• Waterhole Branch

Perfection: Why We Love Line Editors

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

By Suzanne Hudson

With a poem by Suzanne Barnhill, guardian of grammar, editor extraordinaire, badass defender of divine declension, conjugator, ruminator, terminator of the trite

I was an English/literature teacher for about six hundred and eighty years, a veteran of everything from sentence diagramming to conjugation to “free writing,” to whatever the fad of the day was; it made no never mind to me. Like most teachers, you just plain figure out what works, and however many flies get in that ointment, you merely push on. I learned to talk the talk, play the game, go along with the powers that be, all the while managing, like any good educator, to do my own damn thing, under the radar, with consummate stealth.

Probably the most challenging year I ever taught was sometime in the late 80s, during one of Baldwin County’s notorious, long-predicted growth spurts, one of many that no one seemed to have effectively anticipated. My largest class that year was in the neighborhood of forty-five plus students (in a classroom meant for twenty-five). Anyone in the know will tell you that is an insane, impossible number of sardines for one little ol’ can of a room. Students were sitting along the windowsill, mobbed around tables, cross-legged on the floor, and occasionally two good buddies to a desk. Yes, it was insane, but it was also divine. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I truly believe that, because of the crazy pressure of the numbers, I was at my best, at my peak as a teacher, that particular year.

And this one particular, overly-populated class was, in general, extremely bright, which certainly didn’t hurt. I had them do a good bit of writing because of that, working in groups to constructively critique and help with the little “dog gnats” of the written word: spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, etc., all the things with which our favorite folks, editors, contend. I always had them take their writing through at least two rough drafts, arguing that if Ernest Hemingway could draft forty-seven different endings to A Farewell to Arms, then surely they could at least manage a measly two drafts, prior to a final draft, of a puny five-paragraph essay.

Early on, a certain young lady caught my eye--the way she worked, the way she produced a pile of wadded up, rejected pages, mounding quickly on the floor beside her. Her penmanship was perfect, and her expectations of herself were even more demanding. The second she made the slightest error, in wording, spelling, sequence, whatever, then “wad” went the paper and out came a fresh page. I, like the Lorax, feared for the trees, not to mention this young lady’s stress level. It took a while to convince her that “rough” meant, well, “rough,” and the more lines marked through words, the more circled passages with arrows pointing to where they belonged instead, the more carets indicating what words to insert, the better. I actually had to require her to be “messy,” and, though it was no easy task, she finally, after some resistance, came through with flying colors.

(Cue to pat teacher on back).

A few weeks into the school year came time for PTO night, when parents visited their students’ classrooms and got a taste of what the big bad teacher was doing to the oh-so-vulnerable and hypersensitive offspring. After I did my song and dance routine for the understandably concerned parents of the “bursting-at-the-seams” group, one of the mothers approached me, pointing to my list of the week’s “vocabulary/spelling” words--that list so much the fixture in any English class. “Do you offer extra credit,” she asked, “if students catch you in an error or a misspelled word?”

I don’t remember what the word was; I only remember wishing the floor would open up and swallow me whole, in all of my ignorant incompetence. You see, it wasn’t an odd word, or an unfamiliar one, or even a difficult one; its misspelling was the result of the everyday, ordinary, oh-so-human brain-fart. The mother was happy to point out said error, though.

But to her credit she did so with an understanding smile, without making me feel small and stupid--which more than a few parents are only too happy to do, I discovered over the years. This mom, though, had her tongue firmly in her cheek and I agreed that, if I--good ol’ infallible me--was ever caught in a--gasp!--error, then that was certainly cause for an extra point or two. And that, word lovers, was my introduction to Suzanne Barnhill, the legendary Fairhope editor. It was her daughter, Virginia, who was the penmanship perfectionist. But of course! That acorn certainly did not fall far from the tree of knowledge and etymology and all things wordsmithy, now, did it?

