By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Writers are weird, as everyone knows. And one mark of great editing is channeling that weirdness toward creativity instead of chaos.
So consider this scene from "Good Prose," a charming new book in which writer Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd recall four decades of collaboration.
Kidder was working on what became a career-making book, "The Soul of a New Machine." He and Todd were going over the manuscript in Todd's office at The Atlantic:
"I would take a break and wander the halls..I could wander into an office and gaze at framed letters from writers who had published in The Atlantic, studying the signatures of Twain and Emerson, Thoreau and Wharton, and dreaming...
"Todd and I spread [the manuscript] on the carpet...Tall windows flanked the fireplace, shedding plenty of light on the piles of typewritten pages. Spreading the pages across the floor in itself lent the illusion of distance and control as we walked among the piles like a pair of Gullivers...Now and then Todd picked a couple of pages off the floor for closer scrutiny..
"That was when I began to learn a skill which for me needs constant relearning, how to fall out of love with my own words.."
Like other memorable writing, this vignette moves from fact to truth to wisdom. It tells us that writing starts with hard work. That inspiration counts heavily. That moderate eccentricity fuels creativity. And that the trust of, and in, a gifted editor can propel good material toward excellence.
These ideas resonate through "Good Prose" (Random House, $26), but in unexpected ways. Except for one usage and grammar chapter tacked on, the book never provides a checklist of good practices or an action plan for would-be collaborators. Like many fine editors, Todd seems to have trouble pinpointing what he does that is special.
What stands out, instead, is a more holistic picture of editing, where shimmery concepts like trust and respect matter as much as technique and wordsmithing.
To me, "Good Prose" dramatizes that ancient axiom: You edit the person, not just the copy.
Here are a few highlights:
From Kidder: "I learned to like rewriting..the writer's special privilege....I usually write about ten more or less complete drafts...I write and Todd reads and then we meet and talk about the draft, and then we do it all over again, again and again."
Kidder again: "Writers who need editors have to learn to listen, really listen, to advice that no one wants to hear...But how an editor delivers this advice makes all the difference."
From Todd: Editors "need to see [a piece's] structure, its totality, before they become involved in minutiae. A writer should be on the alert when an editor starts by fixing commas..when the real problem resides at the level of organization or strategy or point of view."
Todd again: "Kidder has accused me of disingenuousness for always praising a first draft..But praise of the imperfect need not be insincere...I may like not what I see but what I imagine. You have to envision the potential of a piece."
Read those last two sentences again. They may just capture the essence of great editing.