Scumbag studies: myths and realities of Nazi society and its war machine

Kind of the ultimate modern-day scumbag study, no?

When it comes to Nazi Germany, perception and reputation are a fog clouding reality. Here are some realities you might not know, with pro forma apologies for wandering a little afield here and there:

German industry wasn’t very efficient. As a practical reality, it couldn’t be. There were multiple reasons: slave labor, materials shortages, rushed designs that had to be tweaked, and perhaps most importantly…

German industry did not go onto a full war footing until mid-war. Oh, it got a great head start on the Allies, who began re-armament late in the pre-war picture. Doubt that? In 1939 Germany produced 247 tanks and self-propelled guns. That’s all. 1940? 1,643. Ah, but surely a sixfold increase is a big deal? In 1941 they made 3,790. 1942, 6,180; in 1943, 12,063. Another example? Sure. Combat aircraft: 1939, 8,295. 1944, 39,807. One wonders what might have happened had German industry geared up sooner to its full potential.

Germany wanted to take Gibraltar. Why couldn’t they, with Spain friendly enough to rank as a non-belligerent Axis supporter? Because Franco’s Spain, still bleeding from its internal Spanish Civil War wounds, had no intention of getting into the war unless/until victory was certain. At one point, Hitler went so far as to meet Franco along the Franco-Spanish border. Adolf reckoned that the Spanish dictator owed his victory to Germany and would be thankful. First, Franco made long professions of fraternity, gratitude, and sympathy. Then he began a long litany of the equipment Spain would need from German industry, punctuated with frequent expressions of Spanish poverty and suffering. He then pointed out that of course it would be a matter of national pride for Spanish troops to carry out any such assault (one suspects Franco doubted that Hitler would hand Gibraltar over if German troops were once allowed to occupy it). Adolf went home pissed off and frustrated, thinking dark thoughts about ingratitude.

Malta and El Alamein were indeed great sticking points for the Nazi war machine, but most people don’t realize why. Neither do most realize how much the free world owes to the people of Malta and the motley Commonwealth/Allied (British, Free French, Polish, South African, New Zealander, and Australian) forces defending Egypt. Had the Axis captured Malta–and with a determined effort, they might have done so–Allied movement through the Mediterranean would have become a problem, whereas Axis resupply of northern Africa would have become far easier. Everyone has heard of Afrika Korps supreme commander Erwin Rommel and his genius, but not everyone realizes that his biggest problem was running out of everything (fuel in particular). That’s partly because so much of it got sunk on the way across the drink. So imagine Malta were captured, and a renewed Axis force stormed into the Nile delta (fanning the flames of Arab resentment at Allied control, and running off the disliked colonial powers). The Allied position in the eastern Mediterranean would be compromised. The Soviet positions in the Caucasus could have been flanked, perhaps with Turkish entry on the Axis side. Axis forces could have reached the Middle Eastern oilfields. Doesn’t that sound pretty catastrophic? It could have been.

Germany had high hopes for the Irish Republic to remain neutral, but there might be a united Ireland today if Éamon de Valera had answered Churchill’s note. The Republic of Ireland remained neutral during the war, famously denying the UK aero-naval basing access that made Atlantic convoy protection far more difficult.  When the United States entered the Atlantic war, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill saw the strategic opportunity and sought to pounce. He sent Taoiseach de Valera a simple note: “Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again. Am very ready to meet you  at any time.” Dev didn’t answer. Did Churchill really mean that if the Irish joined the Allies immediately, the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland would be handed over to the Republic? At least one British leader hastened to advise the envoy to Ireland, John Maffey, that Churchill’s intent was metaphorical rather than literal.

I don’t know what exactly would have happened, but one can hardly doubt that was Ireland’s strongest bargaining moment from a risk/reward standpoint. With Americans in the war to defend the Republic, it might have been bombed but it would not have been invaded; the unpalatable concept of British troops on the ground in the Republic would be avoided; it might have done great work against the U-boat menace without its own military firing a single shot; the Allies would have constructed updated facilities the Irish would inherit. All that, potentially, for letting people use some air and naval bases. I lean to the side that Churchill at least meant to dangle Northern Ireland as a negotiable possibility. He gets bad press nowadays, some of it deserved, but he was a visionary who dared to try things, and he knew the Irish well enough. “A nation once again” remains a very loaded phrase even today, and Churchill was not one for idle words. If Hitler had seen that note, he might well have ordered the Republic added to Northern Ireland as a bombing target.

