December 11, 2011

The writing business

The 15-foot Albacore

I WAS THINKING the other day about mankind's most desperate desire. I was reminded that mankind's most compelling urge is not to make money, make war, or make your neighbor sick with jealousy over your new sit-on lawn mower. It's not to romance your boss's wife or make a million on eBay. Mankind's most urgent desire is to change what other people have written.

I know this because all my working life I have written words for money; and all my life a certain species of human called a copy editor has pounced upon those words with glee and changed them, willy-nilly, without justification, and for no good reason whatsoever.

It doesn't matter what you write, or whether you're an amateur or a professional, somebody always wants to change it. Somebody always knows better. Somebody is always ready to believe you're an idiot who never learned no grammer and can't spell no how.

It was with more than the usual trepidation, therefore, that I e-mailed my latest offering to Joshua Colvin, editor of a nice little magazine called Small Craft Advisor. I have to admit that Josh has always been kind to me. Unlike most other editors, he seems to be equipped with a heart. But this time I may have gone too far. I may have provoked him.

You see, one of the things an editor likes most is to be told how many words a forthcoming article will contain. This is so that he can estimate the space needed, and so plan a place for the article in his magazine. They're always planning, these people, and always having to re-plan at the last moment when their first plans don't work out.

My offering was a nice little story about a newly married couple here in Bellingham, Wash., who spent their honeymoon sailing and rowing to Alaska in an open, 15-foot Albacore racing dinghy. It took Michael Kleps, a practicing attorney, and his wife, Elizabeth MacDonald, a qualified commercial electrician, seven weeks to cruise the 900 miles to Juneau, sleeping almost every night among the bears and other wildlife in a small tent pitched on whatever wilderness spots of beach or rock they could manage to land on.

The trouble is that I told Josh rather brashly that I could squeeze the story into 1,000 words. We professionals are good at stuff like that. That's why we are professionals.

So I was at first astonished, then disbelieving, and then chagrined, when the little word-counter on my computer told me that the story had come out at 2,000 words, not 1,000. Of course, you can't rely on word-counters too much. They lie. I have often found that. So I counted the words myself. Er, yes. Two thousand. And no way could I shorten that article. Every word was golden, every phrase a gem. Nothing was wasted or repeated.

So now I know Josh will have to change it and squeeze 2,000 into the space he left for 1,000. The only thing that consoles me is the fact that this is a symbiotic relationship. It is the job of a writer to pour out everything he has learned. It is the job of the editor — nay, his primal urge, his greatest delight — to change everything, to slash and cut and purge like Attila the Hun, leaving bleeding nouns and wounded adjectives littered all over the countryside to die painful deaths.

This is how we live. This is how it has always been. Writers create. Editors slaughter. It's too terrible for words.

PS: The sweet little Albacore is for sale in Juneau, Alaska, for $500. She's ready for the return trip next summer. If you're interested, click on Comments below, leave a phone number or e-mail address, and I'll put you in touch. Your details won't be published.

Today's Thought
The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few who can write know anything.
— Bagehot, Literary Studies: Shakespeare

Here’s a hint for beginning gardeners on how to distinguish weeds from proper plants:
Pull everything out. Those that come up again are weeds.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)



Anonymous said...

I'm a professional translator, and I know the feeling exactly. What a perfect piece of writing. "It's too terrible for words." As a finisher, just brilliant. Paul McNutt

John Vigor said...

Thank you, fellow-sufferer Paul. I can well imagine how people are tempted to fiddle with your work. To heck with them. If they're so clever, why aren't they doing the translation?


John V.