19 April 1991
925 words

Writers & Editors:
Fast Friends or Eternal Enemies?

Can't work with prima donnas and jerks

NEW YORK--"Editors are sort of like condoms," said Lindsy Van Gelder. "I can understand what they are there for, but don't they sort of get in the way?"

Clay Felker was enraged by this remark, she added.

Van Gelder was speaking at a panel, "Writers & Editors: Fast Friends or Eternal Enemies?," on 19 April 1991 at a joint meeting of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the National Writers Union, at the West Side YMCA on W. 63 St., Manhattan.

Van Gelder has written for Town and Country, New York Woman, Ms., and PC Magazine. Other panelists were:

Journalism vs books. In newspaper and magazine journalism, writers and editors often have to settle their differences by confrontations and screaming arguments, because of the deadline pressure, said Schrager.

"When I get journalists who are writing books, they're used to having the crap beaten out of them," said Schrager (who is going out with a journalist herself). "The only way they know how to deal with any editorial changes is to blow up, because they're always on deadline. They scream at me." She tells them, "I'm not used to having people screaming at me. We've got plenty of time to go over this."

Jacobs agreed. "I can't work with prima donnas and jerks," she said. "We're on deadline."

A magazine article represents the magazine, said Bolles. The editor makes the article conform to the magazine's style. A book represents you. The book author has the last word. "I do not change the manuscript till I know the reason why," said Bolles. One ms. had 8 pages X'd out, with no explanation. "I erased the X's," he said. He appreciates an editor who understands his language, gets his jokes, catches his allusions, and can improve his writing. There are tensions that should lead to a better book. Most of their disputes are about words, said Bolles, who owns an Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM.

Under the best circumstances, the relationship between a book editor and author is a pleasant intellectual dialog.

For a magazine writer, "I'm basically driven by supporting a child and paying the rent," said Van Gelder.

Business vs art. Editors and writers have a business, not a personal, relationship, Bolles and Schrager agreed. "My ambition is to be understood," said Bolles. "The editor's ambition is to succeed in the publishing world." The relationship is a "strategic diplomacy."

Schrager sees her job as reconciling her love of books with economic reality. "Our business is being the author's advocate in-house," she said.

"Although we would love to ship 35,000 copies of your book, and put your book on the New York Times Best Seller List-- we can't do that," said Schrager. "And very often the books come back and we go out of business."

New York Woman has its own problems, said Jacobs. "The magazine industry is in terrible shape," she said. "Ad pages are down. Everybody is looking for circulation." Every magazine editor is desperately trying to get more readers. This is a time to indulge the reader's interests, not the writer's ego.

New York Woman is competing with dailies and weeklies, and has a 3-month lead time. When their story finally comes out, everybody has read it elsewhere, so it has to be distinctive.

Consequently, the story has to be shaped by the editors, said Jacobs. "We spend a lot of time talking to our writers," telling them exactly how it can be handled. If you have a story and you know exactly how you want to handle it, and you don't like to be edited, "maybe this isn't the place for you," she said.

Take the Carol Warmus murder trial, said Jacobs. "Now there's a New York woman," she said. "I'm trying for the right story on that. It has to be our particular spin." It will take a lot of time to research and write "and the rates are not out there."

Who pays for the editor's mistakes? Frequently, said one journalist from the audience, "You turn in exactly what they ask for on time and you get a call, they want it completely rewritten."

That happens, acknowledged Jacobs. Even with a good writer, the story comes in, and you say, "What was I thinking? It's dull, the subject was not what we thought it would be. He was pedantic, he was dull." If possible, she tries to salvage it, by having the author rewrite it. "Because of the economy we're loathe to kill articles," she said. Jacobs likes it when the writer calls and says, "I don't think this is going to work."

But if the writer has completed the assignment according to the original agreement, she has earned the full fee. "At that point they should be paying a per diem," said Van Gelder.

Editing by letter. Schrager edits by letter. She writes a long letter to the author critiquing the manuscript. It is specific, supportive and tactful. "For every criticism I alternate with something I can praise." All authors are defensive. "They get this letter, they blow up," she said. "Hopefully, I'm out for the weekend." She never gives out her home number.

"You spend one day writing this letter and you never have to talk about it again," said Schrager.

--Norman Bauman