Receiving Criticism: My First Editor

By , November 1, 2003

It was 1978. I was so proud of myself: I was a Real Writer.

I was a 17-year-old aspiring writer, with an interest in “Citizens’ Band” (CB) radio. Several regional CB magazines had published my articles, usually without any changes or editing.

During the summer after my junior year of high school, I sent a letter to my local newspaper, proposing that I would write a weekly column on CB radio, and they would pay me. The editor had written back, asking me to submit a sample column. A few weeks later, he had written back again, agreeing to pay me $15 per week for a column that would appear next to the TV listings each Saturday. We had never met in person, and the editor didn’t know I was only 17.

My deadline was every Wednesday evening. That first week, I drove to the newspaper office to drop off my first “real” column. To my surprise, the guy at the front desk sent me up to the newsroom to put it in the editor’s mailbox myself. In the newsroom, I asked where the mailboxes were; a reporter told me that the editor was still in his office, and I should just take it directly to him. I tapped on the editor’s open door, and introduced myself.

The editor took my column and grabbed a red pen. As he continued chatting with me, he scanned through the column and began making marks on it. He must have done most of the talking, since I was feeling terror, panic, and shame while I watched his pen skip and spit across my pages.

Red marks flew everywhere on my pages, so many and so fast that I couldn’t even make sense of it. He circled whole paragraphs and tailed them with arrows up or down the page: he was juggling my paragraphs around! He struck out my words and wrote new ones in their place. He drew squiggly lines to delete my punctuation, and his pen tossed out tiny arrows, accompanied by new commas and periods as he split some sentences in half.

It all happened so fast, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It seemed as if his frantic pen spent only ten seconds exploding on each page. And yet it felt like hours of agony. It probably lasted three or four minutes.

The editor kept talking — maybe about the weather or the traffic or asking what I planned to write about next week — but not a single word about the pages that suddenly seemed more red than black.

I expected the editor to throw the bloody pages back at me. I expected the volcanic reaction of J.J. Jameson (from “Spider-Man”) or at best, comments of disappointment from a gruff Perry White (from “Superman”).

Instead, the editor took my pages and dropped them into an out-basket on his desk. He didn’t throw them back at me, he didn’t demand that I do it over. He just made his changes and sent the column out to typesetting. The phone rang, and he waved me out, and I went home.

As I drove, I realized what a terrible failure I was, what a fraud I’d perpetrated against the editor and myself. I wasn’t a writer, I was an incompetent 17-year-old. Maybe he’d publish that first column he’d spent so much time rewriting, I thought, but surely he’d send me a letter telling me not to continue.

Then, I got angry. Why didn’t he just tell me to my face? Why didn’t he give me the article back to rewrite? Why didn’t he say a single word about the column as he edited it? If he wasn’t going to fire me, why didn’t he give me suggestions on how to improve? What was happening here?

By Saturday, the adrenaline had flushed out of my system, and after making sure I was alone, I picked up the paper and looked for my column. There it was, next to the TV listings. There was my byline, my name in print in my local newspaper. Everyone would know — would think — I was a writer. But I knew it wasn’t true, I hadn’t written this version.

Then I pulled out my Xeroxed copy of the column I’d written, and I compred it with the published version. I started marking up my copy, to see exactly what changes the editor had made.

My original column had four sections, each on a different topic. One of them was deleted entirely. The others were rearranged in a different order. I began to see that most of the changes, those long bright red lines that had scarred my pages and my soul while I stood in the editor’s office, were actually not so bad.

Of the three sections that remained, the editor had moved up the “local” topic to appear first. He had rearranged a few sentences within each section. He changed punctuation, and replaced a few words here and there.

I wondered why he’d done this. Maybe he thought readers would be more interested in the local story. Maybe that word was too difficult or ambiguous for the average reader. Maybe adding that comma helped the sentence read better. Splitting the sentence into two improved the flow of the words. I couldn’t make much sense of why he’d broken up my paragraphs, but then I turned the page and noticed that all the articles in the newspaper had very short paragraphs.

I started to learn how to write that day.

In my memory, the editor never made a single comment about my writing or my columns, either thay day or during the next eleven months. That’s not really true; I’m sure he did explain some things and give me some advice, and I’m sure I called to ask before writing a questionnaire to ask readers what CB topics they wanted to read about.

Every week, I finished the column on Tuesday or Wednesday, and drove in to the newspaper office, walked up the stairs, and put it in the editor’s mailbox. And every Saturday, I looked at the column that was published, and I tried to figure out why each change was made. And maybe I was learning something, because each week, the column in the paper looked a little bit more like the column I’d written.

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