“Buff, but Don’t Sculpt”—Some Thoughts on Writing and Editing
From an Interview with Ella Wilcox by John C. Donaldson and Douglas C. Orzolek
This article first appeared in the September 2023 Music Educators Journal “Take Note” column.
After almost four decades serving as an editor for the National Association for Music Education (previously Music Educators National Conference), Ella Wilcox has announced her retirement, scheduled for the end of February 2024. Ella has collaborated with authors and national office staffers for the NAfME books program, conferences, and for six publications: Music Educators Journal, the Journal of Research in Music Education, UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education, the Journal of General Music Education, the Journal of Music Teacher Education, and Teaching Music magazine. As she moves toward the next phase of her life, we took the opportunity to seek her recommendations for writers and editors based on her experiences helping NAfME/MENC authors tell their stories. Her viewpoints offer prospective (and veteran) authors a few ideas to consider as they craft their writing for publication.
John and Doug: What led you to be an editor? What brought you to MENC in 1987?
Ella: Ideas are the most important things in the world, and editing offers a chance to work with them. After leaving college in Wisconsin with an education degree and garnering a few job offers (but being disinclined to work for the IRS or other agencies), I helped my cousin Laura McNall polish her resume. Laura, enthusiastic about what I did for her, suggested that I consider editing as a career. I came to the Washington, DC, area because it’s a vibrant region. I learned a great deal in the USDA Graduate Program in Publications. The position at MENC allowed me to combine three things I enjoyed: music, working with language, and helping people. Having grown up with parents who were teachers, I saw this career as a way to serve others. During a rather long interview with then-Executive Director John J. Mahlmann—a terrific conversationalist—I sensed that the people at MENC (now NAfME) were highly dedicated to the mission of helping music educators—it seemed like a great fit.
John and Doug: Any guess at how many articles you have edited?
Ella: I suspect that it’s probably thousands across all six of our publications. Honestly, I have not kept track because once an issue is done, I mentally “shove it off the cliff” and move on to the next one. I remind myself that we all try to do the best we can and then keep moving forward—good advice for both authors and editors.
John and Doug: What writers and thinkers have inspired you? What about their writing influences your work as an editor?
Ella: My favorite book is the one I’m currently reading, which right now happens to be Empress of the Nile by Lynne Olson. It’s a biography of French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt. In addition to her scholarly work, she got leaders from fifty countries to work together to save the temples of Abu Simbel when the Nile waters held back by the then-under-construction Aswan Dam was going to engulf them. I appreciate writers who trim away the fluff and get to the point so they can tell a great story—authors like Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, among others. These wordcrafters remind me that readers want things said simply and clearly. Good writing flows like a conversation. As an editor, I consider myself to be the reader’s last hope: I try to help the author be understandable. Authors usually know what they want to say, so my job is not to rewrite their articles, but to make their ideas more attractive and accessible to the reader. English teachers are the best writing resources, but I also like Helen Sword’s book Stylish Academic Writing.
John and Doug: What is your overall philosophy and approach to editing articles?
Ella: I seek out articles that inspire and help music teachers in their work. Once we have the content, we hone it so that it best supports the author’s intent. My role is to help authors say what they want to say: I buff their ideas, but I don’t sculpt them. Sometimes authors use too many cumbersome words and long sentences, thinking this makes them sound impressive. Doug Orzolek sums it up beautifully by saying, “Don’t impress—compress!” When editing a piece, sometimes I start by reading the end of the article. If an author has a good conclusion, it can help the readers remember the things that the authors want them to learn. If the author has no “wrap,” I’ll often suggest one but encourage the author to change this conclusion to suit the purpose of the article. If possible, I try not to change the author’s opening line: This is how many writers set the tone for their piece.
John and Doug: What are your typical steps in your own editorial habits and processes when you are working?
Ella: I get up early every morning so that I can be mentally prepared for what I need to do. My day often starts with a short outdoor walk to clear my mind. I’m usually ready to work by 7 a.m. When I start reviewing an article, I try to approach things as if I were the writer, and I do my best to view things from that individual’s lens. As in a Jane Austen novel, it’s good to immediately situate yourself in the author’s world. I do my best to come to the article with an open mind and heart and to not judge anything, but rather help the author be as inclusive, clean, and direct as possible. The final products, ideally, are articles that help music teachers do their work better or that inspire them to think in new ways. To help stay focused, I take frequent breaks, often working for only 20 to 30 minutes and then switching activities for a few minutes. I keep plenty of snacks and water nearby. The admonition to “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper” works well for the brain and the body. On workdays, I’m always in bed by 9:30 p.m.—as my brother Carl likes to say, “Sleep is king!”
