Friday, March 29th, 2013

In Praise Of Editors, Or In This Case, Editor

When editors and sponsors demanded changes to his copy, the legendary absurdist comedian and radio star Fred Allen used to reply: "Where were you bastards when the pages were blank?"

This joke is about the common misconception about what really happens between writers and editors, which is a kind of alchemical collaboration, provided that the collaborators in question are in sympathy and closely attending to the matter at hand. Granted, that doesn't happen every time, on either side, but at its best there is no hostility, and no jockeying for an advantage in this symbiosis: no ego, no performance, just an intent shared focus on making something good together for the reader's benefit. A finished piece of writing made in this way will transmit a certain quality often called "polish," but which might more accurately be described as "camaraderie."

Harold Ross, the great editor of the New Yorker, wrote on this topic to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in 1945:

The only great argument I have against writers, generally speaking, is that many of them deny the function of an editor, and I claim editors are important. For one thing, an editor is a good trial horse; the writer can use him to see if a story and its various elements register as he or she thinks they register. An author is very likely to suffer a loss of viewpoint (due to nearness to the subject) before he gets through with a story and finish up with something more or less out of focus.

This was in a letter to a writer, obviously, and I don't know the context in which it was written. Maybe Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had a swelled head (she wrote a number of short stories for the New Yorker in the early 40s, beginning only not long after she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Ross was trying to get her to play ball. But many, many writers, beginner and seasoned pro alike, are in a total panic about suffering the very "loss of viewpoint" Ross describes. There is nothing that can soothe such terrors like the calm and reasonable words of an editor, a professional reader, the wise and honest friend who has the wherewithal and the desire to perfect your work, and apprehend any fugitive viewpoint. The writer who doesn't understand that a good editor's interests are entirely aligned with his own is a big idiot, and I leave him, with all the pity in the world, to all his entirely unnecessary sufferings.

Writers, if they are lucky, will work for publications or publishing houses with values sympathetic to their own. But with the help of a good editor, a writer can fit his aims in with those of the publisher and its readership in order to advance the interests of all. In this way, altogether new kinds of ability and awareness come to a writer, just through the offices of a fine editor. No writer can make such advances alone.

The idea of the Creative Person dropping his wisdom down like manna upon the heads of a grateful public is, I venture to say, really dumb. At least, I've never met or heard of a writer of any skill at all who wasn't far more interested in the genius of the reader than in his own. And yet the idea of the literary genius, the lone visionary unencumbered by any imperatives outside those of his own revelations, is still peddled hither and yon. But not by me! I consider it the height of lunacy. No writing can be any good at all unless people are participating in it together, reading it, and enjoying it, and with any luck quarreling with it and being interested in it and talking about it and making new things out of it.

Anyway, the paradox here is that an editor, however essential his efforts may have been to the quality of a finished piece, is liable to be invisible to all but the most dedicated readers of a given magazine, newspaper or website. And yet writers, if they are on the ball, come to view the position of editor with something like awe. The best of them are invariably fine writers in their own right. But a great editor is in charge of not just one person's voice, but of a whole chorus of voices, which he unites and cajoles and conducts, in order to create a far larger and more powerful choir of meaning.

All those here assembled who have been fortunate enough to work with Carrie Frye over the last 25 months will, I believe, share my feeling that she is of the very highest and best order of editors, that she is a veritable Galadriel among editors; scintillating with insight, humor and brilliance; wise, patient, and good. Carrie is leaving her post here to focus on making more words herself, so the only thing that tempers my great (my very great) sadness at losing her as an editor is the utter delight of knowing that the result will be more of her own writing.

À bientôt, dear CAAF.

The staff and pals and coworkers and compatriots and vendors and all the various fellow travelers of The Awl join Maria in much garment-rending at the departure of Carrie Frye: magical editor, incredible juggler, bear enthusiast and enemy of ergonomy. Don't forget… to write.

44 Comments / Post A Comment

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

Carrie Frye forever and ever and ever.

Jane Hu (#5,833)

Tears. Thank you CAAF. Remember, everyday is CAAF day and we love you. <3 <3 <3

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

For real.

brent_cox (#40)

If I could cosign this a hundred times it wouldn't be enough times.

deepomega (#1,720)


Shani (#235,567)

Most wonderful.

AHP (#240,564)

Dearest Carrie. Now who will think my jokes about Gap Perfume are funny while also making them better?

CAAF, can you take more misty-eyed appreciations? HERE IS MINE. Thanks for so much–particularly the things I'm not smart enough to know to thank you for, yet.

MichelleDean (#7,041)


Dibs on her parking space (and her dog).

