On Becoming an Editor

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How does one become an editor? As the saying goes, “Practice, practice, practice!” Or at least, get very lucky–as happened to me.

By chance, a friend had considered writing a book about his career in the United States Marine Corps. In fact, his career was rather unique in that he joined the Marines as a high school dropout and retired as a full Colonel nearly thirty-six years later. In that span of years, he completed boot camp and later served as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, was in combat in Vietnam as a sergeant where he was a platoon commander (a lieutenant’s billet) and received a combat commission for his performance there, was assigned as the commander of the Marine Corps Silent Drill Team at 8th and I, Washington, D.C., performed security duty at Camp David where President Johnson errantly chewed him out face-to-face, and held many other positions of leadership including infantry battalion commander and Commanding officer of the Marine Corp’s largest Recruiting Station–RS Chicago. I and another friend had wheedled him for years to write a book about his life as a United States Marine. Finally, we convinced him to do so.

There was one problem needing to be addressed: he was not a proficient writer by any stretch of the imagination. However, he had a story needing to be told. I volunteered to assist him in that. I had always loved writing and had become fairly proficient at it. I was ignorantly confident that writing a book could not be that hard to do. We’d whip it out in no time.

I have always valued reading fine books, the classics and others, from an early age. When I wrote back then, which I enjoyed doing, I tried to imitate those who I had read. My 4th grade teacher said to me one afternoon, after I read the class a story I had written, “Dennis, you are going to be a writer someday!” and I never forgot her prophecy. I continued to study famous writers, continued to read best sellers–if they were nonfiction–and continued to learn the craft of writing.

Then reality hit me squarely between the eyes, bloodied my wits, and left me staggering mid-ring. After a short time, I came to the realization that writing a book-rather editing a book someone else was writing-was harder than it looked.

There was much to be learned, especially concerning textbook grammar, spelling, and style. For that, I became intimately acquainted with such references as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) (16th edition), The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (4th edition), Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition), and numerous others. The CMOS was indispensable. Never had I realized that grammar, syntax, and the like had so many rules and conventional techniques required to be followed assiduously in order to write formal, publishable manuscripts. Example–I had never encountered, nor even imagined, an em dash, how and when to use it, nor how much I would become enamored with it.

However, the best experience I could have ever gotten, as it turns out, was being asked to be the editor for Jim Bathurst’s book, We’ll All Die As Marines. I considered it an honor to be a part of Colonel Bathurst’s great endeavor, and still do.

I believe Jim’s request came from an incident at Methodist College where both I and then Captain Bathurst were attending on the “bootstrap” program where the Marine Corps sent promising career officers without college degrees back to college for a maximum of two years to get that degree so they would be qualified to be promoted into the field grade ranks. Without it they were history as officers.

Methodist College initiated the Alpha Chi Honor Society Chapter, of which Jim was elected president. He had a speech scheduled soon at the chapter installation dinner, and he writes in his book, “I labored over it for weeks until one day, while sitting in the Student Union, Dennis wrote my speech in an hour. I never changed a word.”

I am certain that chance meeting on that occasion there at Methodist College sewed up the job as editor for Jim’s book more than thirty years later. In my satiric ways of phrasing English, I now joke with others, “That fella owes me–he sure does! I bailed him out on an important speech–made him sound like JFK at the installation dinner–and then thirty years later kept him on course to publish his book. Yes-siree, Bob, ain’t ever letting him forget it neither!”

Colonel Bathurst wrote the book, he’s the author, it was his story he had to put down on paper–not always easy. He had reservations that he could do it. As his editor, I simply advised him, “Put words on paper-we’ll start there.” He had been working on the project for years, but not in an organized fashion-primarily and absolutely essential in writing a book-and not with the objective of an actual book. He simply intended to chronicle his career for his immediate family.

‘Words on Paper’ was the clarion call from then on out, but in somewhat of an orderly fashion, a chapter at a time. Damned if he didn’t do just that, and through the course of the four plus years, he got good at it, too.

I had to cajole and persuade him to get intensely into his service in the Vietnam War. As is the case with most Marines who’ve been to combat, they don’t like much to talk about it. Shortly after we began writing the book, Jim was out to visit me in California, and I recall discussing Vietnam with him while sitting in my living room one evening–as he enjoyed his favorite drink, a double single malt Scotch–and what would be required in any book about his thirty-six-year career. Part of what an editor does–guide his writer if need be. As I explained that Vietnam and his involvement in it so heroically at the tender rank of Sergeant–he had been awarded the Silver Star Medal among others–made him the officer he later became, even as a Colonel; he seemed to grasp the reality of what he needed to do. The Vietnam War began Jim’s career in earnest.

