Elevate the Reader

Lessons in the art of editing

By Brian Doyle | July 12, 2013


The second great editor I worked for, after Mister Burns in Chicago, who taught me to never begin a sentence with the word hopefully and indeed to search out and destroy all adverbs as unnecessary crutches for poor writing, was a newspaper editor named Floyd Kemske in Boston. Floyd was a lean, erudite, amused man who often said his idea of heaven was an evening in a bubble bath with fine wine and his lovely bride, an image I never could erase fully from my mind; even today when I think of the heaven that all editors will surely achieve, as reward for having endured poets and proofreaders, it is a heaven filled with bubbles and excellent wines and the alluring smile of a woman I met, interestingly, while learning to be an editor from Floyd.

Floyd said many other memorable things. Elevate the reader, that was my favorite, and clarity is first and verve is second, and writing that is all about the writer is selfish and writing that is about the reader is at least useful. Mostly he would say these things while leaning back in his chair during editorial meetings, thumbs hooked in his suspenders. In general these meetings were not thrilling, as the two newspapers we produced in our office were devoted to computer training, trends, and products, but Floyd slowly taught me, by the force of his example, that my initial feeling that our work was boring was foolish, and our real work was to help people grapple with new ways of living their lives. In a real sense, I learned from Floyd, we were guides through a dense and confusing wilderness, translators of a new tongue for people who spoke it only haltingly if at all, companions along roads so newly cut that even we did not know how far they extended.

I cannot say that I grew into any sort of computer expertise at all in my years at those newspapers—I remain a happy doofus, able only to write small essays and check box scores on my computer—but the lessons I learned from Floyd have stayed with me through nearly 30 more years in the editor’s chair: elevation, clarity, assistance, humility. At least be useful in your work; at best lift the mind and heart and spirit; and if you do your work well, in the end you will be rewarded with fine wine, a bubble bath, and a woman with the most remarkable blue eyes.

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