JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

To be edited …

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 11.17.31 PMBeginning with my time at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, I was a bad edit.

By “bad edit,” I mean I absolutely hated having my articles edited. Every comma had a purpose. Every word was perfectly outfitted for its placement. Every period, every dash, every but and will and ahem and egad and ergo—all in the exact right place at the exact right moment. If you were changing things, well, I was arguing.

Upon arriving at The Tennessean as a 22-year-old rookie, I was no better. My first editor was quiet and soft, and I ran over him like a truck. Then, after making one too many sloppy mistakes, I was banished to the police beat—land of straight ledes and minimal creativity. “Get your act together,” I was told. “Then we’ll see …”

I stopped, for the most part, being a bad edit.

Oh, there were moments here and there. Some squabbles on the baseball beat at Sports Illustrated. Some heated words at Newsday. Mostly, however, I came to the important realization that—at day’s end—today’s newspaper/magazine is, truly, tomorrow’s fish wrap and/or plunger place mat; that while it’s important to take your work personally, there’s no reason to lose your cool over editing disputes. Some articles you’ll ultimately be happy with. Others, you won’t. It’s just the way it goes.

A few days ago, sadly, I forgot this.

I lost my cool.

Without naming names or places, I wrote a freelance piece for a newspaper. The editor I’d worked with in the past was away, and in his place was a, well, hands-on sort of guy. He wanted to make alterations that I believed to, eh, suck. He thought the lede needed rearranging; the focus needed to be slightly altered; etc, etc. My regular editor is fantastic—he wants the writer to maintain his voice, and only switches things when they absolutely need to be changed. This dude wasn’t fantastic. He was, I believed, overly involved.

So I lost my cool. We went back and forth via e-mail. I refused to make his changes, then refused to make his changes, then refused refused refused refused to make his changes. This was my story, and it was done the way I wanted it. Who was this man to shove his pen in my work? What the flippity flippity f*ck was he doing?

End result: The story was killed.

Fault: Me.

I’ve met very few good writers who enjoy the editing process. As Gary Smith once wisely noted, every word in your story should have meaning. So when a foreigner arrives with his red pen and jabs, jabs, jabs—it hurts. It’s uncomfortable and off-putting. But, it’s also a part of the process—one writers (even experienced writers) need to go along with and accept. The piece I submitted was important to many people. It concerned a deceased sports figure, and his family was thrilled (beyond thrilled) that his memory was being acknowledged.

I had to call and tell them the story had flat-lined.

I had to tell them it was my fault.