Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The importance of a good editor

Many writers become wealthy and famous and are recognized for their talents, but few editors can say the same. ("Few" being a polite way of saying "none.") This is an injustice. An editor is vitally important to a writer. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a writer without an editor is like an author without a reviser. Not many people realize that some of the most famous words ever written in the English language were actually written by editors. This includes not only such famous words as "a," "an," the," "with," and "for," but actual entire sentences and even paragraphs. Consider the following great writings.

The Declaration of Independence. Every educated person is familiar with the stirring words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." What people don't realize is that's only what it said after an editor had improved it. As originally written, that sentence actually read, "We really, really hate King George."

The Gettysburg Address. Many myths have sprung up around this famous speech, including the story that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope while riding in a train. Untrue. What Lincoln actually wrote on the back of an envelope while riding a train was his "to-do" list. He gave that to his editor, who turned it into the words we all know: "Fourscore and seven years ago…."

Kennedy's Inaugural Address. Who can forget the immortal words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"? Yet how many people know that the original line was "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask me about my grandchildren"? Thanks to Kennedy's editor, we have a great statement on patriotism rather than two mismatched halves of bad bumper stickers.

WMDs. "WMDs" and "weapons of mass destruction" are terms that have become commonplace, but that's not always what people called them. In fact, in early drafts of George W. Bush's speeches to convince the American people that we should go to war with Iraq, he called them "TBTWGBAKLOFs," "them big things what goes boom and kills lots of folks." Extensive testing in focus groups showed that term to be rather ineffective, and Bush's editor suggested that he change it to "weapons of mass destruction." The rest, as they say—if they don't have a good editor to stop them from using clichés—is history.

This post. This post was actually about the war in Iraq, but I'm sure everyone but the writer will agree that talking about editors is much more important, and since he won't even see this until it's published, who cares what he thinks? It's about time we editors get a little respect, dammit.


  1. Oh how funny and wonderful!
    Tell us more about your editor. Is he/she a person that we'll get to know?


  2. I think I laughed so hard that I . . .

    Good thing I did laundry yesterday.


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