Thomas Sowell on Writing and Editing

To continue this informal series on what great writers have said about the writing and editing process, we will look at comments made on this subject by conservative economist Thomas Sowell:

To say that my relationship with editors has not always been a happy one would be to completely understate the situation. To me, the fact that I have never killed an editor is proof that the death penalty deters. However, since nowadays we are all supposed to confess to shameful episodes in our past, I must admit that I was once an editor…Too many academics write as if plain English is beneath their dignity and some seem to regard logic as an unconstitutional infringement of their freedom of speech…A typical work of this genre might read something like this:

As surely as the world is round (Columbus, 1492), and as surely as what goes up must come down (Newton, 1687), when Ronald Reagan was elected President (Cronkite, 1980) and then re-elected (Rather, 1984), it signaled a change in the political climate (Brinkley, 1980–88). Since then, we have seen exploitation (Marx, 1867) and sexism (Steinem, 1981) on the rise.”

Sowell also recalls that the academic writers he edited “seemed to have great difficulty accepting my novel and controversial literary doctrine that the whole purpose of writing is so that people can read the stuff later on and know what you are trying to say.”

Though often ignored (academics have to worry about getting tenure), that is a good point worth dwelling on.

A Review: Jacques Barzun’s “On Writing, Editing, and Publishing”

Jacques Barzun, the great cultural historian and prolific writer, had much to say on the writing process, editors, publishers and other writers during the course of his very long career. (He died last October at 104 years of age) Some of the best of these thoughts and observations are collected in On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, a compilation of essays and short writings by Barzun. While the title of this work is something less than exhilarating, our author is up the task of delivering an honest and enlightening appeal for better writing, publishing practices, editing and translation.

Having read his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence (2000), I was curious to read the comments of this dynamic mind that might yet resonate with those involved in writing, editing and publishing. However, while delivering on these fronts, Barzun provides a web of thought on these subjects that both entertains and encapsulates a good deal of wisdom.

Some of that wisdom is abstruse such as in the advice to a young writer where Barzun instructs that, to be good writer, “you must clear your mind of cant and allow multitudinous messages to come to you from the souls of your fellowmen. They are the secret source of your abundant ideas.” Much of it hits close to home. He offers a theory on writer’s block and the discipline required of a writer, and suggests that an inability to write with regularity may be related to early school experiences where a student is asked to write on a subject he or she feels there is nothing worthwhile to say.

Barzun discusses at length the tiresome excuses writers make for avoiding the writing portion of the writing process including excuses involving the need for certain exotic headgear, knickknacks, blue paper, pipes, horses and mistresses. Later, he expresses chagrin over the effect of scientific thought on the use, or misuse, of language. Further, we learn that sex is a “source of chaos in language generally, as it is in life.” In this vein, Barzun criticizes the gender-neutrality movement in language, wondering (in 1974) if we would soon be referring to “person-made” lakes or the need to “personhandle” someone to get him to leave a bar.

To Barzun, translation is an art form that is misunderstood as a mechanical, menial process and is generally employed as such. He yearns for a more self-conscious translation profession enmeshed in the “ethics of translation.”

It is observed that a great man of the past is so often seen only as a “friendly caricature” having a legend that “hides him like a disguise.” Despite the disguise, Barzun attempts to peer deep within Abraham Lincoln’s writing style and character.

Barzun on Poe: Poe was a poor proofreader of his own writings as would be expected with any author. And university presses with their requirement of endless permission requests caused much consternation and annoyance at a time before the university presses eased such requirements.

Barzun criticizes overactive editors who thus become anonymous co-authors exercising a “peculiar form of censorship” given that many are recent graduates except for those working for publishers of “technical” and encyclopedic works where specialized knowledge is needed. On the author-publisher relationship, Barzun observes that both parties are grasping, arrogant and unreliable-only in differing orders.

At the conclusion of an essay on bibliographies, Barzun reminds the reader of a very relevant point for our information age, that knowledge “grows only out of knowledge and not out of information.” This seems to represent a particularly relevant point for legal publishing and writing in this electronic information era of “content” and “solutions.”