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Subeditors make the best writers

November 29, 2011

“Subeditors make the best writers,” a magazine editor I once worked with said. It was a casual remark, and it was clearly made in relation to our specific field: magazines. But it got me thinking about how, as a subeditor, I approach writing.

For me, a story unfolds from a solid understanding of language: words, sentences, paragraphs, and the cement that holds these bricks of language together – grammar. Over the past 15 years, I have carefully considered many aspects of grammar, always curious about why things are done – or not done – in a certain way. It’s a passion. And I think it’s what inspired my editor to make the “subeditors make the best writers” comment. She appreciates the care that subeditors take when they write feature articles.

That isn’t to say we never make mistakes, or never need our own articles subedited – we certainly do. My experience as a writer and a subeditor suggests to me that each task requires a different focus. As a writer, I must focus on the story and, though I do take care with how I tell that story, my eye is on the bigger picture – how to structure and tell the story in a way that I feel invites the reader in and keeps them interested until the end. As a subeditor, however, my eye is on the detail, on the correctness of the facts, the grammar, the style.

Most experienced writers are aware of these two facets of the writing process, I’m sure. What I am curious about, however, is a comment I read on a blog post the other day, which essentially stated that story telling is a talent, but writing can be learned by any intelligent person.

I don’t doubt that story telling is a talent, if by talent we mean ‘natural ability’ (as defined in the Macquarie Dictionary), but isn’t writing a talent, too?

In my first blog post, I made the distinction “between being able to thoughtlessly scribble words on a page and being able to write something that other people want to read. And can read. And enjoy reading.”

And I do think the latter requires talent, along with passion, commitment, and the dedication to learn and practise the craft of writing.

Surely talent is not reserved solely for someone who can tell a good tale, but also for someone who knows how best to use language to tell that tale.

Would love to know your thoughts.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 02:04

    I was going to post a brief comment to the effect that writers are born/writing is a talent and one which is separate entirely from telling a story, but then I got mired thinking about verbal articulacy and the fact that my son (correctly) says I am hopeless at telling a story. I’ve always known I ‘can write’ insofar as I have an inborn ability to understand grammar rules etc, to the extent that when I had to formally learn them at the age of eleven I was totally confused, and resistant.
    But there is also a writing ‘voice’ and that is what I have been developing this last couple of years. That started with knowing I can assemble facts sufficiently well to write an MA history dissertation using family history and earn praise for it to having my children asking me to make it interesting ‘like a novel’. And that discovery and exercising of ‘voice’ is probably part learnt and part inherent.
    And although I write fiction I would not ever claim to be a story-teller …

    • December 3, 2011 22:15

      I don’t think anyone in my family would ever say I was a great storyteller, either. Funnily enough, the one relative I do see as a wonderful storyteller, finds it near impossible to sit down to articulate those tales in any comprehensible written form. And I don’t think he’d have the patience or the passion to want to learn about what it takes to be a writer.
      I, on the other hand, won awards for my language skills from a very young age. However, it seems that my talent isn’t one people are very interested in, or impressed with, and it’s often dismissed as something anyone can learn, if they want to.
      Oh, well, I quite happily accept that I won’t ever write a mainstream bestseller based on my storyteller ability, but I shall continue to enjoy the wonder and beauty of words, and the joy it brings me to play with language.
      And, yes, I do write a lot of crap. Absolutely certain of it. In fact, I’d say 90 per cent of what I write is crap. And yet it’s those few moments, every now and again, when I feel like I’ve articulated an idea elegantly with language, that drives me to keep at it.
      It’s madness, I tell ya!

      • December 3, 2011 23:03

        ‘play with language’ has many degrees doesn’t it? I very very rarely come up with an especially inventive phrase – metapho?, synonym? – as description and prefer to concentrate on making the meaning accurately clear, with a decent rhythm, but I admire those who can, and do so in moderation.
        A propos of nothing except that I just came across it – this put the frighteneers on me: ” Children’s Book Publisher Our Dedicated Staff is Ready To Help”

      • December 4, 2011 21:38

        It certainly does, depending on what your skill-set is. What about that sentence put the “frighteneers” on you? I’ve never come across the word “frighteneers” before, but is certainly conveys a chilly, spooky vibe.

  2. November 30, 2011 03:17

    I also meant to say, in summation of the comment above, that my biggest fear is that I am guilty of elegantly writing total crap!

    • December 4, 2011 23:01

      I did wonder after if I wasn’t wrong – but surely ‘staff’ meaning group of people are plural? so it should be staff ARE ready to help?
      ‘Frighteners’ I suspect is liifted from something on television by my children and appropriated’

      • December 5, 2011 21:19

        I thought it was in reference to that. Staff is singular, indicating one entity, such as team, group, etc, though many publications today might use it with the plural. I wrote about it in my post on collective nouns

  3. December 3, 2011 19:52

    Rachel, we sort of had this discussion a little while ago – I mentioned Dan Brown as someone who can tell a story, but his “writing” was terrible, so I guess that example can be used again.

    I know very well that I don’t understand all the rules of grammar (like that isn’t blatantly obvious) but as a reader of fiction, I want to be taken away by the story – I don’t try and find bad grammatical errors (although, with Dan Brown you don’t have to look to far!) I understand that it is different for editors (and their ilk), that the eye for detail is truly their stock-in-trade but I do like the storytelling and forgive the odd mistake. Stephen King (yes, I know – him again) has used his own form of grammar for decades and it works for him…and me.

    • December 3, 2011 22:42

      Oh, dear, my short term memory is shot – I don’t remember our Dan Brown chat. But did I say in that chat that I think Dan Brown is not only a shit writer, he is a shit storyteller. When I tried to read that book, I felt it was though he’d just completed a “how to tell a story 101” class. It was so obvious, it made me want to hurl. Actually, I did hurl – I hurled ‘The Da Vinci Code’ across the bedroom. I haven’t read Stephen King for years, but loved him as a teenager, so certainly don’t put him in the same category as Dan Brown! He is a master storyteller.
      The other storyteller I really love is Roald Dahl. His kids books, and his short stories for adults. Brilliant!
      I should also add, and I hope I’ve made this clear in my posts, that although my passion is grammar and language, I, too, don’t care too much if a writer makes the odd grammar mistake. In fact, if I’m caught up in the story, I won’t even notice.
      The older I get, however, the less I’m taken with the ‘story’ as such, but more so with the way a writer plays with language to create a mood. An example would be Franz Kafka’s The Trial – it wasn’t the story itself that captured me, but the way Kafka drew me into the story – I didn’t ‘feel’ for the character in an empathetic way, but rather felt I ‘was’ the character. Extraordinary.

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