So, You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.

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(Photo: Sybren A. Stüvel)

Neil Strauss has written six New York Times bestsellers and is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. From the standpoint of most aspiring writers, he’s reached the pinnacle of success.

That’s why I first sent him an e-mail in 2005.

I attached a draft book proposal and asked for his feedback, hat in hand. To my astonishment, he responded with words of encouragement, and that book proposal later became The 4-Hour Workweek.

We’ve since become good friends and — who would have imagined? — have even taken retreats together while on deadline. Our latest jam sessions took place in a beach cabin in Malibu. I was finishing The 4-Hour Body and Neil was wrapping up his latest opus, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness.

Evenings were spent force-feeding Neil protein (that’s when he gained 10 pounds), drinking Cocoladas, and trading war stories from publishing and writing.

Neil wrote one chapter in his new book about the trials and torture of editing. I almost died laughing (crying inside) when I read a draft, and I made him promise I could put it on this blog…

The bigger picture: Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead shares the insights and outtakes from Neil’s most amusing celebrity encounters, and it shows how to achieve rapport with the super-rich and super-famous. How do you make a connection with them and get them to open up? If you’re Neil, you shoot guns with Ludacris, get kidnapped by Courtney Love, go to church with Tom Cruise, make Lady Gaga cry, and go shopping for Pampers with Snoop Dogg.

I call the following chapter “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” because it covers one of the often-comical frustrations of writing professionally: copy editing. Though a critical part of the process, it is arguably the most maddening.

These are real examples.

Enter Neil Strauss

In a preview of weekend concerts for the New York Times, I wrote about a double bill by the groups the Friggs and Jackass. When I picked up the paper the next day, the preview just mentioned “two bands” and, although the description remained intact, the actual names of the groups were nowhere to be found in the story. Evidently, a copyeditor found their monikers obscene and simply removed them. It was just one example of the many challenges of writing about rock, hip-hop, and popular culture for the New York Times..

On another occasion, I wrote about a shady corner deli where “neighbors used to hear the sound of crack addicts having sex in exchange for free drugs.” When I looked at the paper the next day, the sentence had been changed to read in its entirety, “Neighbors used to hear the sound of crack addicts.”

Here are a few more examples of how decency standards are enforced at the paper of record.

Editing an article that quotes the Courtney Love lyric, “I’m eating you / I’m overfed” . . .

COPYEDITOR: We have to remove that quote.

What’s wrong with it?

COPYEDITOR: It’s about oral sex.

The whole article hinges on that lyric.

COPYEDITOR: If you want, I can run it past the news desk and see what they say.

Ten minutes later . . .

COPYEDITOR: The news desk says it’s about oral sex.

#

Editing a concert review in which singer Francis Dunnery describes himself as “complete scumbag white trash from the north of England” . . .

COPYEDITOR: We can’t use the word “scumbag.”

Why is that?

COPYEDITOR: Because it refers to a condom.

What’s wrong with condoms?

COPYEDITOR: It’s a family newspaper. You and I might like to talk about scumbags, but that’s on our own time.

#

Editing a Rage Against the Machine review . . .

COPYEDITOR: You write here that the band has lyrics attacking misogynists and homophobes.

Yes.

COPYEDITOR: Did the band say “homophobes”?

No, that’s my summary of the lyrics.

COPYEDITOR: We have a rule that “homophobes” is a word that can only be used by homosexuals in the newspaper.

Isn’t that a double standard?

COPYEDITOR: There’s also the case of the religious right. We don’t want to accuse anyone of having a clinical psychological condition that is the cause of their actions.

#

Editing a review of the English group Laika . . .

Why did you remove the sentence where the singer’s talking about how men carry an assault weapon in their pants?

COPYEDITOR: Because it’s obscene and this is a family newspaper.

But there aren’t any obscene words there.

COPYEDITOR: It’s implied.

Come on. There were dead bodies on the front page of the paper the other day. That’s much more damaging to a child.

COPYEDITOR: You sound like you’re pissed off that we’re taking this out. But you can either stay pissed off or realize that we’ll never print something like this, so don’t even bother trying again.

#

Editing an article in which country singer Steve Wariner recalls Garth Brooks signing autographs for “twenty-four hours straight without a pee break”…

COPYEDITOR: We’re going to have to send that to the news desk.

Because of the word “pee”?

COPYEDITOR: Yes, it’s scatological.

Ten minutes later . . .

COPYEDITOR: What do you want to say instead?

You mean the word pee is unacceptable?

COPYEDITOR: Let’s not argue about it.

#

Editing an interview with Master P . . .

COPYEDITOR: Is there any reason why you wrote g-a-n-g-s-t-e-r?

Yes, because whenever I write gangsta, you change it to gangster.

COPYEDITOR: Well, Al [Siegal, New York Times standards editor] has okayed the use of the word gangsta. He found a precedent for it in a 1924 review. So you can use it now.

#

Editing the interview with Mike Tyson, in which he says, “We made the industry, but we have no control over the destiny of the music” . . .

COPYEDITOR: It’s not clear what the referent for “we” is.

It’s obviously African-American people.

COPYEDITOR: Okay, let’s change it to, “Speaking of black people, Mr. Tyson said, ‘We made the industry.’ ”

No, don’t do that.

COPYEDITOR: It needs a referent. It’s not grammatical.

It sounds racist. And my name’s on the article.

COPYEDITOR: Then give me another referent to use.

I don’t know.

COPYEDITOR: Well, who is he talking about if not black people?

Just anyone involved in the culture that rap comes from.

COPYEDITOR: Okay, then let’s make it, “Speaking of the rap world, he said, ‘We made the industry . . .’ ”

#

Editing a festival review of an Irish-themed musical festival with the sentence, “On the main stage, Hootie & the Blowfish—the very name of which evokes a sudden desire to yawn and move on to the next article—rigidly jammed through a version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ that seemed longer than the lines for the Portosans” . . .

COPYEDITOR: I just don’t think it works.

What’s wrong with it?

COPYEDITOR: The last few words.

They don’t make sense to you?

COPYEDITOR: The mandate here is not meaning and content, which is fine, but taste.

What if I said longer than the line at the Guinness tent?

COPYEDITOR: That’s fine.

But that’s perpetuating an Irish stereotype. Isn’t that worse?

COPYEDITOR: Maybe, but it’s acceptable.

Despite the copyeditors’ efforts, a few obscenities still made their way into articles, starting with the Eazy-E song “Nutz Onya Chin.” The word “pussy,” used as an insult, also ended up in the paper. No one seems to have noticed it yet, so if you’re the first person to successfully find it and e-mail me the article at manofstyle@gmail.com, you’ll win a well-worn copy of Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.

###

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is out today. See his video trailer and more here.

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130 comments on “So, You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.

  1. Hi! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.

    Your blog provided us beneficial information to work
    on. You have done a wonderful job!

  2. The copy editor ended up derailing my writing aspirations for a very long time. I wrote freelance for a small newspaper, intending to write humorous articles about things in life that many of us encounter. The edits to my articles meant that much of the humor was stripped out and the point I may have been trying to make had to be turned into something else. *_*

    Still, the writer in my is longing to set forth again, and this article reminds me that what I experienced is not uncommon at all. ^_^; Thanks for the post. ^_^