John and Doug: How do you get into the right headspace to give an article your full attention?
Ella: Be willing to work hard, play hard; be grateful, and have a sense of humor. I look at my job as a privilege and a chance to make a difference, however small, in my situation. If I am confused by something an author has written, I might do an Internet search to get some clarification or discover another angle on the topic. If you can be field-independent—that is, focus on the important things and not be distracted by social media, the ice-cream truck, or the chaos around you—you can get a lot more done.
John and Doug: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Ella: Good writers are voracious readers. For some authors, it is really about developing their confidence as writers—by writing. I would recommend starting with thinking about a few things that go well in their lives, classrooms, or rehearsal halls, then weaving these ideas together into a larger article. Often the best articles are the ones that essentially say, “Here’s an idea that has worked for me … perhaps it might work in your situation.” Authors can refrain from sounding condescending toward readers by avoiding the words “must” or “should.” Johnny Mercer’s lyrics “Accentuate the Positive” apply to almost everything. Effective writing takes time. Try to avoid the weasel lawyer words like “regarding” when “about” would do, or “utilize” when “use” is just as good or better. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve deleted the phrase “it is important to note that …” Honor people’s time (the one thing we can’t get more of) by getting to the point.
John and Doug: What reactions do you have to artificial intelligence and its potential impact on the future of our journals?
Ella: Honestly, I have no fear of robots—they don’t have a sense of humor. The biggest concern is the integrity of people’s ideas. When I read an article and something tells me that I’ve read it or heard something like it before, I’ll reach out to the author about it. Usually, I simply ask the person where the idea (or image) came from so we can include an appropriate citation. If someone says it’s an original idea, but it doesn’t seem to me to be like their work, I might do a little research to make sure that is the case to help protect the author from making a mistake. It’s an intellectual property thing. For example, when we publish the photos of our authors, I always ask them who took the picture so we can recognize the photographer, too. Always give people proper credit for their efforts.
John and Doug: What would you say are the core values that influence your work?
Ella: I believe that we were put on Earth to help each other and have a good time, and on a good day, you can do both! I try to be as patient as I can be (although I sometimes have a short fuse!). I do my best to help others when I can, and I don’t mind working hard. My maternal aunt Leah Lockhart always reminded us to “be a little kinder, be more forgiving, and be willing to listen.” As a child, I asked my father how he knew what the right thing was to do in a given situation. He responded, “If God wants me to do something, I’m sure he’ll find a way to tell me.” I try to remember those things in all that I do. And as Adriane Darvishian, a former boss, liked to say, “Ninety-five percent is still an A!”—it’s better to get something done than to delay a project until it’s perfect.
John and Doug: What final advice would you provide to authors?
Ella: I would remind them to stick to their deadlines, respond quickly to correspondence, and keep their editors informed about their progress. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—that’s how we get better at what we do. Our publications are forums for sharing ideas. Listen to those ideas and be open to the implications that they may have for what you do. And, finally, try to be decent to others. I try to help people say what they mean … and if they’re not mean people, I enjoy it even more!
John and Doug: Any final reflections?
Ella: Galileo Galilei once said, “I never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” I feel much the same about music educators—they are brilliant, and they radiate a generosity of spirit that I admire and like to emulate. I’m inspired by their work to help others understand and love music. However, they don’t teach just music: Music educators are role models, and they often succeed in helping their colleagues and students become empathetic people who care about others and who can work together to solve problems in creative ways. I hope I have done the same.
And don’t forget to have fun—life is too short not to enjoy it!
About the authors:
John C. Donaldson is the Assistant Executive Director of Professional Development and Publications for the National Association for Music Education. Douglas C. Orzolek is a Professor and the Director of Graduate Programs in Music Education at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as the Academic Editor of Music Educators Journal.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
November 14, 2023
- Lifelong Learning
- Music Education Profession
- Research in Music Education
November 14, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)