I am, as I’ve noted before, fascinated by the process of being edited. I think this is so because writing, for me as for most other scholars — I’ve an urge to put that word in scare quotes, like so: “scholars” — is a solitary task. But I’m basically a social thinker; I like to bounce ideas off other people (boing) get their feedback, and then ignore it as I stubbornly stick to my guns. Really, though, I’ve always craved an intellectual partnership that would polish the shimmering ideas that I typically shroud with gray prose. Or so I tell myself. Other things I tell myself? I’m a great dad. I matter as a person. There are unicorns.

Regardless, below the fold, you’ll find two longish pieces on editing, composition, and other writerly stuff. The first is from Harper’s. I’d link, but they have a paywall, so I’ve cut a relatively small portion of content, a back and forth epistolary exchange, from the magazine for you to see here. Giles Coren, a restaurant critic who writes for the London Times, apparently composed a rather overheated note to his editors. Then they replied — in cooler fashion.

The second piece, a marvelous essay on the word “no”, published by Brian Doyle in the Kenyon Review, you may have seen linked elsewhere: here or here (like Ezra, who already has that terrific head of hair, needs the link). If you’re interested in this sort of thing, see below. If not, that’s okay, too.

From two letters published in July in the Guardian. The first, from Giles Coren—restaurant critic for the London Times Magazine on Saturdays since 2001—to his subeditors at the Times, was leaked to the Guardian. The second is a letter to Coren from Times subeditors Mia Aimaro Ogden and Joanna Duckworth.

Chaps,

I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda, and Ben because I don’t know who I am supposed to be pissed off with (I’m assuming Owen, but I filed to Amanda and Ben, so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here—if he had been, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that fucked up my review on Saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. They are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh.”

It appeared as: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.”

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking, “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and I know best.”

Well, you fucking don’t.

This was shit, shit subediting for three reasons.

1) “Nosh,” as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardization of the German naschen. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, “nosh,” means simply “food.” You have decided that this is what I meant and removed the “a.” I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun “nosh” means “a session of eating”—in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of “scoff.” You can go for a scoff. Or you can buy some scoff. The sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what I meant. Why would you change a sentence so that it meant something I didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck-up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? It’s easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, I was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as “sexually-charged.” I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y. I have used the word “gaily” as a gentle nudge. And “looking for a nosh” has a secondary meaning of looking for a blow job. Not specifically gay, for this is Soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. “Looking for nosh” does not have that ambiguity. The joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a Renaissance fresco and thinking Jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking Christ, don’t you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed “a” so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, meter is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for the Times, and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time I mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word I got in all sorts of trouble), but I care deeply about my work and I hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing Joe and Hugo, and maybe they just file and fuck off and think, ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips”—well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on Sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. Weird, maybe. But that’s how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. I’ve got a review to write this morning, and I really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the payoff, and I’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I’ve been writing for the Times for fifteen years, and I have never asked this before—I have never asked it of anyone I have written for—but I must insist, from now on, that I am sent a proof of every review I do, so I can check it for fuck-ups. And I must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way I can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger, can make a man verbose.

Giles

At this point , I found myself holding two conflicting thoughts. First, wow, this guy Coren is a total buffoon, a cartoonish narcissist and pedant, and a jerk of world historical proportions. And second, he’s absolutely right. They butchered his piece. All three of his arguments are dead on, especially his first and third points. His review would have been much stronger if it had run unedited. And as someone who agonizes over endings and meter, I totally feel his pain.

As it happens, the Times editors pretty much agreed. Well, they agreed on the merits but they differed on the style. And editors, it turns out, are funny.

Dear Giles,

Subediting is a noble profession. It is also a thankless one—particularly when your writers call you a “useless cunt.”

There was a sharp intake of breath when your email hit the inbox of subs throughout the industry this week—that was after we’d stopped laughing. Not that we didn’t think you had a point. Yes, tinkering with copy just for the sake of it and without consultation is wrong. It is disrespectful and arrogant. And we can see why you’d be furious at the loss even of an indefinite article.

There is nothing more irritating than a sub editor who thinks he knows better than a writer, particularly one who cares deeply about his work. But did you really have to be so rude?

