Why Being A Good Editor Matters

I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today.  If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar.  At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly.  “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.”  One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.

News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days.  Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage.  At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example.  Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come.  I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing.  However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference.  This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:

4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.

Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece.  For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong.  Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.

The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book.  The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology.  I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion.  It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story.  It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se.  The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is.  Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.

Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks.  Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults.  Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?

If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does.  If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts.  You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do.  Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.

Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to.  Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story.  Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.

Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein  Panel from Action Comics #288 "The Man Who Exposed Superman" (1962)

Panel featuring Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein
Action Comics #288 “The Man Who Exposed Superman” (1962)




Putting It Mildly

If like me you are a blogger who does not blog for a living, then you know that statistically speaking, you live for feedback and followers, when it comes to your blog posts, rather than for clicks and advertisements.  This particular blog has been online since 2008 and, while my readership is not gigantic, it is certainly regular, and has been steadily increasing as the years go on.  So when WordPress selected my blog post on collecting secondhand books to appear on their “Freshly Pressed” page on Saturday morning, I thought – well that’s nice. I might get a few more readers.

Now, after about 1,200 reads, 130 “likes”, and 50-0dd comments on that one post, and despite having blogged for some time and more recently become involved in podcasting, it still astounds me how powerful new media can be.  It brings a diverse group of people to your message, whatever that message may be, in ways which basic word of mouth among friends can rarely hope to do.  And some of these people who may not normally choose to read a blog like yours might actually want to stick around, and see what you are going to write next.

This creates both an opportunity for the author and a sense of responsibility he must bear to his reader.  For if you are reading these pages, it means you are not reading others, with the time you have available for reading such things.  There is, as economists would say, an opportunity cost in giving up some of your time to consider my thoughts, rather than someone else’s or indeed your own.

More to the point Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, would have commented that it is not the popularity of a blog in and of itself which necessarily assures us of good content, but rather the continued effort of the writer to try to get better at it.  We can all think of bloggers whom we have read in online publications, and wonder who on earth encouraged them to start writing – let alone paid them to do so.  Yet as Castiglione observes in The Book of the Courtier that “those who are not thus perfectly endowed by nature, with study and toil can in great part polish and amend their natural defects.”

There is nothing whatsoever to be lost in admitting that one has a great deal to learn about something, for this is in fact the way by which we can begin to try to improve ourselves.  If I walk out into a football game having never actually played football, I am probably going to end up carried off on a stretcher, unless I admit that I need coaching and training.  Or if I want to try to cook a paella having never actually made one before, by simply using a recipe book, something is almost certainly not going to come out quite right – the rice will be underdone or the seafood will have been overcooked into pieces of rubber and so on.

WordPress has certainly sent a large number of new readers my way over the past 48 hours, for which I am deeply grateful.  Yet at the same time I admit that I am by no means an author who has perfected his craft.  There is still a great deal to learn, and when you are both writer and editor of your own material, sometimes the results are decidedly uneven.  Thus, while my opinions on certain subjects may remain strong, and at times even be viewed at as outspoken, as a scrivener I remain deeply convinced that while my writing talents have improved, there is still much to improve upon.  Fortunately with feedback and interaction, such improvements are not only possible, but likely.

Detail of “Portrait of a Man Writing” by Jacobus Eeckhout (c. 1840)
Southampton City Art Gallery, England