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Mark Kingwell: "Good editors save you from yourself"

In today's installment of our "Writers/Editors" series: writer and philosopher Mark Kingwell on the editors who've set him up, paid him well, paid him terribly, and gifted him with better writing.

Some writers dream of finding the next Maxwell Perkins, legendary editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe, midwife to literary genius. My own early visions were goofier. When I thought of the perfect editor, I pictured J. Jonah Jameson bawling out Peter Parker before taking a slug from the bottle in his desk drawer. Devotees of the printed word should be like that, I thought: demanding, cranky, dedicated to breaking the story, borderline psychotic. 

In thirty years of working with dozens of editors at newspapers, magazines and publishing houses, I have met a few who had one or more of those qualities, though never all of them together. This was probably a good thing. I even attempted my own impersonation of the type for a couple of years, when I was editor-in-chief of an undergraduate newspaper, until it dawned on me that a comic-book character is not an ideal model for actual life. This was definitely a good thing. 

From the writer's side, editors are a lot like teachers. There are some bad ones, lots of indifferent ones, and then the brilliant few who remind you of why you're there in the first place. For every editor who has made a piece of mine worse, like the dummy who changed my use of 'allusion' to 'illusion,' rendering an entire newspaper article nonsensical and inciting a storm of online comments, there are at least two others who have saved me from a factual error, untied a grammatical knot or convinced me that a final sentence really should be cut. 

Good editors save you from yourself. They help you kill your darlings, as Faulkner put it: anything cute, slick, sentimental, or too clever by half. I try not to look back on my published work - doing so tends to generate rapid flashes of shame ("I can't believe I wrote that") and equally shameful vanity ("Not so bad, actually") - but if I ever find myself indulging it, my most frequent thought is: I wish I had listened to so-and-so when he/she said to blueline that bit of tricksy guff. 

The editor of the present piece had a request which, to this point, I have ignored. (Yes, writers are like that. It also seems, fair warning, that I'm going to exceed her suggested word count.* But I'm not getting paid by the word for this, so I hope she won't mind.) Anyway, the editor of this piece wanted me to single out an encounter or situation that highlighted the place of editors in my life as a working writer. 

I've been giving this a lot of thought. I figured I could mention the editor of my old National Post column, who not only let me have my way with the column and paid really well but introduced me to my wife. I could, on the other hand, take the opportunity to excoriate the freelance editor who decided, without consultation or apology, to change the entire tense of a book from historical present to past. 

But instead of a person, good or bad, I'll mention a publication, Harper's Magazine, where I hold my only remaining 'editorial' position, the odd post known as "contributing editor," who doesn't really edit at all. Harper's is what people like to call a writer's magazine, which is usually a euphemism for sucky rates. What it means to me is that the three people I have worked with at Harper's over the past twelve years, two of whom have since left or been fired, were the best editors I've ever known. I know this not only because they challenged me to write the clearest, most precise prose I could summon, but also because they worked so hard to deliver it. 

All writing is about choices, large and small. The closing stages of an article for the magazine almost always involved lengthy long-distance phone calls, the kind where your ear grows numb and your screen-fixed eyes turn bleary. In this final pass before closing the issue, writer and editor would together worship at the altar of that god who is in the details, taking pains over a word or phrase, seeking the perfect nuance or bit of reasoning, not moving on to the next paragraph until the thing is right

Silences would descend during these calls, sometimes for a minute or longer, two people sharing a phone line, both thinking hard. Should it be 'exacerbate' or 'provoke'? Can we find an active-voice alternative to this 'it seems that' business? Now that I look at it again, does this sentence really follow logically from the previous one? 

For me, these silences are sacred forays into the void of collaboration. They mark the soundless hush of a special gift: editorial genius at work, saving me once again.  

*Editor's note - Yes, Mark did far exceed the target word count for this article.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of fifteen books, including the national Bestsellers Better Living, The World We WantConcrete Reveries and Glenn Gould. His latest book, The Wage-Slave's Glossary, co-authored with Joshua Glenn and designed and decorated by Seth, is out on Labour Day.

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