Monday, November 18, 2019

"I'd Rather Have A Good Editor Than Good Editing"

My first job out of college put me under the tutelage of several people, but none were as stern as Dr. Robert G. Dederick. A Harvard-educated economist who spent time as Undersecretary of Commerce in the Reagan administration, he established the bar for no-nonsense economics. He was a straight-lined, standards-and-regulations, belt-and-suspenders man, and I had the privilege of answering to his demands.

Dr. Robert G. Dederick, my favorite Harvard economist
This man had rules I could not comprehend. Maybe it was because I was fresh out of college, but his set and defined ways were beyond my understanding. It wasn't about comprehending the little things, like how he would eat a banana with a fork and knife, but his way of writing, explaining, and supporting his points. He threw in commas wherever and whenever possible ("Use one, boy, we're not running out any time soon,") and maintained a structure that was as strict and regular as the drum in a Sousa march. As it turns out, this kind of person was exactly what I needed to figure out the world I had entered.

Did I really need this? Yes, indeed. While Dr. Dederick (who was also known as Bob and as Dr. D outside the conference room) was pretty rigid with the way things needed to be done, he was not like other people who taught by a My-way-or-the-highway method. Bob's way of working with me, which was infused throughout the department, was not about telling me what was wrong. Bob took the important step of telling me why I was wrong.

This is not just about how writers learn their trade; this is about how everyone learns. In my world of economics, there were two sets of rules: the hard-and-fast guidelines set by the science, and the schools of thought that used cause and effect to arrive at a particular conclusion. The former was a matter of rote memorization, like multiplication tables, but the latter could only be learned by the exchange of ideas.

I have worked with editors who were proficient and following the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, which is fine, but their skill stopped there. If they felt a metaphor didn't work, they would write, "metaphor doesn't work" and move on. Could they explain? Was it awkward? Did it not fit the mood? Too complex? Forced? These editors are fine at the nuts and bolts, but the amount that can be learned from them is limited.

A good editor, like a good teacher, should be someone who offers advice. Whether they lean back in their chair, like Bob would, and offer a story from the late 1970s on how the Federal Reserve dropped the ball, or pull up a chair and offer a five-minute discussion on their opinion of why they feel something doesn't work, in the end, it should be a learning experience. The interaction should end with you feeling you are wiser for having been involved. People learn mechanics over time, but the lessons learned from a good editor should be special moments.

Today, Bob turns 90. In fairness, he passed away a few years ago, but I use the present tense because he is still very much present in my writing. There are at least three parts of this post that have his influence, and a number of the commas are dedicated to him. He wasn't an editor, but he shaped my life. And hopefully, you get someone in your life who teaches you enough about writing or economics or whatever to where you write something dedicated to them, and see them in every sentence.

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