Penman No. 111: The Editor’s Job

2094063835_a852a12998_zPenman for Monday, August 25, 2014


LAST WEEK I promised to write a piece on editing or editorship as a job, and here it is.

Here in the Philippines, when we say “editor,” we usually think of a newspaper editor, someone who lords it over the newsroom with a fearsome temper, wielding a pen like a saber. That’s the growly character we also often see in the movies, a 60-something guy who chews out a quivering cub reporter.

Most editors I’ve met are actually quiet, even mousy people who get their work done with a pencil in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Their names might not even appear on the books or the materials they edit. What they do is really an art unto itself, but there are no awards given, no National Artists designated, for editing. The editor leaves a ghostly signature behind; you’ll just know that an editor has been there by the effortlessness and the limpid clarity with which you read the prose of a certain piece.

Editors work with writers to polish drafts and to turn them into the best reading fare they could possibly be. The presumption, of course, is that every writer needs an editor—even the best ones; I certainly believe this, and as an author I expect a reputable publisher to have my manuscript gone over by another pair of eyes. Even in this newspaper, I’ve been saved many a time from woeful embarrassment by the alertness of my editors.

Editors review and revise manuscripts for several things: the accuracy of the contents, grammatical correctness, and stylistic felicity. As the intermediary between the author and the reader, the editor has to ensure that the author’s message comes through to the reader as clearly as possible, while retaining as much of the author’s style—his or her particular manner of expression, which can vary greatly from writer to writer.

Editors can employ any one of several levels or degrees of editing, as the job at hand or the terms of engagement may require: heavy, moderate, and light. Heavy editing means not even dealing with the text line by line or sentence by sentence, but by paragraphs and pages, thoroughly rewriting whole sections if clarity so demands. Moderate editing takes place at the sentence level—rewording this and that, putting this clause before that one, smoothing transitions and strengthening connections between paragraphs and topic shifts, making sure that the punctuation is perfect, and so on. Light editing might be little more than proofreading—checking for typos and misspellings, supplying missing apostrophes, questioning and resolving a word choice here and there, italicizing book titles, etc.

Literary editing is an even more special job than journalistic or technical copyediting, because it involves and requires a finely developed sensitivity to at least two things: what the author intends, and what the reader (or that larger group of potential readers, the market) expects. Creative writing deals in rich and potent ambiguities, and the literary editor must know how to achieve a balance between efficient clarity and nuanced expression.

It’s not the editor’s role to tell the author what or how to write, but a savvy editor will point out potential problems to the author—problems of interpretation, of pitch, of considerations that will sometimes go far beyond the text.

If the author is a creator, the editor is a critic—indeed, the work’s very first critic—who interrogates the text. Depending on the quality of the text, the editing can be more difficult than the writing. And eventually you’re dealing not only with the text, but with the author, who can be even more intransigent than his or her hopelessly garbled copy. Many authors—especially Filipino authors, who have had little or no previous experience with good editors—think very highly of themselves and their writing prowess, and resist the editor’s ministrations, no matter how positive and helpful they may be.

When I take on an editing job, I make it clear from the outset that while I will do everything I can to be sensitive to the client’s wants and temperament, I will literally have the final word as far as grammar and style are concerned. (I often choose to become an editor when I don’t have the time or the inclination to write the text myself; I advise prospective clients that they’ll save some time and money by getting a junior writer to prepare the draft, then getting me on board as an editor to do the final styling.) I ask people to trust me with what I’ve been trained to do, the same way I trust my editors with my copy.

In editorial mode, I’ve sometimes asked clients if they really want to come out with something they said that, in my best judgment, they might later regret, or might cause them unnecessary trouble. Sometimes people use books to settle old scores, and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with candor—and every truth or even half-truth contributes to historical discourse—I have to keep the client’s strategic interests in mind, and at least advise him or her of the possible pitfalls ahead. An editor can choose to play the independent and even adversarial critic, and every job needs a bit of that; but you can be sympathetic without being easy, or hard without being harsh, and I’ve found that that’s the best and fastest way to get solid work done, with a minimum of fuss and without leaving a bloody trail of crushed egos.

What do you need to become a good editor? Many editors begin and may still work on the side as writers, but paradoxically, some if not many editors may not be good writers—especially creative writers—at all. But at the very least, you need a near-impeccable command of the language, a sharp eye for detail, self-assurance, guts, and the desire and the drive to shape language to perfection.



Flotsam & Jetsam No. 43: My Midori

FOR THE past 18 months or so, I’ve been using a Midori notebook. I like it because it’s slim and can fit into my shirt or coat pocket, like a passport; it’s fountain pen-friendly, and I can always put in a new refill. I’ve had other notebooks but this is the most practical one for me, again because of its size and slimness (and that leather really ages nicely).