As I spoke, he listened with careful attention, sipping on his pricey Scotch and taking puffs on his less-than-pricey cigar. (That’s when he does his best thinking.) I could see the hurt on his face knowing he would have to, once again, relive deep-rooted, painful experiences, and reopen all the old wounds that had yet to heal completely. But, I also saw that night the longstanding wall of reluctance, built over the years to ward off any intent to address Vietnam with any substance, begin to weaken, maybe even crack a bit. As he always did, he thought it over carefully, introspectively, then tackled it head-on–and so extraordinarily that you can smell the cordite and hear the dreaded call “Corpsman Up!” as you read those ten Vietnam War chapters. He exceeded my expectations in that regard. Chapter 27, “Corporal Gary Wayne Olson, USMC,” is one of the best short pieces of literature about war I may have ever read–and I have read many. There was very little editing needed for that chapter; it was written from the heart. It is right up there with Papa Hemingway, known for war writing. The ending, the last two paragraphs, are worth the price of the book itself. I only hope Cpl Olson’s family has read that chapter–

In discussing that experience–book editing–which lasted more than four and one-half years, I have to say nothing prepares you to be an editor; there are no college degrees in editing as far as I know. You just jump right into the middle of the writing as would any Marine into the fray, and you learn how to edit. Part of that process–every editor’s secret–is to realize that you will anger the author you’re working with at the time–regularly!–and then how to calm the waters after. This is simply the result of an editor doing his job. This keeps the author on their toes and doing so sharpens their focus, too. Mark Twain tersely phrased the editor’s job thusly: I hate editors, for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words.

Nevertheless, the first thing an aspiring editor absolutely must learn is that authors are very protective and sensitive folk–their writing consumes their energy, induces a me-against-the-world near-phobia at times, which is actually a good thing for it motivates the author to complete what they have begun, to prove to any doubters–and there are always those who doubt–that they have the ability and intellect to tell their story in a compelling manner.

Retired Colonel Jim Bathurst was no different. His fierce pride as a professional, career Marine, combined with my steadfast encouragement at times–as his editor and friend–spurred him on relentlessly. See, editors are actually good to have around. A good editor is the writer’s cheer leader, motivator, and even a guy, in my case, a writer with angst can have a cold brew with and vent when need be.

Jim was the author, I was the editor, and we played out the love-hate relationship most all editors and authors have. We regularly got into some serious, I mean serious, discussions about some minor point or other of English grammar. I, the editor, was determined to rigidly adhere to the accepted rules as laid out in our references, while Jim, the writer, was not a “true believer” in such inflexibility. (I recall one rather feisty bout: Jim had listed a number of people he wanted to mention as having attended his retirement ceremony. Such lists should be in alphabetical order by last names; that’s the gospel according to The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe. Jim, at first, refused to do so–his lists were alphabetical by first name in most cases. We went back and forth for days-me providing references, page numbers, pertinent paragraphs and Jim asserting his prerogative as an author to “write his book his way!”–and he did have that right. He’d had enough of the rigid rules, regulations, and my quoting ‘the bible of publishing.’ In the end, guess who prevailed?)

In each incidence, we soon resolved our differences, got back to the task at hand–the book–and worked our tails off for the entire project, determined to get a book published as near perfect, grammatically at least, as we could. I think we succeeded, and along with our grammatical “education” (For that’s what it was. Do you know what an em dash is? I’ve used one in this paragraph.), the book took on a life of its own and turned out quite well I’d say–and so has nearly all of those who have read it. So many have remarked on how effortlessly it reads, how it smoothly flows, how, once they began to read, they couldn’t put it down. No author could hope for a better critique. And no editor could be more proud reading those comments.

Interestingly, in the Acknowledgements section of the book, Jim writes about our continual “haggling on the phone and in emails over grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.” Jim concludes that aside by writing of my efforts at grammatical correctness, (and I know damned well he was gritting his teeth when he wrote these words!) “He was most often right!” I’ll bet you dollars to donuts Stephen King doesn’t say anything like that about his editor in any of the multitude of books he’s written.

I contend our work on that book was the equivalent of attaining a Master’s Degree in English–we both damned near wore the covers off our individual copies of The Chicago Manual of Style–and at least a half-dozen or more other reference books on writing. The best of them, besides the Chicago Manual? The Elements of Style, written so many years ago by a college English professor, and still the littlest book with the biggest emphasis on “style,” the essence of all writing, you will ever find. Vigorous writing is concise. ~William Strunk.

Being selected as the editor of the Colonel’s book was one of the highlights of my life in so many ways. It was such a challenging, interesting, dammed hard task, but always a rewarding day when we both learned something new about grammar, or style, or even spelling. My fellow Marine, best friend, and now a recognized author in his own right, even shared his Title Page with me. I’m there just below the author’s name: Edited by Me, USMC, (Retired)–that’s another thing you will never see in Mr. King’s books, either!

I have adopted two maxims as an upshot of my book-editing adventure:

I am not Mr. Nice Guy–I’m an editor, dammit!

I don’t write ’em, I only edit ’em.

Source by Major Dennis Copson

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