When I became associate editor of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, it was not the first time I’d held the title.
My first experience preparing the written work of others for publication was the six months I spent editing Tehipite Topics, the newsletter of the Tehipite chapter of the Sierra Club. To give you an idea of when that was, here’s a clue: The job required me to use an X-acto knife, glue stick and blue pencil.
So when I became the associate editor of Arizona’s wildlife magazine, back in September 2005, I was not entirely unfamiliar with the process, and the pitfalls, of working with writers to prepare their offerings for publication. But neither had I done precisely that job ever in my life before.
There is a page, torn from a reporter’s notebook, that has been posted at my desk ever since that September. At the top, in my best cursive, it says, “Editorial philosophy.”
These are the rules I set for myself at the beginning, the rules I’ve tried to work by as an editor:
- Pay attention to the big picture.
- Get the details right.
- Let the writer write. The time to exercise creative control is when you are creating.
- That said, there are times when you can coach a writer to a higher level. Generally, this is when you can articulate a rule, not when you just “think it would sound better this way.”
- When you find yourself in the weeds, changing this word to that, you’re in the wrong place.
Only the writers I work with can tell you whether I’ve succeeded in putting my editorial philosophy into practice. Some have told me I’m a good coach—possibly the kindest thing you can say to an editor, other than “This round’s on me.”
Others might complain that I required them to revise to a standard that surprised them. I’m happy to say, though, that readers are comfortable with the level of excellence we’ve attained. In a 1995 survey of those who subscribe to Views magazine, 10% wanted “better quality writing.” In a 2011 survey, around 3% said this was a change they wanted.
I feel pretty proud of that.