A famous line in the hit musical My Fair Lady claims “The French don’t care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.” Of course, that cultural no-no wouldn’t make the cut these days. Still, it came to mind as I was reading “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth.
Forsyth believes that “what we find memorable is the sound of words, not their meaning.” A perfect example is the bees’ knees. It’s a phrase we remember because it rhymes, not because it‘s meaningful. To bee or not to bee. As free as a bee. As busy as a bee. A bee in her bonnet. The buzz about bees. We never tire of these sweet sounds, silly as they be.
It takes more than pretty words
The trouble is this: All the rhetorical devices known to Shakespeare couldn’t hold a publication together for 161 years. No way. That kind of endurance takes a special passion, something that goes beyond pretty words. That’s the quality American Bee Journal has in spades.
Finding a pristine copy of ABJ in the mailbox makes a good day. Some folks set it aside, anticipating a peaceful moment to dig in. Some start reading immediately, letting the bills slide to the floor in a heap. People like me read in the post office parking lot, narrowly dodging pickups and flatbeds.
All the moving parts
To produce a magazine like ABJ, many people must mesh and keep on meshing. Perhaps the busiest, the advertising and editorial departments, have cyclic but critical jobs. And when you add in a specialized readership — think beekeepers — the publisher gets squeezed from every direction. The pressure mounts not once or twice a year, but every single month. The next, the next, and the one after that.
The ads must engage the reader and profit the advertiser. To do that, the articles must match audience expectations. If they are too technical, the beginners lose interest; too simplistic and the commercial keepers go elsewhere.
These competing interests mean that staff and writers are always on the high wire. Too many boring articles and subscriptions will tank. Too few subscriptions and the advertisers will bolt. Publishing is ruthless.
Long-term success is no accident
So when a company like Dadant can say it offers the longest continually published magazine in the country — ever — that is something to crow about. Except for a brief interlude during the Civil War, the journal has been published continuously since 1861, making it the oldest English-language beekeeping publication in the world. That would be a stunning achievement for any company, let alone one in a small niche market.
In this age of digital everything, that Dadant still publishes a print edition is even more impressive. Each month I feel honored to be a small part of its enduring story. With all that history and tradition to live up to, every time I begin a column, I remind myself, “This better be good.”
Editors can make or break a publication
Without the right editor, a publication can fizzle like a wet firecracker. That’s because the editor selects the content and ensures that articles adhere to guidelines set by the publisher. The editor of any publication is also its public face. Ah, the pressure, the stress! To its credit, ABJ has had a string of competent, charismatic editors, most lasting for years.
Nearly all of my tenure here at ABJ has been with Eugene Makovec. Although I’ve published since high school and know a tsunami of editors, I have to say that working with Eugene is a kick. Not only is he dedicated, pleasant, and knowledgeable, but he’s also funny. His extraordinary nitpickyness (will that pass?) [I’ll allow it] about the English language is a bonus.
Eugene did not choose me, and like writers everywhere, I was edgy when he — a complete unknown to me — became the boss. Editors usually prefer to cherry-pick their own stable of writers, so a change in editors can signal upheaval, as in “It’s been nice knowing you, but …” All you can do is your best.
The tensions between editor and writer
Amongst writers, one complaint I sometimes hear is, “So and so (the new editor) isn’t going to edit MY work.” Such an odd thing to say! I always wonder why those people bother to write at all. I mean, if you’re already perfect, how do you get satisfaction from doing a good job?
Yes, I know. It’s easy to feel that twinge of resentment when a twerp in diapers tears into your work. After all, you had twenty-five years of beekeeping under your belt the day he was born, so what can he possibly add to your airtight article?
But here’s the thing. The best beekeepers are usually not the best writers. The world doesn’t work that way. Most people excel at several things, but the chances that those things include beekeeping and writing are slim. Sure, it happens, but rarely.
Even more rare in the rarified world of publishing is a writer who doesn’t need an editor. No matter how good you are, it’s natural to overlook your own mistakes. And when a publication depends on the confluence of a specialty subject and a readable style, the editor has an immense challenge. He simply must know a lot about a lot and be able to assuage prickly writers.
Writers are only human
So let’s get real. Do I ever feel that fleeting animus when the corrections come back? Do I ever feel it’s unfair, just for an instant? Of course, I do. But then I recall a simple truth: An editor is a coach. And just like gymnasts, dancers, boxers, and pianists, writers never stop needing a coach.
At its core, an editor’s job is to make the writer look good, but there’s no requite for a job well done. Here’s what I mean: Take a moment to name your favorite classical guitarist, opera singer, figure skater, or race car driver. Okay perfect, excellent choice. Now, name his coach.
It’s the same with editors. If a nitpicky editor catches errors of fact or corrects misspellings, poor constructions, and dangling modifiers, guess who gets the credit? The writer, hands down. No one gives a rip about the editor.
People read your story and gush, “Oh she’s a fantastic writer!” They never say, “Oh, she must have a brilliant editor!” Think about it: The editor does the tweaking, the agonizing, and absorbs the pushback while the writer — the one who thinks it’s unfair — gets the kudos. Why some writers would rather have their errors memorialized in print, I will never understand.
What writers and editors talk about
Out of curiosity, I sorted through old emails to see what corrections Eugene has settled upon my work. I ran a search filter and came up with 842 emails between us! What was all that about, you wonder? So did I.
Well, the emails are not as scintillating as you might think. Floating em dashes, italic subgenera, dust motes (that auto-correct into dust mites), sex determination of bears (without getting too close), mantles vs ….