RICKTER SCALE: Lost in an editor’s translation

Learning lessons about writing and editing

RICK STIEBEL | COLUMNIST

Those of you who regularly read this column with gritted teeth can thank Charles Campbell. He was the first editor I worked with/for/under when I did my six-week internship at the Georgia Straight in 1992.

The weekly publication was already far removed from the hippie rag the original publisher, Dan McLeod, used to hawk on street corners for whatever coin he could collect circa the ’60s.

It had morphed into a popular periodical focused on entertainment, music, news and the arts by the time I got there, and somehow survived my tenure.

One of the tasks assigned was to copy edit a column by a writer whose work I was well familiar with. He covered a wide range of the arts and although he was arguably one of the Straight’s most popular contributors, I didn’t particularly care for his prose because he wrote in a style that permeated each paragraph with scents of superiority and ego that I had trouble digesting.

He used a word I had never encountered in print, so I asked Charles and two other writers in the office at the time if they were familiar with it. Because they all answered in the negative, I made the decision to change it to something the reader would understand, much to his chagrin, and he confronted me rather rudely.

Charles backed me to the max, however, explaining to the indignant columnist that although one of the aims of writing is to educate, there’s no room for words a roomful of editors don’t know the meaning of.

Listening to the writer argue with Charles over one word left a lasting impression.

The lesson learned was that good writing should not require that the reader reach for a dictionary. Although I wanted to one day be considered a good writer, I realized at that moment that I wanted no part of the editor’s chair.

It was Charles Campbell who told me I may have a future as a writer, probably his way of politely saying I definitely wasn’t editor material. That did result in the Straight publishing two of my stories the first year I was out of school, one on the future of the Pacific National Exhibition, the other an in depth, personal look at a young woman’s struggles with the medical system following a debilitating car crash.

Both made the cover, thanks to some superb editing by Campbell. That steered me on the course to a career in journalism that has made my life after 40 much more fulfilling and rewarding than it had been before.

He also tolerated my latent love for alliteration, which regular readers realize borders on the absurd at times.

I have been fortunate, however, to have worked with a variety of great editors over the years who have all managed to put up with my propensity for layering in alliteration all too often for most readers level of tolerance.

•••

Rick Stiebel is a Sooke resident and semi-retired journalist.

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