Penman No. 110: Witnessing the World

HillCoverPenman for Monday, August 18, 2014


IN MY other role as an editor rather than a writer of books, I take raw manuscripts from Iclients and friends and transform them into something publishable and popularly readable. I’ll write more about editing as a profession one of these days, because it’s an art unto itself that bears all the challenges but very little of the glamor and rewards of authorship. In the meanwhile, I’d like to talk about one of my most recent editing projects, a book about travels around the world by someone who has to be the most happily peripatetic (that’s a fancy word for “footloose”) person I know.

Julie Hill was a client before she became a friend. We were introduced to each other more than ten years ago by Jimmy Laya, who knew Julie and her late husband Arthur back from when the Hills lived in the Philippines, where Arthur represented the Ford Foundation. Then based in Southern California, Julie wanted to write a book about her life and travels with Arthur, who had just died of cancer; together, the couple had journeyed around the world, from Australia to Afghanistan, from Bangkok to Minnesota, from Samoa to China. Julie—born an Alexandrian Greek, trained in chemistry, and later a telecommunications executive—had all these stories to tell, and she needed an editor to help her tell them.

Jimmy put us together, and Julie’s first book, Promises to Keep: The Travels of Arthur and Julie Hill, came out in 2003, published by XLibris. This was followed a few years later by her second book, The Silk Road Revisited: Markets, Merchants, and Minarets (Author House, 2006). Not one to spend her widowhood moping, Julie has been actively engaged in all manner of civic pursuits, especially in her patronage of the Scripps Research Institute. Just last month, she published her third book, again with me as editor, Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery (Author House, 2014).

Julie retains a special place in her heart for the Philippines, to which she returns every now and then to visit with old friends. (In turn, Beng and I pay Julie a visit in her lovely home in Rancho Sta. Fe every time we see our daughter Demi in San Diego; Julie knows I love chocolate cake and always has a scrumptious slice of it waiting for me.)

There’s a wonderful anecdote from Julie’s first book about an encounter that she and Arthur had with then UP President Carlos P. Romulo, whom she describes as “a great raconteur.” They told each other stories about how they traveled to America, all of them being foreign graduate students, and when Julie said that she traveled by steamship, CPR asked her about, of all things, the cutlery. Julie recalls:

“’What was the cutlery like?’ asked Romulo. I was dumbfounded. Why did he take an interest in cutlery? He proceeded to tell us that he crossed the continent from Vancouver to New York on the Canadian Pacific Railway. During his journey, he systematically ‘acquired’ a set of cutlery. ‘What a better way to regale my professors at Columbia University than with cutlery embossed with my own initials: CPR!’”

In her new book, Julie takes us in hand on her journeys to around 20 countries, from Asia to Africa, to places such as Papua New Guinea, Mali, Bhutan, Botswana, and Ethiopia. She doesn’t take just the well-trodden tourist paths, but goes to the heart of the native culture, engaging with the locals to do what all good travelers (more than tourists) do: discover and reaffirm the universality of humanity. Not everyone has the ability and the resources to do the kind of traveling that Julie does, so I suggested the book title to her (taken from one of her essays), to take “privilege” in both senses of the word: as the ability to afford things, but also as the unique opportunity to see things few others could. And with that privilege comes the responsibility of witnessing and reporting.

In her introduction to the book, she writes:

“The art of adventure is the art of being bold enough to enjoy it. On a safari I must have spent hours tracking the footprints of wild animals; for other travelers the hours were too long and boring; after having seen one giraffe the others seemed all the same to them. But for me the tracking process was a fascinating adventure and locating that pride of 13 lions was an unparalleled reward, a golden joy. I could hear the muezzin in the Middle East (so much more inspiring when it is not a recording) calling the faithful to evening devotion. To me, the muezzin’s call—whether in a remote Central Asia bazaar or resounding among the tufa walls and spires of Timbuktu—is like a congregation of mountains praying.

“In my travels I have discerned a similarity among people who bear the same universal aspirations: all want their children to lead a better life and have a better future than theirs; they all cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die. We share so much, but still have to work at understanding one another…. On my travels, I have been privileged to spend time in the privacy of people’s homes and to learn of their rituals, such as the jewelry handed to the eldest daughter from generation to generation in Mali’s Djennè. An impromptu invitation at a village up in the mountains of the Caucasus brought me to a wedding, sipping vodka and dancing in a circle with other women…. Every time I was treated by my hosts as a friend, as a confessor, and I have tried to vindicate their trust by bringing their stories to life.”

