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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Essay: What My Copy Editor Taught Me - Dorothy Gallagher

My copy editor died.

No need to be upset on my account. I hadn’t seen Helene Pleasants for at least 10 years before her death; and even those closest to her would agree that her death was timely. After a long life, with one great adventure at its heart, many pleasures and pitfalls, Helene died at the age of 93. Hopefully, she died in her sleep. Helene would have killed me for that last sentence.

I mention Helene’s death because she was not only my first editor, but the editor of my life. When I was young, and thus necessarily ignorant, I was hired as a junior editor at Redbook magazine. This meant, essentially, that I was given into Helene’s tutelage. I had my notions (“But I wanted that sentence to read ambiguously . . .”) and Helene’s patience was not inexhaustible. Luckily for me, I wasn’t a total fool, and I caught on: what Helene offered was vital to anyone who cared about writing. In musical terms, she had perfect pitch.

Helene had no literary theories — she had literary values. She valued clarity and transparency. She had nothing against style, if it didn’t distract from the material. Her blue pencil struck at redundancy, at confusion, at authorial vanity, at the wrong and the false word, at the unearned conclusion. She loved good writing, therefore she loved the reader: good writing did not cause the reader to stumble over meaning. By the time Helene was finished with me seven years later, I knew how to read a sentence and how to fix one. I knew what a sentence was supposed to do. I began to write my own sentences; needless to say, the responsibility for them is my own.


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