Editors vs. writers: ‘Twas ever thus

John Adams (TV miniseries)Image via Wikipedia

I watched the first 2 parts of HBO’s recent John Adams miniseries tonight. (As the holder of a history degree, I think it’s required by our bylaws.) It’s a very fine production, and fascinating on a number of levels beyond the sheer pleasure of seeing our country’s beginnings brought to life.

For example, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between then and now, watching the Continental Congress squabble amongst themselves about whether to declare independence or try one more meek petition to King George III. I think today’s Congressional debates would be much improved if each member was issued a long stick with which to pound on the floor to signal their agreement with the speaker. (That, and the elimination of microphones, television sound bites, and cable news pundits.)

But the scene that gave me a start and made me nostalgic for my moribund journalism career came in Part II. The retelling of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence shows that writers and editors have always been at odds in their common quest for elegant expression.

The scene opens with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams gathered in a room. Jefferson, having been cajoled into writing the Declaration of Independence by John Adams (in other words, given an unwelcome story assignment by his editor), has delivered his copy to his fellow congressman (editors). Like all writers, he paces nervously behind his editors as they read through the draft. Adams is complimentary of the way Jefferson has made a case not only for the the Colonies’ independence from England, but for the rights of all men.

Adams: “This is well-said, sir. Very, very well said.”

Jefferson, his nerves slightly soothed, finally takes a seat across the room from the others.

After criticizing Jefferson’s inclusion of a condemnation of the slave trade (which Franklin knows won’t fly with the delegates from the South), Franklin reads aloud another line in the copy.

Franklin: “‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal, et cetera …’ ‘Sacred and undeniable’ smacks of the pulpit.”
Jefferson (eyebrows raised in real or faux astonishment): “Does it?”
Franklin: “These truths are self-evident, are they not?”
Jefferson (reluctantly): “Perhaps.”
Franklin (with a brisk nod): “‘Self-evident’, then.”

Jefferson watches unhappily as Adams marks up his printout of the Declaration with his edits.

Jefferson: “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.”
Franklin: “Yes, but yours will not be the only hand in this document. It cannot be.”
Adams (trying to smooth things over a bit): “There may be expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, but I will defend every word of it.”
Jefferson (with a wave of his hand, pretending not to care): “Well, it’s what I believe.”

Jefferson’s restrained reaction doesn’t hide his annoyance that any editor, even the great Benjamin Franklin, would have the nerve to alter his golden prose. (Franklin, of course, being a newspaper editor and publisher, proves himself immune to a writer’s pique.) I’ve been on both sides of that argument in my career, and I can’t say I handled either role with as much grace as these men.

On the other hand, at least Jefferson didn’t accuse Franklin of acting like Procrustes, as a writer once did to me when I had the temerity to ask her to cut a paragraph or two from her review of a community theater production. (Greek mythology says Procrustes offered a bed to weary travelers, cutting off their legs if they were too tall to make them fit.) Not having had a classical education, I shrugged off the insult and told Pat I still needed 3 more lines cut.

I had already learned what Benjamin Franklin knew: You have to have a thick skin to be a copy editor.

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