Fans of James Thurber will hopefully be well familiar with his memoir about his time spent at the New Yorker, working with its founding editor, Harold Ross. ‘The Years With Ross‘ was first published in 1958 and is still in print.
Flipping back through an old (1959) copy of the Penguin paperback edition the other day, I landed on Thurber’s long extract from a memo by New Yorker copy editor Wolcott Gibbs, in which Gibbs shares with Ross some of his rules for editing the magazine’s fiction writers. (Journonerds will probably best know Gibbs for his famous ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind‘ parody of Time magazine’s ‘Timespeak’.)
Although the memo was first written in the 1930s, twenty years before Thurber quoted from it, I was struck by how many of Gibbs’ principles are applicable to most of today’s bloggers who dabble in long-form, including those of us who work at Pando. I’ve quoted the relevant ones below, including Thurber’s introduction.
(Hopefully it goes without saying that the links have been added by me. Gibbs wasn’t that prescient. Any typos that have slipped in during transcription are my doing, too.)
Here’s Thurber’s introduction to Gibbs:
Wolcott Gibbs has never got the attention he deserves. He was easily, not just conceivably – to use one of his favourite words – the best copy editor the New Yorker has ever had. For years he had to deal with the seventy per cent of New Yorker fiction that has to be edited, often heavily, before it reaches print. Gibbs, an accomplished parodist, was always able to fix up a casual without distorting or even marring its author’s style.
He was inimitable, as such word experts are, but when he quit as copy editor in the fiction department to become the magazine’s dramatic critic and to write some of its best casuals and profiles, he wrote and sent to Ross – this must have been twenty years ago – what he called ‘The Theory and Practice of New Yorker Article Editing’, based on his experiences, often melancholy, with the output of scores of writers, male and female.
The final straw, in his editorial career, was a casual that began: ‘Mr West had never been very good with machinery.’ Here was the little man, a genre sometimes called, around the office, the Thurber husband, popping up for the thousandth time, and it was too much for the Gibbsian nerves. The Gibbs essay on editing, which has not been published before, follows:
And here’s the memo itself:
THEORY AND PRACTICE OF EDITING NEW YORKER ARTICLES
The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate; this is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do. It is impossible to lay down any exact and complete formula for bringing order out of this underbrush, but there are a few general rules.
1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said’. ‘He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on.’ Editorial theory should probably be that the writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.
2. Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted’, ‘snorted’, etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.
3. Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one and had better be removed.
5. Our employer, Mr Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences beginning with ‘and’ or but’. He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.
7. The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer:
Marion gave me a pain in the neck.
‘You give me a pain in the neck, Marion,’ I said.
This tuns up more often than you’d expect.
10. To quote Mr Ross again, ‘Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.’ Pieces about authors, reporters, poets, etc. are to be discouraged in principle. Whenever possible the protagonist should be arbitrarily transplanted to another line of business. When the reference is incidental and unnecessary, it should come out.
11. This magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. The only test I know of is whether or not they are really essential to the author’s effect. ‘Son of a bitch’, bastard’, and many others can be used whenever it is the editor’s judgement that that is the only possible remark under the circumstances. When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no special purpose, they come out.
12. In the transcription of dialect, don’t let the boys and girls misspell words just for a fake bowery effect. There is no point, for instance, in ‘trubble’, or ‘sed’.
13. Mr Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. ‘A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.’ Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr Weekes suffers and quite rightly.
14. I suffer myself very seriously from writers who divide quotes for some kind of ladies’ club rhythm.
‘I am going,’ he said, ‘downtown’ is a horror and unless a quote is pretty long I think it ought to stay on one side of the verb. Anyway, it ought to be divided logically, where there would be pause or something in the sentence.
15. Mr Weekes has got a long list of banned words beginning with ‘gadget’. Ask him. It’s not actually a ban, there being circumstances when they’re necessary, but good words to avoid.
18. I almost forgot indirection, which probably maddens Mr Ross more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects or places or people being dragged into things in a secretive or underhanded manner. If, for instance, a profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying, ‘His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings.’ Should say ‘He has a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.’ Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.
20. The more ‘As a matter of facts’, ‘howevers’, ‘for instances’, etc. etc. you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.
23. For some reason our writers (especially Mr Leonard Q. Ross) have a tendency to distrust even moderately long quotes and break them up arbitrarily and on the whole idiotically with editorial interpolations. ‘Mr Kaplan felt that he and the cosmos were coterminous’ or some such will frequently appear in the middle of a conversation for no other reason that that the author is afraid the reader’s mind is wandering. Sometimes this is necessary, most often it isn’t.
24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely cosmic last line. ‘Suddenly Mr Holtzmann felt tired’ has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.
25. On the whole we are hostile to puns.
26. How many of these changes can be made in copy depends, of course, to a large extent on the writer being edited. By going over the list, I can give a general idea of how much nonsense each artist will stand for.
27. Amongst many other things, the New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as ‘little’ and writing about them, as Mr Maxwell says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.
28. It has been one of Mr Ross’s long struggles to raise the tone of our contributors’ surroundings, at least on paper. References to the gay Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and other low surroundings should be cut whenever possible. Nor should writers be permitted to boast about having their telephones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.
29. Some of our writers are inclined to be a little arrogant about their knowledge of the French language. Probably best to put them back into English if there is a common English equivalent.
30. So far as possible make the pieces grammatical – but if you don’t the copy room will, which is a comfort. Fowler’s English Usage is our reference book. But don’t be precious about it.
31. Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.
A note about copyright:
Given Gibbs’ 1930s memo was published by Thurber in the 1950s, but without including a copyright notice for Gibbs, and then not republished until 2011 in a collection of Gibbs’ writing, I’m struggling to figure out exactly who is the copyright holder, or if the text of the memo has entered the public domain due to lack of registration/renewal.
If anyone wants to make a claim, feel free to drop me a note and I’ll either take it down or figure out some way to add the appropriate “with permission” credit. Hopefully, though, an encouragement to readers to buy the Thurber book and the collected works will suffice.