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STET: Terry McDonell and the Art of the Editing

Amazon Book Review: The Accidental LifeWhat is an editor? The editor is a confidant, a champion, and a caretaker, all in service of the written word. Editors write ledes and "heds" (headlines),  vetting covers in the service of sales. Editors sometimes edit, but always judiciously, and always in service to their authors. Terry McDonell is an Editor. For more than four decades, his name topped the mastheads of influential magazines including Esquire, Outside, Sports Illustrated, and  Rolling Stone. His list is of collaborators is vast, intimidating, and inspiring, a roll-call of major awards and several major egos: Peter Matthiessen, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx, George Plimpton, Edward Abbey, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Richard Ford. (Full disclosure: the list skews male and manly.)

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers is his memoir of sorts, a series of unordered recollections of his particular literary world, ranging from Gay Talese's New York to Tom McGuane's Montana to the fashion capitals of Italy and beyond. It's also love letter to his craft, a pointed critique of the "content" industry, and a handful of choice insights won over a long and successful career. It's also a July 2016 selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month in Biographies & Memoirs, and my favorite book of the year so far. Here are 519 of McDonell's own words about a few of his most memorable associates. As he says, "I always wanted to know how much I was about to read."



FIVE (or Six) WRITERS (519 words)

Hunter Thompson would say that there were far fewer good editors than good writers, and joked that he had learned harsh lessons from their incompetence. But he knew he needed editing. When he filed, the pieces often came in as a series of false leads. They were typically all good fragments, but they didn't connect. So you ended up having to string them together, usually on the phone with him in the middle of the night. He had a riff about how he would suck editors into his pieces as conspirators, all of us wanting to prove ourselves good enough—hip enough—to edit him. The process was as hilarious as his pieces always turned out to be.

The first time I approached James Salter he said he would write a piece but was not remotely interested in being edited. Not even a comma, especially not even a comma, without checking with him. That was fine with me. I already had a hands-off policy when it came to writers a careful as Jim, and I assured him that I was there only to get thorns out of paws.

George Plimpton's careful, self-deprecating prose was beautiful, but he could be irascible as both a writer and an editor — a tough edit on either side of the desk. As an editor he was unbending, but he also liked to warn fellow writers of the "tin-eared butchery" they might suffer at the hands of editors other than himself. Even the best editors could be problematic. But then when I was editing Sports Illustrated he would praise it as a writer's magazine that, when if finely tuned by a good editor, "could soar like a great tabernacle choir or a troop of chacma baboons in full-throated roar." And then he'd add, "You should do more of that."

Jim Harrison did little revising and was proud of it. Rewriting was for people who hadn't worked everything out early—not for Jim, who insisted that he always thought things through before he wrote anything down. As for editors, why should he let them fool with his choices? They were not, as he explained to me when we met, writers. I learned to tread lightly or risk being told, as I once was by him, "You lynched my baby."

Editing Jimmy Buffett was like having a business partner. You didn't have to be a Parrothead as long as you respected his music and worked as hard as he did. Jimmy beat whatever deadline I gave him and never objected to any editing moves I made on his copy. There were plenty and he thanked me for them, said he was grateful even, with almost no ego, which I took as confidence in his own talent. He had started out thinking he would be a journalist, and told me once almost shyly that he thought maybe he had some books in him if he worked at it. This was a couple of years before he had three No. 1 New York Times best sellers in a row, and would top both the fiction and nonfiction lists.


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