If you could only see the state of some of the raw copy we have to knock into shape. It’s badly structured, poorly spelt, appallingly punctuated, lazily researched. We’re not saying your writing falls into that category—on the contrary, your journalism is highly accomplished. Never having worked on your copy, we can only take your word for it that it is beyond improvement in its pre-published state. Strange as it may seem, many writers do not possess your grasp of language; indeed, it is sometimes difficult to believe that English is their mother tongue, and they don’t give a damn about what they produce because they know that a good, often highly educated subeditor will correct it, check it, and turn it into readable prose.

None of this can excuse your nasty, bullying, “know your place, you insignificant little fuckwit” email. Yes, it’s funny, in a way that pieces that use “fuck,” “shit,” and “cunt” so liberally often can be, but, please—someone made a mistake. He surely had no intention of sabotaging your deathless prose. So you don’t like what happened to your piece—have a word with your editor. The hapless sub will no doubt already have been soundly thrashed and had his dictionary privileges removed.

Some years ago, a colleague of ours had a T-shirt printed up with the legend xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx is a cunt, which he wore every week when having to deal with the writer to whom it referred, because he, like you, became so disproportionately abusive when his use of language was questioned. We’d hate that to happen to you, because you can actually write, and having giles coren is a sanctimonious little twat who needs to get over himself could be quite costly in T-shirt lettering. Subs are no more infallible than writers. So let’s all try a little mutual respect, shall we?

All the best,

Mia Aimaro Ogden
Joanna Duckworth

I once sent what I still think was the best essay I’ve ever written to a British journal. The piece was chockablock with zingy passages and apt metaphors, its structure was coherent, and its argument thoughtful and clear. The editors, after accepting my glorious submission, put it through a deverbinator — an expensive piece of equipment used primarily in English publishing houses — robbing it of movement. My lovely prose lay dead on the page. I’ve never once looked at that piece since it appeared, one of the great tragedies of my career.

Still, it never occurred to me to complain. I know that writers are supposed to abuse their editors. And I’m not above the occasional snide remark about a poor choice an editor has inflicted on my writing. But I’m usually too grateful that someone has bothered to fix my spelling errors, and too pleased that my work has appeared in print, to get too worked up over what usually are very minor problems. I wonder if, over time, I’ll grow more confident and then curmudgeonly in my interactions with editors. I wonder if I hope so. I think probably not.

Brian Doyle seems to have passed the wondering stage. An old hand and a gifted stylist, his thoughts on rejection letters are worth your while:

The most honest rejection letter I ever received for a piece of writing was from Oregon Coast Magazine, to which I had sent a piece that was half bucolic travelogue and half blistering attack on the tendencies of hamlets along the coast to seek the ugliest and most lurid neon signage for their bumper-car emporia, myrtlewood lawn-ornament shops, used-car lots, auto-wrecking concerns, terra-cotta nightmares, and sad moist flyblown restaurants.

“Thanks for your submission,” came the handwritten reply from the managing editor. “But if we published it we would be sued by half our advertisers.”

This was a straightforward remark and I admire it, partly for its honesty, a rare shout in a world of whispers, and partly because I have, in thirty years as a writer and editor, become a close student of the rejection note. The shape, the color, the prose, the tone, the subtext, the speed or lack thereof with which it arrives, even the typeface or scrawl used to stomp gently on the writer’s heart—of these things I sing.

• •

One of the very best: a rejection note sent by the writer Stefan Merken to an editor who had rejected one of his short stories. “Please forgive me for not accepting your rejection letter,” wrote Merken. “At this time I cannot accept a rejection of my short story. I accept more than 99 percent of the rejections I receive. Many I don’t agree with, but I realize that accepting a piece of fiction for publication is a very subjective judgment call. My acceptance of your rejection letter is also a subjective process and therefore I am returning your letter to you. I did read your letter. I read every letter I receive. Your letter was well-written, but due to time constraints from my own writing schedule, I am unable to make editorial comments. I do make mistakes. Don’t you, as an editor, be disheartened by this role reversal. The road of publishing is long and tedious. You need successful publications and I need for successful publications to print my stories. I will expect to see my story in your next publication. Good luck in the future.”

