I sat down yesterday with our music writer, Spencer Brown, and went through his piece with him, word by word, sentence by sentence.
It’s still the thing I love to do most in this business: working with writers on their craft. I was more than happy to stop wrangling with the phones and email and dig down deep into the copy.
I cured him a few weeks back of his penchant for dangling participles, and we long ago held the very serious talk about verbs that every writer who works for me must eventually endure. Yesterday, after Jordan Green had annihilated both his lede and his kicker, I clipped some of Brown’s sentences, moved a few grafs and then reminded him of something that one of my former editors — Jeri Rowe, who I believe did more for my words than anyone else who ever messed with them — used to say:
The devil is in the details, sure, but god is in the structure.
We editors keep a bunch of those little mantras in our pockets: Write in scenes. Find the narrative. Pick a verb tense and stick with it.
It’s serious business, this custodianship of the language, our privilege as stewards of the written word. Someone needs to remind everyone that things are based “on” other things and never “off” them, that “brung” is not a word and that adjectives are the ineffective tools of weak-minded fools.
Brown, a real pro, leans into the editing process every week. Like all seasoned writers, he knows that relentless criticism and constant rule-checks make for clean, readable copy. And what all writers really want is for someone to read their work and maybe give some feedback.
Because what’s the point of all this if no one reads our words?
Over the years I’ve learned many devices designed to bring the reader’s eye along. A sentence with a rhythm wants to carry you along. Sprinkling in metaphors like chips in a cookie can engage the reader’s mind.
A one-sentence paragraph can work, too.
But those are just tricks. And they don’t offer a writer much cover without some thought behind the words.
That’s what I told Brown. That’s what I tell them all.
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