Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

A few years ago I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five-volume work into an abbreviated 16,000-word document. Can anyone tell me where this text comes from and the name of the editor? (Without Googling the text!) Make your best guess in the comments below. The date above suggests the answer is not Stephen King. I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day. (Those of you who read a version of this post about ten years ago cannot, and I repeat cannot, reveal the answer for all our new readers.)

The number of details and the bulk of the material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

Editing is hard work (“sleepless nights”). If you walk by an editor’s desk, it looks like they are just staring at a page and making an occasional mark–having fun reading a book. Actually, that editor is mentally juggling content, clarity, grammar rules, house style, author’s intent, and more, all at the same time. (What you don’t say to the editor at that moment is, “Oh I see you aren’t doing anything. Can I ask you a question?”)

Editing has its own satisfaction. In my office is a bookcase containing a copy of every one of the 150+ books I edited while working as an editor for Bethany House Publishers. It was a sincere and humbling privilege to participate in their creation. I can tell a story about every one of them. They became a part of me even though my name rarely appears, other than on the occasional acknowledgment page. Editors take pride in their work. It is important to respect that. (If you want to see a list, it can be found at the bottom of this linked page.)

The Editor knows their role. The metaphor of the housebuilder versus the house painter is perfect. We know the author does the heavy lifting and creates the ideas. Yet every editor knows they are part of the process and their job is to make the author look good.  It was wonderful to watch Max Lucado receive ECPA’s Pinnacle Award last week, an award given to only four people in history. During his acceptance speech, he named a lot of well-deserving people, including his effusive appreciation of the editors he has worked with for so many years.

The behind-the-scenes role of an editor is similar to that of the literary agent. That is why our agency’s slogan is “to help change the world word by word.” We are not the author, but our job is to help the author navigate the publishing-industry labyrinth.

As you think of this ancient editor who was wrestling with the challenges of his profession over two thousand years ago, take a moment to write a thank-you note to your editor. They earned it. Hey, they had to work with you, didn’t they?

Leave a Comment

A Cliché Simile Is a Bad Simile

One of the many things I fairly harp on when I teach at writers conferences (full disclosure: I’m a fair harper) is the need to eliminate clichés from your writing. Seriously, they’re old hat.  One of the places clichés seem to creep in most often is in similes and metaphors. …

Read More


Oxymorons can be fun. Two words that can have contradictory meaning are put together to create a new phrase. Or it can be expanded to mean two separate thoughts or ideas that are in direct conflict with each other but when combined create something new.

For example, if you’ve ever worked in a cubicle you can see the humor in the description “office space.”

Read More

Learning to Use Track Changes

All of us have gaps in our knowledge. For example, there are a ton of words that I know how to spell and use accurately in writing (because I’ve read them often) but am unsure of the pronunciation. (I know, I know, I could look up the pronunciation, but how …

Read More

A Writer’s Best Friend

If I asked you what you considered to be a writer’s best friend, what would you say? Please don’t say “Wikipedia.” My clients would probably reply, “Bob Hostetler.” But that can’t be everyone’s answer. You might consider “a fine fountain pen” or “a blank page in a brand new journal” …

Read More

Grammar and the Singular “They”

Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:

“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”

Fill in the blank. Should you use his, his or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”

Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.

So what is correct?

Read More