I was sitting in my favorite coffee
shop, Nirvana for English Majors. All around me people were clacking away
on keyboards, reciting poetry in mellifluous tones, and reading books like
Silas Marner and Moby Dick. Except for two patrons.
At first their voices were insistent but
controlled. Soon they became more strident.
"I am so tired of you changing every
word I write!" said one. "You criticize everything I do. If I write
affirmative, you change it to yes. If I write no, you
change it to negative. If I use a dash, you change it to a colon.
If I put a comma here, you move it there. Nothing satisfies you!"
"You wonít listen to me!" said the
other. "I feel as though I canít make the simplest, most obvious
suggestion without your becoming indignant and defensive. If I revise a
sentence for clarity, you tell me Iíve made it worse. If I eliminate a
wordy expression, you tell me Iím nitpicking. If I delete a comma, you put
it back in. You take offense at everything I say!"
"Pardon me," I said, as one of them was
reaching for the otherís throat. "I couldnít help but overhear your
As they turned, I thought for a moment
they were going to pounce on me.
"Now, hold on," I said. "I think I can
help. What we need here is a little candor and self-awareness. You," I
said to the editor, "are fussy."
"Thatís just what Iíve been saying,"
said the writer.
"And you," I said to the writer, "are
"Precisely," said the editor.
"And thatís your job," I said. "Thatís
the way itís supposed to be."
They both seemed taken aback.
"Editors are supposed to be fussy," I
continued, "but not too fussy. Writers depend on editors to eliminate
things that might annoy or confuse the reader. Writers need editors who
know the rules of language well enough to catch embarrassing errors, but
who also are sufficiently conversant with current usage to avoid applying
those rules rigidly."
They appeared to be listening, so I went
"Writers are supposed to be touchy," I
said, "but not too touchy. Editors expect writers to be passionate about
their subjects, to care deeply about language, and to be deliberate in
their word choice. Editors shouldnít expect writers to accept every
revision without question, and writers shouldnít take every suggestion as
a personal affront."
For a moment they sat without talking.
Then they looked at one another sheepishly.
"Well," said the editor, "I guess you do
have the more challenging job. Creating something from nothing is not
"And you," said the writer. "Youíre
caught in the middle, trying to respect what Iíve done while making sure
itís palatable to the reader."
"Excellent," I said. "Now I want you to
hug each other."
"Embrace would be the better word," said
"There you go again!" said the writer.