Keeping my own voice

My late buddy Gus used to say how cartoonists couldn’t be edited. His comment inevitably drew nods and high-fives from journalists and artists used to having their work rototilled by others.

I’ve had my share of editing experiences, including Gus’ weekly strips and editorial cartoons (which I had to correct misspellings in several times). I’ve been called to task by angry writers who questioned some excessive trims, and seen my own work become oblique and unrecognizable after edits.

It used to be that the more you got paid, the heavier the cuts and requested changes. I once went through a grueling back-and-forth on a piece about neurological tests. After the sixth edit I sent back my original submission, and it ran, unchanged. I later tried the same thing on less obtuse subjects, including a front-page New York Press piece about a would-be Indian swami.


I have prided myself on creating community publications that included unadulterated kids’ voices and memory-addled rants and pleas from the elderly. I tried to keep all voices intact, only fixing misspellings and egregious factual errors, which I’d ask the writer to change.

I’ve learned to give my editors the benefit of the doubt when it came to news stories and features, but felt hurt when my own personal essays have been stripped of lyrical flights I felt pride for, or allusions to things I felt my readers might be pleased to share.

I edit a lot of audio for radio programs now, working to strip the “ums” and “y’knows” we pepper our talk with, or fit ten minutes of thought into four minutes of commentary. I tend to take my own voice, my questions, out of a finished piece, except in introductions and interstitial statements.

I’m sensing that we’re about to enter new worlds in terms of what can and can’t be edited. The old-style books seem ancient, given the ways in which street language has entered the mainstream. It’s simply not cool any more to be “mansplaining” or curating others’ experiences, others’ expression.

We’ve seen this erode canons, history, year-end best-of lists, awards.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with what had been a royal we as we all fight for space to state our own experiences and opinions, versus the more air-brushed statements of the institutionalized world.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.