C_Webb (#855)

Sniff. Snarf. You're such an amazing editor, that I can't possibly imagine who will edit YOU. I hope they are as endlessly kind and funny and brilliant for you as you were for us.

Vicky (#7,168)


Thank you for everything.

Maud Newton (#600)

Carrie, thank you for bringing your insight and generosity to all of our writing, and also making us all sound a lot funnier. Gonna miss you, but as a big fan of your writing I'm so glad you're gonna be working on your own stuff (about which I will commence to pestering you next week). XO

Annie K. (#3,563)

Have a wonderful time, Carrie.

Dan Packel (#10,421)

My only regret is that — in only writing for CAAF sporadically and unreliably — I failed to take full advantage of her talents, which I never overlooked.

jfruh (#713)

Being edited by CAAF was always a joy :(

John Ore (#7,170)

Such a wonderful person and editor that even when she was killing ideas or phrases that I dearly loved, I was THANKFUL. Wait, she's like a Jedi editor! A Jeditor!

In addition, she reunited me with long-lost fellow lineman Ben Choi, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Gonna miss you around here, CAAF, but can't wait to see more from you.

Lili L. (#6,216)

thank you for everything.

davidwatts (#72)

CARRIE! You are an amazing and thoughtful editor, and you always took the time to coddle my fragile ego, even (especially!) when telling me I had a terrible idea. Thank you! Hope you're working on that Byron screenplay . . .

Emily Morris (#14,069)

Thanks for treating an intern right, Carrie (even when she didn't deserve it AT ALL). You're a gem. Can't wait to read whatever you write in the future.

Ken Layne (#262)

You know how when you write something and people on Twitter are all, "Oh that was awesome, such a good writer?" Those were the pieces Carrie fixed up.

And the ones where people are all, "Jesus christ, is this supposed to be funny, or is it just stupid, or what? UNFOLLOW." Alex and Choire edited those. JUST KIDDING NOBODY EDITED THOSE AT ALL DID THEY?

Carrie, I wish my name were spelled differently so I could be related to you. Best of luck!

Matt Langer (#2,467)

Thank you Carrie!!

Dave Bry (#422)

Yes, thank you Carrie!!!

A Good Question (#182,018)

Definitely looking forward to seeing more of Carrie's own writing. I loved that Lord Byron piece.

MTLincoln (#232,122)

I am an editor. I'd like to embroider this entire article on pillows and give them to all of my clients. Thank you for this! And thank you, Carrie, for your scrupulous and subtle work.

Thank you from the bottom of my rabies-obsessed heart, CAAF!

Rick Paulas (#1,565)

The best pieces I wrote were edited by CAAF. That's not coincidence. GOOD LUCK!

John Ore (#7,170)

John Ore @clarencerosario

@Choire @AlexBalk Is @CAAF gone yet? Sending pitch for LWC: Things Found In My Couch Cushions, In Order Of Edibility

03:01 PM – 29 Mar 13

Mr. B (#10,093)

So … you guys hiring?

(Seriously, Carrie, thank you for keeping things classy, especially when I and others made bitchy complaints about things that weren't your fault.)

Myles Tanzer (#13,698)

Carrie is so so so the best.

Happy trails, Carrie!

Bittersweet (#765)

All the best, Carrie! Based on the terrific things you've written here, I'm really looking forward to seeing your future work.

CAAF's departure feels like the last scene of "A League of Their Own," minus the terrible Madonna song (because, if that movie had been an essay, she would have judiciously edited it out).

Elon Green@twitter (#75,693)

All best, CAAF. Those of us whose writing you improved beyond reason will miss you.

scrooge (#2,697)

Try me

sventurata (#4,205)

Thank you, Carrie. What a talent you have for finishing the rough seams and transforming the wholesale cloth into dazzling couture.

01lukewarm (#9,661)

Thank you for championing editors! This is such a wonderfully expressed explanation and appreciation of what editors do. (And of course, you had me at "Harold Ross.")
I like to think you had one last, in-depth, great editing session together while doing this piece!

oscarina (#45,226)

Edith Zimmerman. Best. Editor. Ever.
Lover her.

Cwick (#134,258)

There are writers' editors and there are editors' editors. Carrie was the former, and she was a great one.

Heather Wagner (#9,797)

I am SO late to this party, but I agree wholeheartedly with these Carrie Frye accolades. I had the good fortune of writing for her last spring and she was insightful, hilarious, and made the most genius edits. Can't wait to hear more from her. Rock on, girl!

This is a great description of why editors matter — thanks! And best of luck to Carrie, will be looking for her stuff!

PITAR (#243,191)

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johngflynn657 (#270,575)

Those of us whose writing you improved beyond reason will miss you.

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