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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Why Every Writer Needs a Tough Editor

My first job was in journalism and I was very young--just 18, the youngest ever hired by the Salt Lake Tribune. My boss was a tough female journalist (they had to be to stay in journalism in those days!) So, though she gave me ulcers, she molded me into a professional. It was on-the-job training as I studied journalism at the University of Utah.

She insisted I go out with the photographers who were shooting images to illustrate my stories when I preferred to stay in and start a new story or polish the one I was working on. "Journalists need to get out. That's where they find the stories!" she said. Sometimes it was cold and rainy and I got my shoes wet. Sometimes it was boring. But I did bring back tons of story ideas and was eventually given a full time position at that paper, at least partly because I brought a different sensibility to the feature pages.

She slapped me with the job of doing page layout (this was pre computer days), even before I had a class in the subject. That meant I often had to cut/edit others' work (including Ann Landers' columns) to make them fit into available space and be on a deadline to get them to the backshop where there were typesetting machines and huge roller presses and tons of smelly, oily ink. One learns what’s essential and what isn’t essential that way. And it started me on my path to ferreting out wordiness (which I’m still on because that task never ends!)

She didn't spare me the big important stories, but kept me stretching. I once was assigned a great spring fashion story for the front page of what would not be called a Style section to be photographed in a park. It snowed that day but I managed to do something that had never been done (to my knowledge) before—spring fashion in the snow . That experience inspired a chapter in my novel This Land Divided now being shopped by my agent. I wrote it some 50 years later.

I didn’t pay her. I got paid instead. But I also learned the value of a great editor. It’s about more than having someone check for typos and grammar errors. And that led me to writing The Frugal Editor, also some 50 years later.

Yes, I remember my editor well. And what she taught me.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

A Tip for Writers:


My multi award-winning The Frugal Editor is now in its second edition—as an e-book (the print edition is coming a bit later.) It’s been reformatted, updated and expanded.

A Tip for Readers' Tip:

This time I’m not recommending a book. I’m recommending a move. Belle is a perfect ten for entertainment but it’s also a perfect ten for studying how subtleties on a them can be woven together. If you love period novels of any kind, you’ll love this book. If you love the theme of this movie, you’ll find more suggestions of the same vein at

2011 Noble list Please nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain in 25 word or less why your nomination is a work of literary merit and sent directly to me. Nominations must be signed with your real name, e-mail address and a URL if you have one. Email


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