Myths you might believe, and why you shouldn’t:

Pearl Harbor did the United States terrible harm. This one doesn’t relate directly to Germany, but it always needs repeating because its pervasive inaccuracy had a major impact on German warfare and plans. While the deaths and injuries can never be discounted, in the grand scheme of war one could argue that Pearl was a very lucky beginning from a US perspective. Of the weaponry it damaged, the part that would take years to repair or replace (battleships) was mainly obsolete. None of our carriers were present, and the Japanese use of their own carrier strikes told us much about the wave of the future. Then Hitler decided to throw into war against the US, bringing us into that conflict without putting us in the unpleasant position of having to leave the British and Soviets hanging. As painful a memory as Pearl is, it was about like shooting a sow grizzly in the butt with an arrow. The attack didn’t cripple American naval power, but did piss off an industrial powerhouse.

Germany always had the best tanks and planes. For one thing, early versions were often hurried into the field with serious problems; for another, the opposition often had better gear. The Soviet T-34 series might be the best example: a weapon that, for a time, Germany had no tank cannon that could penetrate at any range (and which could outrun every German tank of the war). While the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was a great early war fighter plane, it met its match in the RAF’s Spitfires. The later Focke-Wolf FW-190 more than met its match in the American P-51 Mustang. Ah, but surely the post-D-Day German tanks were far superior to the Sherman M4 series? They had lower profiles and better gunnery, but there are other factors to consider. First, during that time, Allied ground support aircraft had free rein to terrorize all German armor. Second, German crews were generally more experienced and better led, at least until the end of 1944, so they got more out of their vehicles. Third, German vehicles were more prone to trouble. Say this for the Sherman: for its flaws, it was a reliable tank. The engine tended to start and the gun tended to fire. I wouldn’t take it over a Panther–it was slower, higher profile, and earlier models were undergunned–but I’d take a running Sherman over a non-running Panther.

It was an issue even during the potential invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had better tanks than the Germans. Even with the captured Czechoslovak tank models, the French in turn had better (and more) tanks than Germany. In North Africa, Commonwealth/Allied armor was more than a match for the German models. It should have been unsurprising for the Wehrmacht to arrive on Soviet soil and find that Soviet tanks were also better. It must have been refreshing indeed to face the Americans–finally an opponent with inferior armor!

The Nazis were close to developing nuclear-armed missiles. German rocket science was very advanced, leading to the first primitive cruise missiles (V-1) and surface-to-surface missiles (V-2), as well as a rocket interceptor aircraft. Their nuclear science was far less so, partly because nuclear research was very expensive with no known certainty of ultimate success. The Nazi nuke cause certainly took harm from the large number of scientists who did not stay to work for Nazi ends (or would not have survived had they stayed).

The United States ultimately destroyed the German war machine. No, no, no. The Anglo-Americans, assisted by many allies, did great damage to the Luftwaffe–but they never put onto the Western Front anywhere near the ground numbers that the USSR did on the Eastern Front. In fact, the Germans had more divisions tied up watching occupied areas than they had facing the western Allies. The vast majority of the Nazi forces that were not deployed against partisan activity were occupied in a futile effort to hold back the Soviet avalanche. The main reason D-Day wasn’t thrown back into the Channel was that so much of the Wehrmacht was somewhere else, typically fighting Soviets. If you want to give the United States credit for something major that caused the Nazi war machine enormous damage, let it be the thousands of Studebaker trucks we sent to the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were still driving some of them in the Russian countryside. Every weapon and vehicle we and the British sent them probably saved Allied lives simply by shortening the war.

The Stuka was the deadliest ground support aircraft of the war. No; it was the deadliest of its early-war heyday. Later on, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, US P-47 ground attack configuration, and the British Typhoon were among the more versatile and deadlier strike craft. By that time, the Stukas didn’t have the survivability to risk precious pilots and fuel in the teeth of Allied air dominance.

American strategic bombing devastated Germany’s ability to produce war materiel. This is one of those areas where there are two polarized sides, neither listening the other, and the truth is somewhere in between. First, of course, it wasn’t just American. The British had begun some strategic bombing very early in the war. They hosted much of the US campaign and joined in it with their own significant numbers. We see from the rise in German production over most of the war that it didn’t decline until the full occupation and collapse process began in early 1945. However, that doesn’t mean the campaign wasn’t a massive pain in Albert Speer’s ass. It conveyed to the people of Germany, who had once been promised by their leaders that they would never be bombed, that the end could not be in doubt and it would not be to their liking. It required the deployment of much of the German interceptor force on the home front, burning scarce avgas and taking grave losses. It certainly tied up resources, hampered transportation, and made Speer’s armaments ministries scramble. Did it devastate German war production? The evidence says not, though it didn’t make production easier. Did it wreck the civilian urban economy and chew up scarce resources, wearing down homefront morale? I think the case for that is strong. Might the war have taken longer without it? I don’t think it’s possible to say. In any case, the Soviet onslaught was about to render the whole thing moot.