• •

The range and scope are astonishing. I have twice received two-page rejection letters from magazines, one an epic and courageous deconstruction of my essay and its many flaws and few virtues, and the other an adventure in sophistry that I still marvel at, in the way you admire a deft bank robber from afar—such astounding creativity, turned to such empty enterprise. In the early days of my own career as an editor I took rejecting pieces very seriously, and tried, as much as possible, to write a thoughtful note explaining why the piece was not quite something for me to accept and pay for. But as all new editors learn, such earnest letters from editors very often are taken by writers as invitations to amend and resubmit pieces, or worse, to argue and debate, and most editors come round eventually to terse generalities simply to defend their working hours and shreds of sanity. Plus I learned that debating poets in particular was painful, although it did give me the chance to daydream about a series of rejection notes designed specifically for poems, which would fault rhythm, meter, cadence, swing, image, line-breaks, verb choice, elusiveness, allusiveness, self-indulgence, self-absorption, liability to lust, and too much muck about love. I nearly had the card printed up that way, with little boxes you could check, like Edmund Wilson’s famous EDMUND WILSON REGRETS THAT HE CANNOT . . ., or the lovely form letter that Ursula Le Guin sends to this day, but I got sidetracked by a torrent of devotional poetry that I had to reject posthaste, and never got around to it.

• •

Many magazines lean on a form letter, a printed note, a card, and I study them happily. The New Yorker, under the gentle and peculiar William Shawn, sent a gentle yellow slip of paper with the magazine’s logo and a couple of gentle sentences saying, gently, no. Under the brisker Robert Gottlieb, the magazine sent a similar note, this one courteously mentioning the “evident quality” of your submission even as the submission is declined. Harper’s and the Atlantic lean on the traditional Thank You But; Grand Street, among other sniffy literary quarterlies, icily declines to read your submission if it has not been solicited; the Sun responds some months later with a long friendly note from the editor in which he mentions that he is not accepting your piece even as he vigorously commends the writing of it; the Nation thanks you for thinking of the Nation; and the Virginia Quarterly Review sends, or used to send, a lovely engraved card, which is worth the price of rejection. The only rejection notice I keep in plain view is that one, for the clean lines of its limbs and the grace with which it delivers its blow to the groin.

Scholars have little call to write rejection letters. Except, of course, when we chair searches. In that capacity, I’ve written more than a few. And I always try to write something personal, something useful, something honest. “We really did enjoy meeting you at the AHA convention and having you visit us on campus. Your work is quite promising; I’m eager to see the changes you’ll make, in the coming years, to your manuscript. Also, you might consider closing your mouth when you eat. And limiting your job talk to an hour and fifty minutes could be a good idea. If more than half your audience is sleeping, you may want to rethink your presentation.” That kind of thing. I let them down easy.

Beyond that, Doyle suggests using rejection slips more regularly:

Sometimes I daydream of having rejection slips made up for all sorts of things in life, like for moments when I sense a silly argument brewing with my lovely and mysterious spouse, and instead of foolishly trying to lay out my sensible points which have been skewed or miscommunicated, I simply hold up a card (BRIAN DOYLE REGRETS THAT HE IS UNABLE TO PURSUE THIS MATTER), or for when my children ask me to drive them half a block to the park (GET A GRIP), or when I am invited to a meeting at work I know will drone and moan for hours (I WOULD PREFER TO HAVE MY SPLEEN REMOVED WITH A BUTTER KNIFE), or for overpious sermons (GET A GRIP!), for oleaginous politicians and other mountebanks (IF YOU TELL ONE MORE LIE I WILL COME UP THERE AND PUMMEL YOU WITH A MAMMAL), etc.

Of all of the fine and witty passages in Doyle’s lovely essay, it is this clause — “I am always mindful of my dad’s advice that a piece isn’t really finished unless it is off your desk and onto another’s” — that is my favorite. Now there is some sage advice that any writer can use. And with that, I’d better get back to composing and editing some drivel. I have to get this thing I’m working on off my desk and onto another’s. Where, if I’m lucky, it shall be edited, leaving me no cause to call anyone nasty names. Not that I go in for that sort of thing.