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.
At 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; I ordered my copy from the Book Depository (UK).
* Anyone who doubts the fallibility of editors should see these confessions at the Subversive Copy Editor Blog.