The SS were an excellent fighting force. In reality they were mixed. Early in the war, and at first recruitment in most cases, they were brave and enthusiastic but somewhat inept.  Experience makes the difference, and the survivors would gain it. Some units were led by fanatics, and some committed atrocities–in some cases making that a higher priority than fighting the armed enemy. The history-glancing public often does not realize that only about a quarter of the Waffen-SS came from metropolitan Greater Germany. Another quarter or so were Volksdeutsche, hailing from the established German-speaking diaspora in territories Hitler conquered; their record was mixed. Another quarter-odd hailed from variably Germanic peoples of northern and western Europe, generally proving effective in combat, and the last quarter came from all over the southern and eastern territories: Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Yugoslavia, and so forth. This portion ranged from good to awful.

The U-Boats were the deadliest subs of the war. Well, not so much. Germany bet most of its strategic warfare resources on submarine warfare, and it had a strong tradition of sub seamanship. When the Allies couldn’t or wouldn’t protect their shipping properly, the U-Boats went to town–but even then, the torpedoes didn’t always work. Surviving U-Boat skippers, a rather small population greatly respected by our own naval community as worthy opponents, have described the frustration of dud torpedoes. Americans should understand this very well because our own early torpedoes also included a high percentage of duds. Evidently the art of torpedo design is a very sensitive one where most laypeople’s assumptions don’t hold true. Best fish of the war? Arguably the Japanese, who invested great effort in torpedo development.

If our precious History Channel wants to do some good, it can stop leaning into pawn shops and ancient extra-terrestrial theories, and start doing a better job of exploring what people think they know and do not.

Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

Recent read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

A tech editing client–an engineer who can write for real–said such good things about this book that I bought and read it. This vindicated his praise.

One might view the editing world as a stylistic continuum. Let us define the extreme left as accepting of nearly any stylistic oddness or grammatical perversity. The extreme right lives and dies by style manuals (AP, APA, Chicago, etc.), grammar guides, and archaic meanings. The extreme left is so fluid it has hardly any rules; the extreme right not only has them, but will follow them right off a cliff. (No direct political analogy is intended, though I won’t say none could reasonably be made.)

If you visit editors’ forums, most of the loudest voices are found on the moderate to far right. Agonized posts abound: “Hey, edi-buddies, I’m dying here. I have a sentence in which I can’t figure out where to put commas. It’s four in the morning and I’ve been mutilating my soul in an effort to solve the problem. Help!” I never bother pointing out the obvious, because no one is so strident as a far-right editor catching another editor in some tiny deviation from the strict orthodoxy of the First Church of Style Manual Orthodoxy. I can’t gain anything from fighting with them, and I don’t enjoy the debate nor do I care what they say. I just let them do their thing somewhere I am not.

What would the far left do? Not much. All the client must tell them is “that’s just my style,” and they’ll roll over. Book without upper case? Well, if that’s just your style… Book written in text-speak? Wouldn’t want to invalidate youth opinions. Street-speak? Dissent would be…racist! And so on, usually in the direction of rolling over and letting this or that demographic define its own language.

And what’s wrong with that? some might ask. Nothing, provided that demographic is the writer’s only audience, and therefore that it doesn’t give a damn about being intelligible or comfortable to anyone else. “Hi. I write like garbage but I require you to read and respect my material” is not a reasonable proposition. The reader always has the right to stop reading. Making demands of the reader rarely works. She just closes the book or browser window, flips a bird if she’s feeling annoyed, and does something else.

I find myself on the moderate left wing of this continuum, a little to Pinker’s right. He and I agree that “literally” must not be used as “figuratively,” for example. We need a word that means, well, the literal rather than metaphorical meaning of an expression. If you were literally floored, you were on the ground. If your head literally exploded or someone literally ripped your heart out, you weren’t alive to describe it. He’s a little more tolerant of beginning a sentence with a preposition, and he’s willing to see “to comprise” wander afield from its standard translation as “to consist of,” which I am not. Those are tiny shadings of degree.

My governing principle is not complicated: Editorial judgments depend on context. Should we use fewer adverbs? Generally yes, when feasible. Is there a place for strange styles? I don’t know until you show it to me in context and we see whether it works. Should a book about inner-city gangs be written in gangland style? If it works well, perhaps, so let’s see it and determine whether it works. If not, maybe the fix can preserve much of its flavor.

