• Honestly, Abe: Editors Are the Worst

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 8 comments

    Last week our friend Pete Greulich passed along what he called a “little bit of editing nostalgia from the 1860s.”

    While reading an Ida Tarbell bio of Lincoln, In the Footsteps of the Lincolns, Pete came across a passage detailing a kerfuffle between Lincoln and an editor who wanted to put one of Abe’s speeches “in pamphlet form for circulation.”

    The speech was his February 1860 Cooper Union address, an anti-slavery oration that is often credited as a major reason he won his party’s presidential nomination later that year.

    In other words, a speech that changed the course of our history.

    And yet… well, just like haters gonna hate, editors gonna edit.

    As Tarbell writes, “Lincoln’s comments on these [suggested] changes are evidence of the care with which he had prepared the original speech, and of his sensitiveness to careless and unauthorized statements.”

    Lincoln’s impressively restrained response to these edits tickles me.

    “I do not wish the sense changed, or modified, to a hair’s breadth,” he wrote. “And you, not having studied the particular points so closely as I have, cannot be quite sure that you do not change the sense when you do not intend it.”

    In other words: Mr. Editor? You don’t know jack.

    Lincoln goes on to point out some specific “considerable blunders”: For example, “The striking out ‘he’ and inserting ‘we’ turns the sense exactly wrong.”

    I’m going to steal that: “exactly wrong.”

    As Pete told us, “Imagine suggesting changes to a Lincoln speech!”

    Now to be fair, Lincoln wasn’t yet Lincoln. He didn’t even have a beard.

    But he had just delivered one of the most important speeches in United States history, and immediately, editors clamored to fix it.

    Aren’t editors just the absolute worst!?

    (Although sometimes an extra eye is of utmost importance.)

    As a postscript, several years later Lincoln appointed this man, Charles Nott, a justice in the Court of Claims. I wonder if Nott sent his written decisions to Abe for editorial guidance.

    As a second postscript, per Tarbell, before publishing the Cooper Union address Nott and others asked Lincoln “to give them a memoranda of his investigations,” meaning they wanted to fact-check the speech. Lincoln basically responded, “I don’t have time, a-holes. You do it.”

    So they did: “they had to ransack all of the material available in the libraries of New York” to find all of Lincoln’s references, Tarbell writes, and “consulted as well the leading historians of the day.”

    As the entirety of the U.S. South would learn before too long, do not f*ck with Abraham Lincoln.

    Your turn: Tell us about your most ridiculous interaction with an editor. Extra points if you quote passages from correspondence.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Jon S.

    I had a story in a canadian journal. The editor sent me changes, and he’d updated my spelling of certain words: defense/defence, color/colour, etc. Fine I get it. But he also made a note saying something like “If you’re going to write for a publication in a different country, learn that country’s spellings!” With exclamation point. I was pretty taken aback. Especially coming from a Canadian, they’re so polite!

    David Duhr

    I’m honoured you chose to share your humour with us.

    Deborah S.

    I submitted a nonfiction piece to a literary journal. The piece was called, “An Owl in Winter” and it was about the death of a very dear friend, my asking for a sign from him in the form of an owl and then having an actual owl knock on my sliding glass doors in the middle of the afternoon. The editor’s comment was that the owl came out of nowhere and had nothing to do with the story! This piece went on to win 3rd place in a writing contest and to be chosen as one of 101 stories out… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hi Deborah. Thank you for stopping by and sharing. What a bizarre comment for that editor to make! Comprehension issues indeed. Or he/she didn’t do a thorough reading, which is maybe even more alarming. How did you respond? I hope you sent him a copy of the book with your piece bookmarked.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I belong to a writers group, and I submitted a snippet for review. The scene started with

    “She began speaking in a flat, toneless voice, as though she were reading a transcript.”

    One criticism I got was that it sounded like she was reading a transcript.

    I also got a lot of “show, don’t tell.” Well, she was relating how she had been raped. I write some sketchy stuff, but there’s no way I was going to give a blow by blow of a brutal rape.

    David Duhr

    Hey Jerry. Thanks for sharing. Writers groups are always a great place to get bizarre and/or nonsensical feedback. It’s sometimes hard to know who to listen to and who to ignore… but sometimes, like in your cases here, it’s obvious.

    Barbara A Mealer

    I loved the editor which wanted to add a bunch of thats, and thens, along with he said/she said to my book. I very nicely explained how none of it was needed and she needed to realize how extraneous words aren’t needed. Also, when they want to change the style of speech for a character, it makes you wonder what their credentials are. .

    Other than catching a few punctuation errors and a couple of misspellings and typos, she was totally useless. Needless to say, I’ll not use her again.

    David Duhr

    Oh dear, this sounds frustrating. You shouldn’t have to spend time *undoing* what an editor does. Did you not get the chance to see her credentials beforehand? Because that in itself might be a bad sign. (He said…)

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x