Analysis: editor in crisis

Chances are good if you’re reading this blog, you know me as an editor. Some of you know I’m above average on a good day and decent even when I’m running a fever.

This isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of.

When I was young, my idea of fun was tidying up. Rearrange this shelf, straighten these books in a row, organize crayons in the box according to matching color hues.

I could edit my mother’s grammar by the age of 9 (much to her chagrin — sorry, Mom).

In general, I have always known how things could be made just so.

And I’ve decided that this blog is where I’ll tell you something about being a good editor.

The first order of business is knowing a style guide. It makes you a faster, more reliable editor and creates room to fact check the big things that matter when you’re on a particularly tight deadline.

A good editor knows, for example, precisely how the heartless bastards at the Associated Press (AP) Style Guide have decided all journalists should present information. I’m sure the same goes for the soul suckers at Chicago, APA, MLA and so on. (No, I’m not editing those proper names for stylistic compliance because I have a life.) Not only must she know the litany of rules around editing a story such as “Bird circus comes to town,” a good newsroom editor must do 1,000 other things for any story that’s even slightly more complex. In essence, a devoted editor signs up for a near-constant headache and looming brain aneurism.

She doesn’t just ensure compliance with the AP Nazi Leadership Manual. She’s reading a story to see if the writer has at least three credible sources and to glean whether or not the writer asked any and all the pertinent questions in the universe. What, if anything, could improve this story? Do both sides have a fair and accurate representation in the first 150 words of the story? If someone or an institution is the subject of an accusation, have he, she or the organization been given a chance to respond for inclusion in the story? Are there legal implications with this piece? Will it make one of our advertisers angry? Does it need to be held? Can it afford to have an extra day of editing?

Over time [sic], if this editor leaves the newsroom mothership for other employment, she soon realizes that most organizations choose a side of the bloody editing ring (AP Style, Chicago and so on). But then they do the unthinkable: they modify it with “in-house style guides” that serve no other purpose than to appease the neurotic tendencies of (usually non-editorial) persons in power. Soon, what once was an empowered, insightful editor is now a woman selling her soul, one bullet point and date, time, place [sic] at a time.

Of course, such an editor never means to lose her editing prowess. She fights with everything in her heart of hearts to reinforce the gilded cage where her editor’s manual resides. Friends tell her they’re afraid to send text messages with grammatical mistakes — and that fear seems proper, like all is right with the world. From her darkened cubicle, her coworkers sometimes hear her whisper, “They still fear me,” but they don’t dare ask why.

The thing about this editor is that one day, the iron curtain might drop. The veil might be removed. And she might wonder what life is like without an endless throbbing in the frontal lobes of her brain. Could there be life beyond? Could there be color on the page, blue skies, a lunch menu that doesn’t consist of Cheez-Its and taco salads?

These are the questions of the editor in crisis, and here’s what I’ve found after spending the last couple years imagining the life of a writer.

I’m intrigued by a person whose work, unlike an editor’s, is rewarded for creativity and rule breaking. I’ve explored it. I’ve been writing more, seeking more. I took up painting, of all things. I’ve begged God’s forgiveness for posting regularly on a public blog. I have become my own power-hungry editor who craves the warmth of a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch before 4 p.m. on a weekday.

What scares me is: the more I play pretend as a writer, the more it attacks my editorial eye. 

I don’t hate things as much. 

I don’t yell at TV commercials. 

I don’t edit bestselling books as part of the background noise of my nightstand reading.

This freedom is curious, intoxicating, addicting.

And now I have little tolerance for the editor of old.

Will this editor in crisis become a writer? Too soon to tell.

But if you have any advice, I’m all ears.