Editing Independence

By | July 3, 2015

Whenever I do speaking gigs in connection with the various books I have written with Dr. Joe Webb—Disrupting the Future, This Point Forward, and The Home Office That Works!—one question I am invariably asked is, “How do you write with a coauthor?” My standard response is, “I handle the nouns and adjectives, Joe handles the verbs and adverbs, and we split infinitives.” Thank you, I’m here all week.

Writing with a coauthor is actually of enormous benefit, because it reins in some of my more…let’s say, distracting writing tropes and tendencies, of which there are many. That’s largely what I miss about having a proper editor. Back in my Micro Publishing News days in the 1990s, editorial director David Griffith was a very hands-on editor, and we would often talk about what worked and what didn’t, and he was always trying to refine and improve my style, which I appreciated (well, most of the time). It’s very rare in trade publishing to have that kind of collaborative relationship with an editor, the way book authors and editors work. (Commented David once: “I swear I’m going to remove the paragraph keys from your computer.”) And in this age of bogging, tweeting, and other social media, writers are all left to their own devices, which has its pluses and minuses.

There are good editors and bad editors, of course, but a good editor should approach copy in a manner not unlike a doctor: “first, do no harm.”

Sometimes, though, editors actually are doctors.

Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) was born in Byberry, Penn., what is now a Philadelphia neighborhood. He attended the College of New Jersey (today called Princeton University), and after a lengthy apprenticeship under prominent Philadelphia physician Dr. John Redman, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His doctoral thesis was called “On the Digestion of Food in the Stomach,” and was based on—says Princeton’s biography of Rush—“some heroic experiments with emetics on his own person.” (Nice euphemism. In my time, we called them “dorm parties.”)

Rush got his M.D. in 1768 and trained for several months at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, where by chance he met Benjamin Franklin. Franklin persuaded Rush to visit France with him—on Franklin’s dime—where Rush got to hobnob with French doctors, scientists, and other leading members of the intelligentsia.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1769, opening his own medical practice and also becoming a Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia (today, the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine). Rush also wrote A Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, which was the first American chemistry textbook. Rush also became involved in the nascent independence movement afoot in the colonies, and became a member of the Sons of Liberty.

It was in Philadelphia in 1775 that Rush met a British expatriate and together they would help change the world.

Thomas Paine (né Pain) was born in 1736 in Norfolk, England, and in adolescence apprenticed to his father who made rope stays for shipping vessels. In his 20s and 30s, he kicked around England working in various capacities—rarely lucratively—was married, widowed, and married again. The onset of the 1770s saw Paine working as an excise officer while also running a tobacco shop. In 1772, he published his first political work, a 21-page treatise called The Case of the Officers of Excise, essentially a long argument for Parliament to increase the pay and improve the working conditions of excise officers. He was soon fired from his job (he tended to play hooky a lot) and his tobacco shop went under. Threatened with debtor’s prison, he sold all his possessions.

In 1774, he left his wife and moved to London where a mutual acquaintance introduced him to—yep, you guessed it—Benjamin Franklin. Franklin suggested Paine move to the British Colonies in America, and even gave Paine a letter of recommendation. So Paine packed up whatever meager possessions he had and put to sea.

He barely made it.

On board the ship, a tainted water supply led to a typhoid fever outbreak, and five fellow passengers never made it across the Atlantic. When the ship finally landed in Philadelphia, a doctor had to be sent for to physically carry the ailing Paine off, and Paine was weeks recovering. Soon, though, he was back up to speed and, like so many people who came to America, started a completely new life. He began as a publicist, then in the spring of 1775 published a pamphlet called African Slavery in America, a condemnation of that institution. He then landed a position at Pennsylvania Magazine, which had been founded by Robert Aitken, a Revolutionary printer who had run the official press for the Continental Congress. Paine was a major contributor and part-time editor for the magazine, being promoted to sole editor within six months.

By the middle of 1775, Revolutionary fervor was starting to kick into high. The Boston Tea Party had taken place in 1773 and April 1775 saw the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first shots fired in the American Revolution. In the latter half of 1775, Paine began composing his thoughts in a long pamphlet, laying out the case for American independence from Great Britain, but he needed help editing it. He turned to a friend of his, a prominent Philadelphia physician and fellow Son of Liberty, Benjamin Rush. Rush helped him hone the text—which ended up being a 41-page treatise—as well as find a printer to publish it for him. Rush had recommended Robert Bell, whose competitive advantage (we might say today) was that he wouldn’t refuse to print it because of its incendiary content, a serious concern at the time.

Rush also suggested one other change. Paine’s original title was Plain Truth. Rush suggested, instead, Common Sense. It was a fortuitous change. The new title thus attracted everyday “common” folk to the fight for independence, who up until that point felt that politics and government were strictly the purview of the more elite members of society.

The pamphlet was a hit; even people who couldn’t read would attend public readings of Common Sense. It sold 120,000 in its first three months of publication and, by some accounts, more than 500,000 worldwide in its first year. Paine would have been a household name, but—for obvious reasons—he’d had to publish it anonymously. (Bell the printer had added “Written by an Englishman” to the second edition, which greatly pained Paine.) Paine donated all his profits from Common Sense to George Washington’s Continental Army and, perhaps to get back at Bell, gave up his copyright, granting all American printers the right to reproduce it. (Print clients…go figure.)

Seven months after the publication of Common Sense, in July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, edited by the Continental Congress, approved on July 2, and ratified on July 4. It was issued as a broadside initially by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. One of its signers: Benjamin Rush.

On behalf of Digital Nirvana, have a happy and safe Independence Day weekend.



Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, Princeton University Press, 1978, http://etcweb.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/rush_benjamin.html.

“Benjamin Rush,” Wikipedia, last modified on June 21, 2015, retrieved June 25, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Rush.

“Benjamin Rush (1746-1813),” Penn Biographies, University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center, retrieved June 25, 2015, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/rush_benj.html.

“A Biography of Thomas Paine,” American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, University of Groningen, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/thomas-paine/.

“Thomas Paine,” Wikipedia, last modified on June 18, 2015, retrieved June 25, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine.

“Common Sense (pamphlet),” Wikipedia, last modified on June 18, 2015, retrieved June 25, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet).

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