Second time around.

by Todd Foley

The bookcase has been bugging me for months.

A while back, my wife and I bought some supplies for a repurposing project, turning an Ikea rolling island into an antique-esque piece of furniture. We made a mixture of black and brown paint and added some stain, which aged the surface so much that you could hardly tell it came from a Swedish warehouse.

It worked well on that, so it obviously would work on the bookcase as well.

It didn’t.

The polished surface rejected the paint, leaving no trace of any work – other than a few smear marks.

I was frustrated. Discouraged.

Defeated.

Why couldn’t I replicate what had worked so perfectly before?

I live out this experience every day as an editor. When a new document arrives in my inbox, my gut instinct is to find the most efficient way possible to improve the text and move on to my next assignment. Style guides are full of rules and regulations which make my job easier: cut, shorten, rearrange, add in, format.

It’s just easier that way.

Trouble is, I make no effort to get to know the words before editing when I work this way. I’m “improving” something I’m not even familiar with. Hence the editor’s greatest mistake: re-writing for the sake of re-writing.

I got my wake-up call several months back when I read the following quote by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker since 1998:

“There are, it seems, two kinds of editors. The first kind cares mainly about himself, about how his editing performance reflects on him and getting ahead or getting stroked or getting to lunch, as the case may be. Such editors are not editors at all and ought to go to breakfast and stay there. A real editor, however, is a rare thing, and I’ve been lucky in working with a few. A real editor is focused totally on the writer’s work and helping the writer realize a vision of the piece or the book he’s set out to do. Editing requires a certain selflessness that is hard to find.”

This brings me back to the aforementioned bookcase. My lovely wife got me Mark Montano’s Big-Ass Book of Home Decor as a Valentine’s gift. Just two days ago I stumbled upon a simple but beautiful painting design. This, I thought, was the solution to my creative block with the bookcase.

With just two cans of spray paint, a roll of masking tape and a bit of attention to detail, the bookcase received its proper treatment today.

These are the experiences that inspired scribbled revisions: initial concepts, botched efforts and altered perspective.

Lesson of the day?

Get to know your project before editing.

Welcome to my life.

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