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A letter to the constituency

The writer is the perspiring one with blisters and a pick-ax, hatless under a tropical sun. The editor is the one in the ice cream suit on the veranda periodically sending out a young boy with instructions.

John Baskin

Those foolhardy souls who work across the writerly disciplines—reading, writing, editing, proofing, and researching—like to think of what they do as a modern kind of pentathlon. The truth is that we’re unlikely athletes, sallow-complexioned from hours in libraries, our only sun the unhealthy light from backlit screens. Our sprints are to Starbucks; we hurdle nothing more than reluctant sentences and our throwing events involve only fits of pique and the negligible distance between page and wastebasket.

No athletes, us.

On any given day, my good friend, the bookish pentathlete M., and I spend our lunch hour at the Denver House arguing various intricacies of the Squash Federation’s rulebook. The next day, we are debating the arcane utterances of the Chicago Manual of Style, our heated disputes settled by the Denver House’s well-worn bar copy. (The Denver may be the only bar in America with its own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, a fact that distinguishes the hotel’s already admirable service, although it is not otherwise much of a drawing card.)

I pause to note how much offense my esteemed friend M. would take at being called bookish. For it is not a side of him recognized by even members of his own family: M. was a formidable high school athlete, a college running back, and even in the intervening years he has  pursued excellently any number of sports, including his perverse addiction to squash. But there is his disreputable, bookish side and may God forgive him.

There is, though, a parallel between squash and our cross-discipline work in the preparation of manuscripts for publication: (1) Squash is infernally subtle, virtually unknown outside of the Ivy League, and—here in the cornfields of Ohio, at least—regarded as a sport older men take up when their prowess begins to wane. (2) The writerly disciplines, meanwhile, are infernally subtle, virtually unknown in most schools everywhere, and regarded, by and large, as the dominion of pedants.

Or, as one writer said when we asked about his manuscript’s confusion of styles, difficult transitions, misplaced modifiers, errant homophones, and so forth, “I thought that was what editors did.”

“Actually,” I replied—knowing that with his manuscript I must surely become the most bookish of pentathletes—“editors prefer to deal with misdemeanors and not the capital offenses.”

That is often the work at hand. If we do not run our bookish publishing race, the manuscript itself does not finish. And so the lowbrow crafts—editing, proofing, fact-checking and the like—converge, all in support of the writer, that exalted creature standing at the pinnacle of expression.

We describe here reading, writing, and the publishing dictates, all based on our own small involvement in the universe of reading and writing and the production of manuscripts, in both their difficulties and successes.

May there always be fewer of the former and more of the latter.


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