Question: What makes someone a good book editor?
Okrent: I think that the primary – well there’s some preconditions
to be a good editor. You have to be able to subordinate your own ego.
It’s not your book. It’s the writer’s book. You have to help—be
willing to help the writer do what the writer wishes to accomplish and
not what you would like the writer to accomplish. That’s number one.
two, is a general sense of empathy. I guess that similar to what I
just said. Understanding what the writer’s trying to do.
three, in my case, frankness. I mean, it doesn’t do me any good to hear
an editor say, “Ah, it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.” I really want
an editor to say, “I didn’t understand this," or "That sentence is
awful," or "This stuff doesn’t belong here, it belongs there.” Now, I
won’t always be persuaded, but I want my editor to make that case a
firmly and as supportively as possible. And supportively means not
telling me I’m good, but telling me, this is how to be better.
What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?
Okrent: I think the best advice I’ve ever had as a writer was, hope
that your research disproves your preconceptions. And push further so
that you can get there. Now that doesn’t always happen, but we all
begin on a subject having an idea where we are going. And the most
satisfying work that I’ve always done is when I start going this
direction and then I find, oh, no, no, no. Go back this direction.
know writers who have completed books, or nearly completed books and
then realize, "Oh my god; I’ve got it all wrong." Jean Strauss, the
wonderful biographer. Her J.P. Morgan book took, I don’t know 14 or 15
years because she was nearly done when she realized she really hadn’t
gotten Morgan right. And she went back and did it all over again. The
willingness to be wrong and to recognize that is absolutely essential.
other great advice is, this is an aphorism that has been attributed to
Hemingway, to P.G. Woodhouse, to... I don’t know, every writer of note
in the 20th century. You have to be willing to kill all your little
darlings. By which I mean, or whoever said that meant, you write a
sentence that you think is so clever and so perfect and has such great
rhythm to it and what a great joke it is, and you fall in love with the
sentence for its own sake rather than for what it’s meant to convey.
That’s a little darling that you have to willing to go "pow" and just
get rid of it.
Question: If you were starting out
today, would you still want to be a journalist?
Okrent: I think that I would still get into journalism if I had the
opportunity to. You know, again, I’d rather play centerfield, or I’d
rather be a leader of a 16 piece swing band, but I’m not capable of
those things. So assuming that I had the same set of skills that I
indeed do have, I think that journalism... I mean I’ve had a wonderful
time doing it. I have never had a boring day in my career and I think
that most journalists will tell you that. Let me take that back. My
first job as a reporter, I covered sewer boards in suburban Detroit.
[Snore] You know, that’s not fun. But once I was established as a
professional, never a boring day.
So I would like to do that.
Now, if I were coming up now, I would be looking and I’d say, oh there
are no jobs. The journalism business is falling apart. And I would
hope that I would have the willingness to live in the cold water flat or
whatever I would need to do to get established. I do think these other
forms I’ve spoken about... I think that they will evolve. They may not
be here yet. I think that the major institutions like The Times will
survive and thrive, in somewhat different form. And I think that there
will always be an audience for books. I don’t think we will have the
physical entity necessarily, but the idea of writing as I did in this
case, 155,000 words on the subject, and selling it to people who are
interested in reading it. That will still be here and so I would
feel—it’s easy for me to say at 62, but if I were 22, I would want to do
the same thing for a living.
Recorded on: April 16, 2010