Here’s what to like about Pinker. As a student and educator in the field of psycholinguistics, he’s deep in the ways our minds use language. When there’s a hitch in a sentence, I can usually say what needs to be done, but I can’t always articulate why. Pinker explains that and many other nuances of the English language. It’s not a grammar guide, but it does examine many aspects of language in light of the divide between Prescriptivists (the language standards’ right wing) and Descriptivists (the left wing). He isn’t intimidated by the Red Pen of Disapproval.

The language’s right wing seems to want the language frozen in time. To that group, for example, “ain’t” could never be a legitimate word. Whatever is considered correct today is treated as if it were correct for the millennium or so in which something like the English language has existed in discernibly different form from its Germanic extended family. Pinker demonstrates that language evolves whether editorial stuffed shirts like it or not, and that the Bemoaning of the Decline in Writing Standards has been with us for a very long time. Every generation does it. Put another way, the stuffed shirts of 1822 and 1922 would scowl at what the stuffed shirts of 2022 consider acceptable.

Every generation’s has the conceit of having lived in Big Important Times. Whatever it learned in childhood was The Right Way, with every later generation being selfish, lazy slobs with no respect. To this day most people sixty and over insist on two spaces after a period (and if they paid attention, the exclamation point and colon). Why? Because Mrs. Nitpickingham taught them two spaces in their typing class, and damn it, that makes it correct for all time and eternity. Never mind that Mrs. Nitpickingham (my own was a dotty but pleasant elderly lady who troweled on eyeshadow like iridescent purple bat wings extending from her eyelids) never used an electric typewriter and passed away before the advent of the IBM PC; she could not have envisioned self-publishing. Text-speak? Let’s be glad for her that she never saw it develop; same for my elderly high school English teacher, who looked like Groucho Marx and sounded a bit like Andy Rooney if he’d smoked all his life. In the meantime, every client over sixty argues with me about two spaces vs. one. I explain why the restriction no longer makes sense nor is the standard. Tough, most say, that’s what Mrs. Nitpickingham taught me and that’s what’s correct. It is the hill they choose to die on. It’s the wrong one.

It could be worse. My wife sometimes leaves three spaces, and she’s an excellent typist. I sometimes think she’s just messing with me.

If you want to see someone make a good case for the steady evolution of language and usage–someone doing so not because he doesn’t know the rules and won’t learn them, but because he knows them well enough to know when to bend or break them–Steven Pinker is your guy.

Scumbag studies: Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube

It’s high time for another of these, for there are so very many scumbags yet to review. This one you might not have heard about. Wilhelm Kube was from Glogau in Silesia, and was an early adopter of Nazi philosophy. (Interesting bit: he attended college in Berlin on a Moses Mendelssohn Scholarship.) In 1933 he joined the SS as an Oberführer (senior colonel), and soon received promotion to Gruppenführer (major general).

An active Christian–what to make of his devotion, in light of his conduct, is up to the reader–Kube was also a corrupt intriguer. By 1935 he was a Gauleiter (regional Nazi party boss), and managed to get himself investigated by no less than Martin Bormann’s father-in-law on suspicion of adultery and corruption. Based upon his general character, it seems credible that he was guilty as all hell. Guilty or not, he was a bit dense. He retaliated for the resulting reprimand by sending an anonymous letter accusing Bormann of being part Jewish. Oops. The Gestapo discovered that Kube was the author, and he was canned from all positions. He also managed to get crosswise with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most dangerous Nazi leaders. That got him booted from the SS.

By 1941, Kube was back to work in the Nazi machinery. Hitler planned to make him Nazi boss in Moscow, but the Soviet military did not cooperate. Instead he received  an appointment as Generalkommissar for Belarus (then referred to as Weissruthenien). Here he becomes very difficult to figure; he behaved as if he had a personality disorder. Weird as it sounds given his demonstrated anti-Semitism, he spoke out against massacres of Jews and non-Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (essentially, death battalions). He was loud enough to trigger an in-person ass-chewing from his old pal Heydrich, who flew out to Minsk for the task. And yet he participated in massacres, including one in which SS thugs threw a number of children into a sandy pit to die.

One theory, suggested by Christopher Ailsby, is that Kube was trying to take it easy on the populace with one hand while being mean enough with his other to make the Nazi leadership stay off his back, and that the goal here was to increase his own gain. I consider it possible. Kube does seem to have always been above all about Kube.

