In praise of the editor

Maxwell Perkins was the editor for Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Alan Paton. He nurtured them, collaborated with them, gave them ideas, helped them structure their narratives, became their friends, rescued them from drunken debauches when he wasn’t drinking with them himself. He was meticulous in his understanding of each one’s artistic genius and pushed, coached, coaxed, and helped to inspire them to move forward in their work. He worked at Scribner’s and Sons in Manhattan.

This is what we talked about in school today– how all writers, even the best, need good editors. Not copy editors, but editors who have vision and imagination, who see the brilliance inside our words and are committed to helping us achieve that potential. The students had completed their very first draft of their personal narrative. I had planned for them to do some peer editing, which is not always a successful experience. Sometimes students are not as invested as I want them to be in the works they are looking over. Sometimes their comments are too cursory and too general. They are not always motivated to push themselves to summon up significant suggestions and give solid feedback.

And so we discussed the role of editors. Like Maxwell Perkins, I asked them to believe the story they would read was created by someone whom they believed had brilliant promise as a writer and that their job was to make suggestions to help that writer be as effective as possible in his/her writing. I pretended I was the president of Charles Scribner’s and Sons, where Maxwell Perkins worked, and I was looking for a few new hires. I handed them an expanded rubric, the one I shared with them before they wrote their first draft (expanded meaning spaces between each expectation). I told them I would review the way they responded to these expectations and let them know whom I would hire. Definite hires would be given “A”s; “B”s would be put on a waiting list; “C”s should probably apply elsewhere for work.  I asked them to read the story the first time without any writing. On their second reading they were to write responses for each item on the rubric.

“So, if you’re looking for new hires, what’s the salary?”

“$50,000 a year. That’s a lot for someone starting out in this profession, but I’m looking for the best.”

“Watch Ms. Y singlehandedly solve the economic crisis.”

“Does that include benefits?”

“Absolutely. “

“Will you pay the tuition for our kids to go to college?”

“Negotiable.”

OK, it was all make-believe and playful, but the room was absolutely silent as the students hunkered down to read and then comment on the work of their peers. They wrote a lot, filling the spaces I had left on the rubric (four pages with the expansions). They were very serious. Some kids finished before the others and when they glanced around and saw everyone else was still concentrating, they reread the story and reread their comments. (Remember, these are 8th graders; not a usual response.)

There was almost no peripheral conversation  when it was time for them to discuss what they discovered in their partner’s writing. They seemed genuinely focused and engaged in conversation about writing. Really.

I won’t see these stories and the comments from their peers until Friday when their second draft is due, but I have a feeling, we may need to rent another floor in the Scribner building to house all these new editors (and their horde of budding authors).

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4 Responses to In praise of the editor

  1. Anonymous says:

    I NEED you to be my teacher!

  2. It is a movement afoot! I am inspired, as am sure your students are.

  3. JEROME BLOOM says:

    GO JAN GO

    ONE THOUGHT

    ONE DAY

    ONE CLASS

    ONE STUDENT

    AND YOU

    GOT MORE

    GO JAN GO

  4. isaac says:

    I am sitting in a cafe near my apartment working on a brief essay for SOILED. I hit a wall and decided to catch myself up on your blog. As serendipity would have it, I too need an editor! I was going to ask you to take a peak tonight, but maybe I should ask one of your many students. You continue to inspire me.

    Your lifelong student, and loving son,
    Isaac

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