Jim Sollisch is creative director at the Marcus Thomas advertising firm in Cleveland.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Photosteve101
(Image courtesy of Flickr user Photosteve101)

A good editor makes a good writer’s writing very good. A bad editor gives your writing a haircut with a chain saw.

And as a copywriter at an ad agency, I work pretty much exclusively with really bad editors. It’s not fair to call them editors; they are my clients, often marketing managers or communication specialists. Many have MBAs and are brilliant at so many things. Writing not included. They’ve had the English knocked out of them. Now, they speak Power Point. Worst case scenario, my work is edited or critiqued by the legal department or by committees.

It’s the same for so many professional writers. Public relations writers have their annual report copy “edited” by corporate executives or their minions. Technical writers have their work “edited” by engineers. And if you buy a corporate speechwriter a drink, be prepared to hear about the horrors of writing for the tone deaf.

We professional writers aren’t precious little literati. We know we aren’t authors or artists. Most days we’re witty sales people. On our best days, we’re storytellers, craftsman. We do care deeply about language. We want our words to dance to a particular rhythm.

One of the tools we use is repetition. Unfortunately, it’s the tool most despised by bad editors. Charles Dickens would never have gotten his most famous sentence through the corporate communications specialist. The edited version would read like this: “It was the best and worst of times.” A savings of four words that makes sublime into subpar.

At one point in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. starts eight sentences in a row with the words, “I have a dream.”

And then near the close of the most famous speech in American history, he starts six sentences with the words “Let freedom ring.”

My clients would sit Martin down and take out a big old thesaurus.  They’d help him see that “dream” could become “vision” in certain places.  In others, “idea” might work. But mostly, they’d just insist that he find new ways to start sentences.

How did we get here? I think it has something to do with speed of communicating in new forms, like texting and Twitter, where style counts for nothing. The proliferation of content has turned so many non-writers into writers. Lawyers. No one can mangle a sentence with a caveat in quite the same way a lawyer can.

But I also think we can place a lot of the blame on English teachers, those non-writers responsible for teaching us how to write. It begins when they circle a word that appears a few times in a single paragraph and ask for an alternative. Anyone can go to Thesaurus.com and replace “small” with “tiny” or with a $10-word like “diminutive.” But they’re not the same words.

The attack continues when Mr. or Mrs. English Teacher insists on a variety of sentence structures. You have a rhythm going — you have a dream — and out comes the red pen to insist that you vary your syntax. Would that approach have made “Goodnight Moon” a better book?

Humans love repetition. It’s comforting. Without repetition there is no music — that’s why we call music without repetition experimental music. Most people just call it bad. Put English teachers in charge of songwriting, and there would be no choruses.

English teachers who don’t practice the craft of writing — and that’s the vast majority — can’t ruin real writers. They can just give them bad grades. Real writers know that writing has to be heard, not just read.  They find a beat, a rhythm, and they follow it. They can’t help it.

But the rest of the class walks away with the false knowledge that good writing is something you can diagram; that it’s meant to be seen and not heard; that rhythm is a tool for poetry, not prose.

And thus, we arrive at the marketing manager, the communication specialist, the MBA clients who unwittingly revisit the sins of their English teachers upon the writers who toil for them, trying to turn messages into emotion, trying to make facts sing.

I’ve got a couple of tricks I try to get my copy past the censors. I always read it out loud to them. All humans love to be read to. It’s funny, we can’t get enough of it and yet most of us have gotten all we’re going to get of being read aloud to by the time we’re 6. I read it with feeling. I want them to hear the rhythm, to feel something because I know that when they see it in print, they are only scanning for key words, playing buzz-word bingo. Which is why I try to never let them see it in print until it’s in the final layout or digital prototype.

As a last resort — and I only do this rarely — I pull rank.  I might say, “Boy, you’re tough. A lot tougher than the editor at The Washington Post who didn’t change a word in the last piece of mine they published.”  It makes me feel better, but it never works. Because while some people will admit they’re not writers, everyone is an editor.