftsman.

If, for example, you tend to go too fast and miss details, you will need to find some way to compensate, perhaps by requiring one or two additional readings before letting go of the text. Or if your tendency is to edit too slowly, perhaps you need to set yourself a deadline for each text you pick up.

One hazard to dodge is rigidity. Every time I see some colleague genuflecting before the Associated Press Stylebook (that compendium of sensible advice, inconsistent practice, and laughable shibboleths), I cringe. Every time I see an editor lovingly cataloguing pet peeves, I shake my head; of course we all identify irritants, but I wonder how many important things get overlooked as editors tend to their fetishes.

Then there are the troubling evidences of unexamined assumptions about usage. I too have been guilty of making editing decisions on the basis of something I read once in a book or article, or heard someone say once, without investigating to determine whether it had any validity.

At the worst, there’s the temptation toward one-size-fits-all rigidity, the uniform coat of battleship gray slapped on every text, the ultimate hazard of collective unexamined assumptions, blind adherences to rules real and imagined, and obsessive-compulsive control. Don’t go there.


*The French “spirit of the staircase” is sometimes translated as “staircase wit,” the comeback you think of on your way out the building, the additional remark you wish you had made at the time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 PM | | Comments (3)


We should all know our limitations, but should not dwell on them. Editors harbor far too much self-doubt and timidity.

Forgive me this digression, Prof. McI., but your explication of "l'esprit d'escalier" (or "staircase wit"), for me, immediately conjured up fond memories of inarguably the classic master of the form, namely that trench-coated, thoroughly disheveled TV detective, Lt. Columbo, played so convincingly, and w/ such aplomb by actor Peter Falk, back in the '70s.

As fans of the show will recall, wily sleuth Columbo had the habit of seemingly exiting the scene of forensic inquiry, and then almost immediately returning to further interrogate the suspected 'perp', or perhaps, an accessory to the crime at hand.

Clearly, in that tiny moment of lapsed time Columbo had stumbled on yet another potential clue to his suspect's obvious guilt, and wanting to get it off his chest, so to speak, comes back, usually catching his suspected 'perp' totally off guard, guilt written large over their stunned face.

Now I guess, strictly speaking, this 'comeback' habit of Lt. Columbo's doesn't fall perfectly into your "staircase wit" definition, as the return query he delivers is rarely witty, or the least bit humorous. Nonetheless, I always got a chuckle when he'd almost predictably (if you were a loyal fan of the show), creep back into the picture when you though he was 'outta there', and invariably catch his intended 'prey' totally flat-footed, and sputtering.......... stewing in their own guilty juices.

Falk's Columbo's signature slow, halting, almost Jimmy Stewart-esque manner of inquiry was so effective in defining the Lieutenant's quirky character, making him such an endearing, and enduring TV icon for so long.

Sadly, I've heard that in more recent years Peter Falk has fallen victim to dementia, and his condition has progressively deteriorated, of late. Very sad, indeed.

Well, since I'm currently living in a one-story, relatively ancient tract house out here in "The Valley" (L.A.), sans l'escalier, understandably my "staircase wit" has been vastly compromised. Frankly, half the time I don't know if I'm coming, or going. HA!


The advice about compensating for your weaknesses, and the caveat about "genuflecting before the Associated Press Stylebook," were worth repeating. As for the latter specifically, I had no idea how widespread the practice was until I started following the #APstyle hashtag on Twitter. Given such widespread pedantry, I understand better why copy editors are held in disdain by so many reporters.

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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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