Homage to a great editor
Behind every great column is a great editor — a truism never more so than when Alan Shearer puts highlighter (not red pen) to copy.
Shearer, who has run The Washington Post’s syndication operation the past 26 years, has managed to ignore the wailing, weeping and lamentations of his devoted cadre of columnists and cartoonists and retires this week.
To the dustbin of history goes not Alan, as his well-spelled words, his hyphenated adjectives and hyperbole-resistant attention to perfecting prose will persist through thousands upon thousands of published columns bearing someone else’s name. It is time you knew his. Alan is editor to a stable of 20 writers, many of whom are destination columnists, including George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, Eugene Robinson, Ruth Marcus and Dana Milbank, among others, as well as this humble correspondent. At a farewell party Thursday, writers took turns praising Alan, who stood stoically to the rear betraying nothing and tolerating what he termed an excess of hyperbole.
That’s Alan: deadpan, reserved, modest, generous, tough, tolerant and thoughtful. It would never occur to him to take credit or even allow mention of his role in a writer’s success, though he deserves a great deal of it. That so many have received Pulitzer Prizes under his watch is no coincidence.
Based on Thursday’s testimonials, I think it’s safe to say that we don’t only admire Alan; we love him. Some even said so. He isn’t only a great editor but also a great leader with an eye for quality. He will leave behind another great editor, whom we also love, Richard Aldacushion, as well as editorial production manager Sophie Yarborough and operations manager Karen Greene, who keeps the ship afloat.
We have all been handpicked by Alan. (I pause here to wonder whether “handpicked” is hyphenated, knowing that Alan’s team will put it right. Alan’s epitaph, he once told me, would read: “The un-hyphenated life isn’t worth living.”)
Part of our affection for Alan stems from his dedication to our craft — for making us the best we can be — but also for his generosity in being invisible. The hand of a good editor should never be seen. When you, gentle reader, peruse the op-ed page and read a Kathleen Parker column, you will not know that someone else may have suggested a better word, or found that a fact was either lacking or incorrect (and corrected), or reminded me for the 100th time that there is no comma preceding “but” when the introductory clause begins “not only,” or that I keep writing Medicare when I mean Medicaid, dadgummit.
But, never is a comma changed without the writer’s approval. This, too, is a credit to Alan, whose respect for and deference to writers is never in question. Edits at the Writers Group syndicate are always offered as suggestions for the writer’s final say. Most times, too, Alan will write a note of appreciation before the bloodletting begins with a “nice job” or “good stuff here.” On those rare occasions when he jots “brilliant” or “fantastic,” my feet don’t touch the ground until the next day.
You see, there’s nothing quite like knowing you’ve written something not bad at all. It is a joy that should be shared by at least two people, beginning with Alan, if only one of us gets the public credit. Such is the ultimate gift of the editor to the writer, for which we finally thanked him.
Will began his comments by spelling a word — m-i-n-u-s-c-u-l-e.
“There,” he said, “I’ve finally mastered it.”
Apparently, even the longest-writing columnist among us is imperfect. I can’t account for how happy this makes me. Marcus said she was surprised to learn that Alan all along had been editing so many other writers as well as her. Like the rest of us, she had thought she was the only one. This is because Alan makes each writer feel that he or she is the most important, the most gifted, the most adored. How dear of you not to tell us otherwise.
In addition to being the finest editor any of us have ever worked with, Alan is a thoroughly decent human being and a consummate gentleman. He is also kind. When I suffered a concussion and had to stop writing for a while, he held my place and my hand, reminding me of how rare he is in a media world that has become heartless and self-important.
So, for now, farewell, fine sir — and thanks for bringing me to the party.
[Editor’s Note: Alan Shearer recused himself from reading this column.]
Alan Shearer makes each writer feel that he or she is the most important, the most gifted, the most adored.