How Bill Walsh influenced me from afar

I didn’t know Bill Walsh personally. I didn’t even know he was sick until I saw his obituary from his employer, The Washington Post. But he was and is a critical influence on how I edit and, importantly, how I think about editing.

I think I’m unlike a lot of copy editors (if I can still call myself one after being more of a line and story editor for the past 6 years) in that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of grammar rules and constructs. I couldn’t teach a workshop on the background of tenses, or participles, or singular-plural.

What I do know is how to use these things, how to read sentences with a reader’s perspective and how to edit and rewrite, when necessary, with consideration for the audience’s expectations and the writer’s voice. Grammar and style rules matter to me, but only to the point in which they serve the outcomes. Little annoys me more as an editor than a change made because of blind adherence to style that results in bad or stupid copy.

Anyways, there are a number of key influencers to my approach. The first, I suppose, is my mother, who encouraged me to read, and read nearly everything. Reading, as many writers and editors will tell you, is how you learn about words and language.

In college, I was tremendously fortunate to take a copy-editing class with John McIntyre, then and now (with a hiatus) of The Sun in Baltimore. In the following years, I benefited from the guidance of the incredible and robust copy staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the editor and managing editors at The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y., and the fellow who hired me at SmartBrief, Steve Masters.

All of them are strong technical editors, and that was helpful. But what I believe I learned most from them, and why I’m eventually getting to Bill Walsh, is that each of those editors took time to say why something was as it was. Or, why an error or oversight was a problem. Or, why something was really good or smart. In short, they were teaching critical thinking and contextual thinking as much as spelling, grammar and style.

Walsh’s “Lapsing Into A Comma” was the best print distillation of all that advice that I’ve come across, and while I hadn’t read it in years until this past week, it has never left me. Right in Chapter 1:

What I’m saying is that it’s relatively easy to pick a stylebook, any stylebook, and learn the rules it imposes. It’s harder still to truly understand the reasons behind the rules — and therefore know when they should be ignored.

Walsh’s influence on me was more than just philosophical. He’s why I hyphenate so much (albeit a bit less these days), because of his insistence on the importance of hyphenations to sentence logic and structure. The famous “orange-juice salesman” example has never left my mind.

To hyphenate well is to think deeply about the words as they are individually and how they work collectively, to think about whether the sentence structure works and whether it really works as a readable sentence people want to deal with. And this mindset, used well, helps others be better, too. As Linda Holmes wrote:

What a great copy editor is instead, and what Bill Walsh was to me, is both that exacting crafter of print at the atomic level and a final eye for good sense. He says in Lapsing Into a Comma that every newsroom needs someone juvenile enough to know which headlines shouldn’t have words like “blow” and “stiff” in them.

Not everything Walsh wrote was gospel. He was losing the argument about “email” versus “e-mail” even as “Lapsing Into A Comma” was being published, and a re-read of it today shows people don’t even consider the debate anymore, even if he was correct on style guides’ remarkable inconsistency (hello, AP). But do revisit the chapter, if for nothing else that the reference to “an AltaVista search of the Web” from before AltaVista was a “Parks & Recreation” gag.

Of course, I cannot forget that I’m writing this because Walsh died, and that he died at only 55. Those of us merely influenced from afar can only decry the years taken away from him; I can only imagine what this has been like for those close to him.

One small comfort is that Walsh has left us a legacy in his writing and in the people he’s influenced. These people are, in small and large ways, helping us communicate better with each other. If we can understand each other, then we can start to work and build together — to leave something better than what we found. Every thoughtful edit along the way matters.

Walsh did all he could, and now the rest is up to us.