Are Editors Just Failed Writers?

Are Editors Just Failed Writers?

Timothy Taylor 23/11/2020 4
Are Editors Just Failed Writers?

Robert Giroux was the editor for T.S. Eliot for many years.

In "A Personal Memoir" (Sewanee Review, Winter 1966, 74:1, pp. 331-338, available via JSTOR), Giroux tells anecdotes about knowing Eliot indeed, for Eliot buffs, the entire issue is devoted to people talking about their interactions with Eliot. But as someone who has worked as editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives for many years, the story that caught my eye was Eliot's response to the question of whether editors are just failed writers. Here's Giroux: 

I first met T. S. Eliot in 1946, when I was an editor at Harcourt, Brace under Frank Morley. I was just past thirty, and Eliot was in his late fifties. As I remember it he had come into the office to have lunch with Morley, who had been his close editorial colleague at Faber & Faber, and Morley discovered that he had forgotten a previous luncheon appointment for that day. Since I did not know this when Morley introduced us, I was dumbfounded when Eliot said, "Mr. Giroux, may I take you to lunch?" It was like being invited to eat with a public monument, and almost as frightening as shaking hands with the statue in Don Giovanni. I wondered what I could find to say to him.

We went across the street to the old Ritz-Carlton. It was a lovely spring day and the courtyard restaurant--I think it was called the Japanese Garden--had just been opened for the season. For some reason I was astonished at the sight of newly hatched ducklings swimming in the center pond, perhaps because they seemed to embody the odd and improbable quality the occasion had for me.

Eliot could not have found a kinder, or more effective, way of putting me at ease. As we sat down, he said, "Tell me, as one editor to another, do you have much author trouble?" I could not help laughing, he laughed in return--he had a booming laugh--and that was the beginning of our friendship. His most memorable remark of the day occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied: "Perhaps, but so are most writers."

Perhaps this comments appeals to me only as a defense of my amour propre, but I think there's also a deeper issue. Explaining is hard. It's hard in nonfiction as well as fiction. It's hard for both writers and editors. Surely, some writers fail because they are poor editors of their own early drafts.  


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  • Aaron Z

    Editors are obsessed with following strict guidelines

  • Justin Yap

    Thoughtful read

  • Raya Aljubouri

    No they are not !!

  • Karen Gozra

    Editing is not a hard job for experienced writers. It requires specific attention to details.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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