This Time

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 68 (December 1996): 3-4.

Like coyotes and roadrunners, writers and editors are natural enemies. Writers suspect that all editors are misanthropes who compensate for their crabbed lives and creative frustrations by exercising petty tyranny over the efforts of their literary betters. Editors, for their part, regard most writers as paranoid egomaniacs ungrateful for the selfless efforts that extract a modicum of literacy and coherence from unpromising texts. As a skillful and sensitive editor whose own limpid prose has often fallen victim to editorial butchers, I understand the grievances of both.

Actually, that statement is greatly exaggerated-at least the part about the treatment of my own writing. For the most part, my experience with editors has been positive. That's because the journal for which I have written most extensively over the years is Commentary, and the editors I dealt with there, Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy, both combined exacting standards for clarity with a minimum of the occupational tendency to fussiness.

When they changed something, it was because it needed changing. Neal once entirely rewrote the lead of a book review of mine for the very good reason that I hadn't been able to make up my mind about the book and had written an introductory paragraph that was both equivocal and awkward. On another occasion, Norman suggested that I remove a couple of paragraphs from an essay because they interrupted the flow of my argument. I pleaded that they should be kept-couldn't he see that every word was a gem?-and he reluctantly acquiesced. Rereading the essay some time later, I saw he had been right. Most of the time, Commentary published my pieces pretty much as I wrote them, which accounts, no doubt, for my high opinion of the journal's editorial practices. (Joseph Epstein recounts his similarly happy experiences as a writer for Commentary in the September 30, 1996 edition of the Weekly Standard.)

Not all editors, of course, are up to the standards of Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy. I've had my share of unpleasant experiences with ignorant and overzealous editors. An assistant editor of an obscure academic journal rewrote every other sentence of an exhaustively researched (and numbingly dull) article I wrote on fair employment legislation during World War II. Indeed, he was so enthusiastic in his editing that he recast a good many of the direct quotations I had included from congressional debates. When I pointed this out, his senior editor was so chagrined that he gave me back most of my own sentences as well.

Then there was the journal that reprinted an essay on radical historians that I had published in Commentary. In the single most incompetent piece of editing I have ever encountered, the journal-which did not send me proofs ahead of time-introduced into the reprint literally dozens of misspellings (beginning with my name), grammatical errors, and jumbled sentences. Anyone reading the article who had not seen the original essay in Commentary could only have concluded that I was a subliterate idiot.

All editors have idiosyncratic preferences and antipathies. Joseph Epstein, the distinguished editor of the American Scholar, admits in his Weekly Standard essay to a number of "tics, quirks, and downright prejudices," among which is an intense dislike of the word "intriguing." I know, because he struck that word from the article I wrote for him on my experiences at Valparaiso University. I admire Mr. Epstein as both writer and editor, but I find it intriguing that he should have such an irrational prejudice against a perfectly good English word.

My own career as editor began relatively late. In 1981, after I had been teaching in Canada for seventeen years, my undergraduate institution Valparaiso University invited me back to edit the Cresset, its monthly review of literature, the arts, and public affairs. I wasn't, to tell the truth, all that interested in editing, but I did want to return to the U.S. and alma mater, so I jumped at the chance. It was only gradually that I discovered that the move from classroom to editor's chair was, for me, a felicitous one. Better grappling with grownups' essays than undergraduates' term papers.

Editing the Cresset was an enjoyable, if sometimes anxiety- filled, experience. Because I was a staff of one, I had total editorial independence. For the same reason, I had very limited resources. Which meant, among other things, that authors saw their proofs only if I had done very heavy editing (i.e., total rewrites). Other than that, writers had to trust me. It was not an ideal circumstance, but it instilled in me a healthy instinct not to edit more than necessary-though "necessary" is here a term subject to debate-and at all times to attend carefully to the author's intended meaning (however inscrutable that might be). In retrospect, I am amazed and gratified that so few Cresset contributors complained of my ministrations, though I recognize that there may be legions of them nursing deep silent grudges to this day.

I have tried to carry the habits developed at the Cresset to the quite difference circumstances of First Things, where I have far more in the way of resources-if, alas, less godlike authority. Editing is like writing in that, while it can be improved with practice, one either has a knack for it or one does not. For several years I had the great good fortune to work with a master editor, Midge Decter. She wasn't on the masthead-her official title was Distinguished Fellow of the Institute-but she was in practice until her retirement last year FT's chief copy editor. She didn't impose her own marvelous style on the writers she edited, but she did wonders fixing their logic, structure, grammar, and syntax.

The trick of editing is to rescue writers from their errors and infelicities without robbing them of their individuality or substituting one's own voice for theirs. Good writing comes in a variety of forms, and journals whose contributors all sound alike could do with some editorial lightening up. As with judges, one wants from editors a certain self-restraint, and my principle-if perhaps not always my practice-is that on close calls writers should get the benefit of the doubt.

The major problem in editing a journal of ideas like First Things is that most of our contributors are academics, and many academics, not to put too fine a point on it, write barbaric prose. Graduate education ruins writers under the guise of inducting them into the academic priesthood. Academics are taught to write for other academics, which means adopting a particular discipline's distinctive language. The result, often even in the humanities, is that scholars communicate in a needlessly opaque jargon decipherable only to those who have mastered the code of the club. It's the equivalent of a secret handshake.

Most academics welcome efforts to make their prose more accessible. Some, however, suspect that to translate Academese into standard English is to dumb it down. A few genuinely seem to prefer obscurity and to confuse it with profundity.

Editors have a self-effacing vocation. Much of the most important work they do-the articles they reject, the prose in accepted articles that they bring to high polish (or at least to intelligibility)-is known to but a few. Theirs is a hidden glory.

My colleague Richard John Neuhaus tells my favorite editor story. Years ago at a different journal (now defunct) he drew the assignment of editing the manuscript of a friend who was also a very distinguished scholar (now deceased). The distinguished scholar was, unfortunately, not much of a stylist. RJN labored at considerable length to bring order and clarity to the ungainly manuscript. When, some weeks later, the article was published, the distinguished scholar remarked to RJN how pleased he was to see it in print. "And you know," he added, "if I do say so myself, I had forgotten how well-written it was."

No editor could hear sweeter words.