After Heydrich said whatever he said–and we may safely assume there were dire threats involved–Kube straightened up and flew wrong. By mid-July 1942, he was directing the atrocities that would earn him the title “Butcher of Belarus.” The Nazi occupation committed numerous well-documented atrocities on his watch, and for them he was therefore responsible. Despite his moments of semi-decency, he deserves his place in scumbag studies. Had he survived the war, it is impossible to imagine him ending any way but at the end of a rope.

Thankfully for history and decency, if he would not restrain himself the Soviet partisan movement was prepared to restrain Kube. A Belarusian woman, Yelena Mazanik, got a job as his maid. On September 21, 1943, Mazanik emplaced a time bomb under Kube’s bed. It detonated early in the morning of September 22, killing Kube and triggering a wave of reprisal murders. Also thankfully, Mazanik managed to escape and continue the war as a partisan. I drafted this during Women’s History Month, making it perfect time to honor her and her closest accomplices. Their names were Nadyezhda Troyan and Maria Osipova, and all three earned the highest honor the Soviet Union could bestow: the title of Heroine of the Soviet Union (in Russian, Geroniya Sovietskovo Soyuza). Mazanik passed away in 1996, Troyan in 2011, and Osipova in 1999.

A new sample critique service

Some writers might want editorial input on style/flow/syntax/etc., but not at the cost of submitting a full ms for a developmental edit. A more manageable length would be a very economical way to improve one’s writing, and a good introduction to the editorial relationship.

For a flat fee of $50, I will deep dive on any writing sample up to 1500 words (an industry-standard six pages). This is longer than the customary sample edit provided upon request, and would give the writer enough space to develop a basic short story. In addition to my own detailed commentary, I will focus on any specific concerns you might present. Fiction and non-fiction are both fine.

The result will get you the frank truth that those first readers closest to you might hesitate to present, from a practiced eye with long writing and editing experience. Eighteen and over, please; I stay within my limitations, and I do not have pedagogic training. Younger writers should seek out a teacher who works with young people’s writing on a daily basis and knows how to serve age-appropriate feedback. While I reserve the right to decline to work on material I consider objectionable, in practice that’s rare.

To begin, get in touch by going to the To hire me page and scrolling down to the contact section at the bottom. I look forward to working with you.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:


As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.


What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:


“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.


What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:


“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.


Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.


As my youth catches up with me, invoicing me for my poor decisions, I encounter the tendency to start dreading this or that now rather than wait.

While I might perhaps be avoiding long lines, I have to fight that. It would not do myself any favors.

I think some of us are more keenly affected by surprise than others. At the dentist, I ask her to let me know when we are a quarter of the way through, halfway, three-quarters, and nearly done. (I have a marvelously compassionate dentist.) If I’m having a medical exam, I must rassle my mind away from predicting all the possible batches of very bad news. Telling me my A1C needs to come down thus seems bearable, given that I was preparing to hear they were concerned about some mass in my abdomen.

Earlier this month my wife and I celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her acceptance of my marriage proposal. We might be the only couple out there who celebrate such a day, but that’s all right with us. The fact that we’re having one, and that the only thing that will prevent a twenty-sixth is if one of us has something sudden happen to him or her, speaks for itself. Celebrate a day, again and again for a quarter century, and one communicates that one remains grateful for it.

Something sudden is the problem. If not restrained, my mind is sort of like a cat. Now and then it will wander off into someplace that doesn’t help anyone, and this would become paranoia if not handled in a sane fashion. For me, that means refraining from pre-suffering. It’s one thing to grieve ahead of time for a friend lost to pancreatic cancer–something I recently did–because it’s not paranoid to imagine that the friend will not survive it. Few do. It’s another thing to take that ball, run with it, and start thinking about a day in the future when one or one’s spouse might be given news of such a deadly affliction. And then to start processing grief on some level.

That’s pre-suffering, and it helps no one. It also carries with it a terrible pessimism, and this also must be battled. Imagine I were to find myself a sudden widower. If I’d worried myself half to death about that possibility for two decades, would the pre-suffering and all the time it had ruined do one bit of good to help me once the real thing was present and undeniable? I don’t think so. We have no idea how we will react to close loss, regardless of what we imagine. If I were eighty-five and received a diagnosis of dementia, would I grieve less if I’d screwed around for the last twenty-five years fearing dementia? Bet most people would not.

In essence, pre-suffering is an investment in an emotional stock that looks on the surface to be a huge bargain but in fact is going to zero. It is the Thornburg Mortgage of mental attitudes. (Let’s not talk about why that analogy rings so true for me.)

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

Blogging freelance editing, writing, and life in general. You can also Like my Facebook page for more frequent updates: J.K. Kelley, Editor.