Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre

Many of you know John E. McIntyre, night editor at the Baltimore Sun and purveyor of consistently good sense on language and editing – evident on his blog You Don’t Say, which I read daily and often link to. Good news: McIntyre has written a book, titled The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing, and it is excellent.

John E. McInytre - The Old Editor Says - Maxims for Writing and Editing - book coverAt 70-odd pages, The Old Editor Says is short enough to breeze through in an hour or less, depending on how long you pause for thought, laughter, and quoting to neighbours. Then you’ll want to read it again.

McIntyre is a sharp and entertaining writer, traits honed by his newsroom experience. Take this line: “The next time you use ‘to die for’ in copy, we can make that happen.” (His point: beware exaggeration and journalistic tics and clichés.)

Each page opens with similarly aphoristic advice (occasionally inherited from other editors), followed by a brief discussion. The prose is clear, concise, measured, and filled with sound guidance. Here are some conclusions from one such piece of advice:

First, from your editor, as from your butler, there are no secrets. If you have allowed yourself to be lazy, careless, turgid, or sloppy, there is no concealing it.

Second, everyone – everyone – is capable of shoddy work, especially in the first draft. That is why writers need editing, not just self-editing, but editing from an independent set of eyes.

Third, humility should be the outcome. The writer should understand the human propensity toward error, and the editor should not assume some snooty sense of superiority for having ferreted out errors, because the editor is equally prone to them.*

The book does not deal much with specific issues of grammar; instead it devotes space to pointing out how errors and deficiencies commonly arise and suggesting how to prevent or mitigate them. It explains what’s necessary to keep readers reading and not frustrate them through carelessness and complacency. And it has fun doing so.

The Old Editor Says offers wise counsel on proofreading, word choice, office politics, ethics, stylebook use, job satisfaction, and more. Its main province is the newspaper trade, but its distilled insights are generally applicable to wordsmiths in other fields, as seen in this passage on rules and responsibility:

Those “rules” from whatever stylebook you use aren’t statutory; they’re guidelines. One-sentence exhortations, the ones in this little book included, are not adequate for the complexity of experience.

What you need is judgment.

Mr McIntyre has written a useful and original book that’s also a pleasure to read. If you’re in the business of writing or editing, The Old Editor Says will satisfy, gratify, and edify. You can get it through Amazon and elsewhere in paper and electronic formats.


* Anyone who doubts the fallibility of editors should see these confessions at the Subversive Copy Editor Blog.

9 Responses to Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre

  1. marc leavitt says:

    I agree.

  2. […] Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre | Sentence first […]

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Tried to order this Stan but “not available in my country”. :(


  4. Stan says:

    Marc, I’m glad to hear it.

    WWW: That’s a shame. I’ll look into this and see if it can be resolved. [Edit: It should be available in Canada from]

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Can’t wait to check out John’s new book. Nice concise and glowing summation, I might add, Mr. Carey.

    As an over two-year ‘denizen’ of his fine “You Don’t Say” language blog at the venerable Baltimore Sun, and an unabashed admirer of John’s wry wit, vast journalistic experience, consummate civility, and fairness of discourse, plus his seeming abiding penchant for not suffering fools gladly, I’m confident that “The Old Editor Says” will match his online high level of panache, jocularity, and sound reason regarding the copy editing trade that he so clearly and dearly loves.

    (He would be the first to admit he does have his occasional bad day at the ‘paragraph factory’*, as well. Copy editing is not an all-hearts- and-flowers enterprise.)

    The book cover graphic is very fitting– bespectacled, dapper John sporting his signature bow-tie and suspenders… definitely old-school, considering today’s marked drift to workplace-casual attire.

    I would maintain that John’s suit-and-tie preference perhaps reflects a sense of pride-in-profession, his Southern gentleman/ Kentucky roots, and merely making a personal statement that you don’t have to be a sartorial ‘slobovian’ these days to be noticed, and do a credible job.

    (I should talk. In my lengthly TV animation career here in Southern California, a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers were my everyday workplace attire. Of course, I was deemed one of the “artists”, or creative types, so they cut us “hippies” a little slack. HA!)

    I wouldn’t say John is officially a curmudgeon, but if he were, he’d be one of the sharpest, nattiest curmudgeons in any-town-U.S.A., bar none. Just sayin’.

    Kudos John McI. on your most recent literary publication.

    *John’s pet term for his employer of record, The Baltimore Sun.

    • Stan says:

      Alex: I don’t think of John as a curmudgeon either, but it’s a hat every editor dons from time to time. I like the cover too. In the background you can see an oval sticker that says “You are your words”. It came with his copy of the American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition, if I’m not mistaken; the same sticker graces the front of my fridge. The slogan is an overstatement, obviously, but it amounts to a practical truth in the normal reader–writer–editor relationship.

  6. This is a must read for every editor and writer. Mr. McIntyre gives everyone a great insight on how editors should change and become a perfectionist.

  7. […] Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre […]

  8. […] John McIntyre, in The Old Editor Says, warns that errors lurk in the big type and imparts the following wisdom: “Always give the big […]

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