W

hen I was 22 and working at my first job, my executive editor wanted to edit a piece of mine in front of me. It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t want to be a part of that process. At the time, my attitude was that you were welcome to make whatever changes you felt you needed to, but I didn’t need to watch you do it. It was humiliating to know that I hadn’t gotten things right the first time around; did we really have to talk about it, too?

I cringed as this man—the real deal, a veteran with the Philadelphia Inquirer in his rearview—went through my pissant piece. He caught omissions and errors but he was on a mission that vanity and inexperience made it impossible for me to appreciate that first time at the desk with him. This man was making what I’d done better.

My growing up was been effected in no small part through those collected editing sessions, a gradual process through which people loved their craft enough to fix someone else’s mistakes and made me better along the way.

It’s been this way with me over the course of my career. Once I returned to work to find a review I’d written for online distribution marked up in red felt tip and taped to the door of my office. (It gives you some idea of the scam that particular venture was if I managed to score an office, but I digress.) I was embarrassed and angry that my boss’ penchant for dramatic presentation—you have no idea—had spilled over into this ham-handed attempt at professional development.

The thing was, he was right. He was always right, the bastard. But just like the insight of my executive editor before him, it was difficult for me to appreciate the improvements his suggestions would bring to that piece. I couldn’t separate myself from the words I’d strung together. My pride was in having finished something, not so much in having done it particularly well.

Everyone can point to milestones that signified our transition into adulthood: when they could drive, when they could vote, when they could drink. My growing up was been effected in no small part through those collected editing sessions, a gradual process through which people loved their craft enough to fix someone else’s mistakes and made me better along the way.

This week I started writing something I want to submit elsewhere. When I had a draft, I sent it to the only editor I have any more and waited until he wrote back with changes. Taken together, his observations indicate a tonal ambiguity that I don’t quite know how to resolve. I’ll have to think about his notes for a day or so before I return to see if I can manage to convey the idea that I fumbled for at the outset.

What I understand now that I didn’t at 22 or 26 is that people read your stuff—really read it—only when they want to hear what you have to say. And the ones that you can do it better? Marry them. They’re the true believers.