Sonny Brewer hired Suzanne “B” a few times over the years, to edit and/or type my work (and the work of others). And I maintain that you---anyone who fancies him/herself a writer--should, before you ever dare to put your work out into the world, pay a good editor very well indeed to give it a once or twice-over. And then pay that rare being, a very good line editor, goddamn well, for it is the line editors who see the smallest of the small errors, the embarrassing ones that slip beneath our puny radars. These line editors are not wired like us lesser humans, you see--they have super seer powers and therefore are worth every penny you pay them, and then some. Their weight in gold, all that.

I have, over the years, done some editing my own self--NOT line editing; just general, “overview” kinds of editing, and I’ve come upon some roadblocks occasionally. One “author” in particular had some kind of romanticized notion--or was it delusional?--of what a warm and nurturing influence, what a supporter of writerly ego, I would be upon said “author’s” writing. Well, I ain’t warm, ain’t fuzzy, ain’t nothing but a straight-shooter, but with kid gloves on the holster, as I don’t aim to to be a down-shooter to boot. Turns out, I had myself a one-trick pony on my hands, an oversized ego with an undersized talent. Alas, you live and you do and you learn. And I’ve had other, similarly less-inclined (toward real work) clients who are dedicated to nit-picking in such a way that you know--you just know--that all they care about is seeing their words in a book, no matter the flaws. It ain’t called “vanity press” for nothing. But I recently came upon a really good match, via my old friend Sonny Brewer--one Mandy Haynes (see her blog: And . . . She’s Off!), a true-for-real, honest drafter of stories, who is more than willing to do the work, take it on the chin, open-hearted and full of soul. But even for Miss Mandy, I would never dare present myself as the gold-standard of all editors, a “line editor.” I leave that to the marvelous Ms. Barnhill and her sisters and brethren of the written word.

Yes, we love the hell out of truly accomplished line editors, and this little note is just that--a “love note” to them. As mentioned above, we know of a few self-proclaimed “authors” who are wont to fret and pick and worry over every little suggestion from, well, any good editor, and we are in awe that such editors manage to hold their tongues, refrain from slapping down those puny little egos for what they are--“dog gnats.” For it is written in stone, the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not make a fool of oneself by tussling with a crackerjack line editor.” There is nothing quite so small and pathetic as one who does so.

And so, thank you, Suzanne Barnhill. And thank you to our dear friend, the late Jay Qualey, whose “vicious pencil” struck many a nerve over the years (and at a bargain basement rate: $100 plus one large bottle of Liberty Creek Sweet Red Wine--yep, the cheap stuff). But we knew to take Jay’s barbs like a school child right out of Little Women, having one’s open palm smacked with a ruler by the headmaster. And, to mix in some Dickens: “Please, sir. Please. May I have some more?”

Thank you, line editors, for making us look so very much better at writing than we actually are. No apology necessary, from you word-wunderkinds; no hard feelings, from those of us who “get it.”

But, just for good measure, here are a few lines from one S. Barnhill, the legendary:

The Copy Editor’s Apology

I never meant to steal your smile!

Don’t look so woeful: I was only helping

You asked for judgement, and I judged

My edits meant to make improvements

I never meant to steal your words,

Only to offer different, better ones--

Not mandates, but suggestions rather

That would create a smoother line.

I never meant to steal your thoughts,

Only to try to read your mind.

Your meaning’s muddy here; let’s clear it up

Replace this comma with a semicolon?

Your writing’s good but could be better:

The past of drink is drank, not drunk,

And Mary whom you mention here--

Was she not Jane one page ago?

I never meant to make you weep.

Your plot is brilliant, characters rich.

It’s just the grammar that’s a little weak.

With careless punctuation.

We work together, you and I,

To make our work the best that it can be.

We should be friends, not adversaries.

You pay me for my skill, and I respect your talent.

I never meant to steal your smile.

You should be smiling gratefully.

If I cross out a word, suggest another,

I count it not as theft but value added.

Thank you again, Suzanne Barnhill--we do value you!

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