Two formative experiences started me on my career path: one was being edited skillfully; the other, reading the work of skilled editors.
Before graduating from Carleton’s journalism school, you must write or produce a substantial piece of writing, radio or television—something magazine- or documentary-length. I wrote mine about the budget process and the difficulties of reforming the tax system. Since it was a subject mostly of interest to policy wonks, after graduating I submitted it to be published in Policy Options magazine, an important forum for that audience.
To my astonishment, the editors liked it, but asked me to pare it down to a couple of thousand words, their customary length. I did so, and then submitted it for copy editing.
I had seen Tom Kent’s name on the magazine’s masthead, and I knew who he was—the Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers was a fresh memory in the early 1980s. He had been a journalist, an advisor to prime ministers, an academic, an all-round luminary. By then, he was retirement age.
I had no idea he actually edited articles for the magazine—until I got a brown envelope in the mail from Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Inside was a hand-marked manuscript and a courteous, clear letter from Tom Kent, explaining that he had done a copy edit and wanted me to review the manuscript one last time before publication. His edit was immaculate, and in a couple of places he clarified or ‘punched up’ the writing. It felt like staying in a five-star hotel for the first time.
A couple of years later, I was flying back to Ottawa from Calgary, alone. I hadn’t brought anything to read, and had missed out on the limited supply of newspapers the flight attendants handed out.
Two seats over, next to the window, sat a businessman in an expensive-looking but conservative suit: my first impression was, what’s he doing back here in economy? He wasn’t the chatty type, but he noticed how bored I was, and offered me the front section of his Wall Street Journal.
In j-school, we had been taught to revere the Journal as one of the world’s best- written and -edited newspapers. But I didn’t like the Journal’s politics, and Wall Street didn’t normally interest me: I seldom read it of my own volition. This was an opportunity to test what we’d been told.
On its front page, the Journal traditionally runs lighter feature items down the far-left and far-right columns. I started reading the far-left column, and the story was about a turtle rancher in Louisiana—in a swamp rather than scrub prairie. But I found myself reading it very quickly—so quickly I suspected I was just skimming.
So, after finishing the articles, I reviewed each paragraph from start to finish, testing what information I had absorbed into my short-term memory. I was astonished that reading something I wasn’t initially keen on could be so easy, and my memory of it could be so complete.
It was a long enough flight that I read most of the paper. It was true, what I had been told about the Wall Street Journal.
I got on the plane empty-handed, and disembarked with a career objective, a second picture of what skilled editors can do—for authors and for readers.