I spent the weekend in Arizona at the Tucson Festival of Books. I had a great time talking to people about editing their books. It made me think about the first time I worked with an editor.
Back in the late 70s, I had just picked up a job as a stringer for the San Mateo Times, a local newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. I would be reporting on local sports. My first assignment was to cover a game in a youth baseball tournament. I brought all the intensity and enthusiasm to the assignment I would have to covering the World Series. I went to the game, kept score, took careful notes, conducted post-game interviews, and carefully crafted what I thought was a pretty good account of the game.
I handed the newsprint sheet with my story on it to my editor, and said, “I think this is okay.”
He lit a Marlboro, picked up a black Bic pen, no blue pencil for him, and began marking up what I had written. He slashed through a phrase, scribbled a few words and drew a line to another place in the paragraph, scratched out another word or two. It only took a minute.
“It had more mistakes than I thought,” I said.
“Not really. This was pretty good for your first piece,” he said. “You know sports. You can write. Everybody gets edited.”
Then he picked up his pen and asked, “Did you check with Mark to see who won the other game?”
“That’s okay, I'll get it later when he files. You always want that in the story.” He puffed on the Marlboro and added, “One other thing, don’t talk to the losing coach. His comment is interesting, but in a story this length there’s only space for quotes from the winners.”
I couldn’t wait for the Times to come out the next day. I grabbed a copy as soon as it hit the street corner rack. I tossed the front section aside and went straight to the Sports. There was my story. A few unneeded words were gone. No one would have missed them. A line or two was reordered. The losing coach’s comment had disappeared. A line putting the game in context by indicating who the winning team would play next and when had replaced it. It was better than the version I had written.
I felt better that evening when I turned in my next story and watched him mark it up. It didn’t take long before I took it for granted that he would make some changes to improve what I wrote.
I came to understand that an experienced editor knew what made a sport story pop and how to make mine do it. He could wield his Bic like a scalpel to eliminate the worst excesses of my natural wordiness. What I really came to appreciate though, was the conversations we had about different ways of doing a story. His insights into the craft of sports writing helped me to learn to think and write about the events I covered in ways I might otherwise never have considered. Producing a good story became a partnership between my editor and me. It made the product much better.
That’s why everybody needs a good editor.