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What Editors Think of Writers

Auden at work, courtesy of the Sunday Times of London

John Simon writes about working with W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling:

It fell to me to edit this illustrious triumvirate for the magazine, a very different task with each writer. Auden, who was jovially insouciant, handed in smart but sloppy stuff that needed a lot of editing, which he readily and gratefully accepted. Trilling was more difficult. Always by telephone, one went over proposed changes, some of which, after some discussion, he accepted, some not.

Barzun, however, one was not allowed to edit. Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where — an admitted rarity — improvement was possible. When we spoke on the phone, I could conjure up my interlocutor. He was undoubtedly smiling his frosty smile, one part convivial and two parts condescending. Since he was tall, the smile, when delivered in person, would literally descend upon you, accompanying an elegant diction that itself had a sort of smile in it.

I wonder if this story could provide a kind of rough Taxonomy of Authorial Character. Maybe each of us is an Auden, a Trilling, or a Barzun. (My guess is that editors work with some similar scheme but never share it with us writers.)

I’m definitely a Trilling. I work very hard to get the prose of my articles and books right, so I am skeptical of alterations, though if they’re explained to me clearly I usually accept them. And I’ve always been blessed to work with editors who understand and accept my being insistent on some points — I can’t remember ever being truly at loggerheads with an editor. (Jody Bottum once told me that he and John Wilson had decided that how difficult I was to deal with depended on whether I was having trouble with my chronic bad back. This is probably true.)

As a Trilling — the character in the middle — I understand the Barzun kind of writer, but struggle to accept the Auden type. I’ve only ever edited one book, on which I worked with my colleague Ken Chase, and in general it was a pleasant experience. But one of the essays — I shall of course never reveal which one — came to us in shocking condition, full of typos and incoherent sentences and undocumented (or incompletely or inaccurately documented) citations. Ken and I probably spent more time on that essay than all the others combined, and it seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that to send an essay to editors in that condition was both unprofessional and arrogant. I’m your editor, not your servant, I thought. But I suppose real professional editors have that thought at least once a day….

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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