I believe in editors.
I’ve had the good fortune to be edited by some of the best in the business. My books were read, amended, and read again by Tracy Bernstein at Penguin and, before that, by Maria Guarnaschelli (then) at Scribner. My magazine and newspaper work has almost always been made better by the smart, committed journalists I’ve had the chance to write for.
And then there’s my mother. She’s the one who caught it when I made a most unfortunate reference, in the draft of an article for a major magazine, to the “G.I. track.” She circled it and, in the margin, wrote, “Chew Chew!” Oops.
But then there was this one copy editor. She did my first book, Dreaded Broccoli (co-written with said mother), and its rambling, personal style didn’t seem to sit well with her. While she caught many a questionable usage and a few out-and-out errors, she also wanted to denature it a bit.
In the chapter on chicken, I wrote a full-page digression which I will reprint, in its entirety, for your reading pleasure:
DUMB CHICKEN JOKES
My first job out of college was with IBM, and I spent most of my six years there selling small computer systems to manufacturers and wholesale distributors. The owners of those companies didn’t know anything about computers, and didn’t want to know anything about computers, so I found out quickly that our common language would have to be the language of their business. I learned about inventory control and order entry and accounts payable. I found out about carrying costs and obsolescence. I learned to drive a forklift. After about a year in the field, I could pass myself off as a knowledgeable insider.
Most of the businesses I sold to were pretty prosaic: Hardware distributors (the hammer-and-nail kind not the computer kind), wire-mesh wholesalers, garment manufacturers. I found, to my surprise, that I was genuinely interested in these businesses. I enjoyed getting familiar with them and figuring out what might make them more profitable and competitive. But there was always a special place in my heart for the food businesses. I called on produce wholesalers, sausage makers, and specialty food importers. There were candy manufacturers and juice juicers and meat distributors. There were bakeries, one of which had a super-duper pie-making machine where you essentially poured all the ingredients in one end and waited for the pie to come out the other. Just like the Jetsons. There was even a caviar distributor. Hell would have to freeze over before they bought a computer, but if I stopped by at the right time in the afternoon, I could usually get a sample.
And then there was the Modesto Poultry company. I never called on them because, geographically, they weren’t in my territory, but I saw their trucks go by all the time (reading trucks is one of the habits you develop when you sell to wholesalers). I always thought somebody at that company must enjoy his job, because the motto on their trucks was “Poultry in Motion.” To this day, I can’t carry a chicken home from the store without smiling to myself. Poultry in motion.
That was it. When I got the proofs back, I saw that the copy editor had circled the entire sidebar and attached a post-it that read: “Long way to go for a thin point?”
Yes, it was a very long way to go! And it wasn’t a thin point, it was no point at all! It was just a dumb chicken joke, and it said so, right at the top!
Today, some twelve years later, I realize, with some chagrin, that neither my thinking nor my writing style has evolved much. As I putter around the house, I can hear the chicks in the brooder, running around and cheeping. When I go out to feed the ducks, they waddle quacking into a corner. The three day-old turkey poults we got from the hatchery seem to have energized the four week-old poults we’d gotten from a friend, and all seven are pecking and peeping. And the chickens, of course, follow us wherever we go.
There are thirty-one birds on the property, a new record. But, no matter how much has changed in the last twelve years, it’s the same dumb joke, the same thin point. Poultry in motion.