In a message to her after the book was published, I told Julie that I had just watched a TV documentary about Aleppo in Syria—the subject of one of her best essays—and about the destruction that Syria’s current civil war had wrought on the ancient wonders of the place. I was almost in tears, I said, to see the Krak des Chevaliers being bombarded; without even having been there, I felt more invested in the world and in humanity, thanks to her book, for which I—in turn, as editor—was the privileged witness.

(Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery is available on


Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014


FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.


At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Penman No. 108: Writing as a Job

Penman for Monday, August 4, 2014


PEOPLE OFTEN ask me about my work as a professional writer—meaning, someone who makes a living out of his writing, rather than someone who just loves to write the occasional poem for sharing with friends.

There are, in fact, quite a number of people in this country who can be considered professional writers: regularly employed journalists, ad-agency copywriters, screenwriters, textbook writers, and even professional bloggers, among others. But except for the few who possess the talent and the gumption to churn out popular novels, there are really no professional Filipino writers of creative work like fiction and poetry, because there’s no market for these products out here. The typical Filipino reader would sooner buy the latest iteration of Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey than, say, a new novel by my friend Charlson Ong.

That’s why fictionists like Charlson and me have turned to writing other things for other people—biographies, histories, speeches, audiovisual presentation scripts, and even advertising copy—to supplement our incomes as teachers and columnists. But let me hasten to add that it’s more than money—as welcome and as necessary as the money is—that drives us to do this. For me—and I’m sure it’s the same thing for the others—it’s the challenge of doing something different, often something with a clear objective and a well-defined if limited audience, such as a company history, as opposed to a novel that you float like a balloon into the night sky.

At UP, where I’ve taught a course called “Professional Writing” that seeks to equip our English majors with some practical skills and attitudes, I tell students on Day One that “There’s writing that you do for yourselves, and writing that you do for others, and never get the two mixed up.”

Like my father, who wrote speeches and correspondence for politicians, I’ve been writing for others nearly all my adult life—I earned my first paycheck for a TV drama script I wrote when I was 16—so I approach professional writing with the dry eye of the frustrated engineer that I also happen to be. (This also means that, when I revert to my own fiction, I can do so with extravagance and exuberance, although fiction has its own rigor and discipline; the poets themselves will tell you that “poetic license” is really anything but license.) Over the past three decades, since my first book (Oldtimer and Other Stories) came out in 1984, I’ve published nearly 30 books of my own, aside from books I’ve edited for others. Many of these were limited-circulation books, like those I wrote on the Philippine geothermal industry and the Philippine flag, so you would never even have heard of them, but they served their specific purposes, so the job was done.

Let me offer some advice to those who want to get into writing as a living.

First, drop the ego and the angst. I knocked on a lot of doors and was paid almost nothing (and sometimes nothing) for my earliest jobs, but each one taught me something about writing and about the business of writing, both the good and the bad. Take every job as both an earning and a learning opportunity. Prepare to be edited, contradicted, and countermanded, sometimes by people who know less about writing than you (if they knew as much, they probably wouldn’t have gotten you). Give it your best shot, and leave the rest to the client. Suck it up, have a beer, then move on. (You’d be surprised how easily and how well the world can move on without you.)

Second, learn your trade and your tradecraft. This means mastering your language, both in terms of grammar and style, and appreciating the nuances that every job will involve. Write bilingually; adjust, absorb, adapt.

Third, get interested in subjects beyond writing and literature. Read the papers. Acquire a working knowledge of business and economics, politics and public affairs, history, science and technology, sports, and entertainment. This versatility will enhance your marketability. To do a job well, you’ll need to understand and even to enjoy what you’re writing about.

Fourth, set your own opinions aside. Unless you’re writing under your own byline or are being hired for your ideas, you don’t need to personally believe in and stand by everything that’s being said—you’re speaking for someone else, and your own opinions could get in the way. If your own ideas and principles matter more than the job, then say no and walk away (I’ve done this, quite a few times)—it’s the fairest thing to do, both for the client and for yourself.

Fifth, learn to multitask. These days, I typically work on three or four book projects at the same time, in various stages of completion. Life’s too short to have to wait for one project to be completed before starting the next one. Each project takes about 18-24 months, so I’ve learned to pace myself. I’ve also learned to delegate work—to assign more basic research and drafting to good assistants, so I can focus on the final organization and styling of the material.

Sixth, know the business and what business means. Use contracts, observe deadlines, pay the taxman, pay your assistants well, buy a good suit and a good pair of shoes. Keep and respect confidences. Unless you’ve been shortchanged, don’t badmouth a client from whom you gladly took a check.

Seventh, simplify your life. You can only produce so much by also giving up so much, which for me means a vastly diminished social life. I’ve pretty much given up partying or going out with friends; my only indulgences are my pens, the biweekly poker night, and traveling with Beng (of which I can never have enough, which is why I do all this). But I’m happy, which in this world is the hardest job of all.