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Published:October 17th, 2010 11:03 EST
Editing Isn't Just About Rules, It's Also About Common Sense and Sound

Editing Isn't Just About Rules, It's Also About Common Sense and Sound

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Of gaffes and infelicities

Nothing can ever be proofread enough. Editing is another matter. An editor can finick a manuscript to its death. He can hijack someone else`s writing and make it his own. But proofreading, a dying trade, is invaluable.

Just as my wife and I, both experienced editors, thought Brushstrokes and Glances, my second book of poems, was finished, our marvelously literate friend Tom Hester of Silver City, New Mexico, sent us thirty-eight typos, infelicities, grammatical gaffes and instances of illogic.

Even when we flashed our poetic licenses Tom`s cogent reading compelled us to make changes. And if that was not enough, Penny Conti of Freeport, Maine, the publisher`s proofreader, sent along another batch of insightful suggestions and corrections.

Poetry is no easy matter to proof. The poet may have chosen to forego punctuation or to employ a pun. For example, in one poem about red and black Greek vases I use the word blackground instead of background. An editor or proofreader might quibble with this play on words.

In another instance I used the Greek name, Apophis, of an Egyptian god. Tom caught this, leaving me to decide whether Apep, the Egyptian name, better matches the other gods mentioned "Thoth, Ra and Horus. In the end, I must base a decision on meter, sheer felicity and my own sense of what works. Since we owe much of our knowledge of Egypt to the Greeks, who were fascinated by the land of the pharaohs, I might stick with Apophis. But Apep might sound better to me. You`ll see if and when you read Brushstrokes and Glances. The Brooklyn Museum, where I wrote the poem, used the Greek word.

Grammar isn`t ironclad. A poet might prefer an ungrammatical rendering for any number of reasons, something like throwing a monkey wrench into machinery, an anarchic gesture, or perhaps perversity, humor or mockery. Or he might simply have made a mistake. Penny and Tom both caught me in some mistakes. Editing is falling by the wayside as the digital revolution accelerates. Proofreading is long gone, and literature suffers, but my impression is that publishers of poetry are more painstaking than most, perhaps simply because an error or gaffe in a book of poems is impossible to conceal; it can`t hide behind the mass of text.

I made a living for a long time as a newspaper editor. I encountered dozens of explanations of the editorial function. But none of them were as cogent as a remark by my copy chief at The Baltimore Sun in 1964. John Plunkett, a wonderful newspaperman, said simply, Our job is to make the writer look good. " Our dictum was Hippocratic: First, do no harm. Years later I encountered a similarly humble and gracious attitude in the famous columnist Mary McGrory. I was editing one of her syndicated columns early in the morning at The Washington Star. Getting desperate, I called her, waking her up. Ms. McGrory, I said, you know I love your writing (I did), but for the life of me I can`t make heads or tails of your first six paragraphs. That`s okay, honey, she said, fix them up and make them read right. The next day she sent me flowers.

Not all writers are as gallant. As a reporter and writer of fiction and poetry I think I have a great deal of respect for the editor`s and proofreader`s function, but that is not to say the profession is oaf-proof.

When I worked at The Sun as a copy editor I often sat next to an elderly gentleman who by day was a mathematics professor at Johns Hopkins. He was highly literate and, being a widower, he liked the company of fellow editors at The Sun, which was then one of the country`s most well-written and enterprising newspapers. One night I got a story from The Sun`s Pentagon correspondent. It was a budget story and I didn`t understand it. I asked the mathematician next to me to look it over during a lull in the flow of news, saying sheepishly, I don`t understand it. He examined the story and then pronounced, You don`t get it because the writer doesn`t get it, and probably his sources don`t either. I called the reporter and said the story didn`t add up. Of course not, he said, that`s the Pentagon for you. John Plunkett was listening in and took the phone from me. Damn it, he said, if it doesn`t add up you have to say so, otherwise we become co-conspirators. Today the press is often co-conspirator to con artists and incompetents.

So somehow the writer, the editor and the proofreader must come to an understanding. The process is exactly what we don`t have in Congress anymore: the ability, the will to come to an understanding. Every daily newspaper is a compromise shaped by urgency, timeliness, skill, what is known and what is unknown "a compromise between writer and editor.

What about this creative process don`t our politicians get? I suppose it`s a rhetorical question "they are, after all, the bought and paid for creatures of special interests, and some of those special interests simply want to prevent things, not create them. Whatever the public doesn`t get is a boon to politicians and not entirely unpleasant to the press, either.

If I stare at a poem or a passage of fiction long enough I will find something awry, askew, amiss. But there is a point at which I am merely fiddling, obsessing, a point beyond which the writing may be spoiled. Editing can flush the electricity and vibrancy from a poem or story. It can be pedagogical, unyielding, rule-bound. Or it can be every bit as alive to the possibilities inherent in the work as the writer himself. You have to hear the writer the way I could hear Mary McGrory. I knew how she sounded, and that is why I was able to make sense of those six paragraphs. There were journalists whose work I could not hear. For me their words plopped on the page like mud pies, and they were hard to edit. I won`t name them, but some of them were famous.

Brushstrokes and Glances is a collaborative effort between me, my wife Marilyn, as astute an editor as I`ve ever encountered, her former colleague, Tom Hester, Penny Conti, Jeffrey Haste, the publisher, and anybody else with whom I ever shared any of these poems. Most of all, the book is a collaborative project between all the painters mentioned in it, myself as an art lover, and the many curators whose job is to shed light on art.


Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother`s art:

His aunt`s art: