Woodworker turned editor says both “a process”

Portrait of Roger Holmes, editor of Fine Working Magazine and Fine Gardening Magazine. March 30, 2017. Photo: Alyssa Mae

By Alyssa Mae, NewsNetNebraska

Roger Holmes learned his trade through sawdust covered hands and endless drafts of prose crumpled into white paper balls at his feet. He’s an editor, but he’s also a woodworker. Two very different passions linked by one blaring similarity: the process.

Holmes loves the process. He loves seeing a beginning, an end, and everything in between.

“There’s something very satisfying about starting out with something and then looking at what you’ve come to, and saying ‘this is better now because of what I did,’” Holmes said.

His methods are the same whether he’s constructing a dining room table or helping his childhood friend, author, and  professor Joe Starita put together his next novel. It always begins with an idea.

Holmes’ goal is to assemble that idea into something workable. “I start with a design. First thing I need to figure out is what kind of dining room table you want. What do you want it for?” he said. “That’s exactly what you do when you start a project in writing. What do you want to say?”

Despite being significantly different trades, Holmes’s two passions have mixed since the beginning. Holmes grew up in Lincoln. His father managed a grocery store, and his mother worked in education as an assistant to new teachers.

Woodworking was a generational trade in Holmes’s family. His father and his grandfather were both self-taught carpenters. True to his family’s nature, Holmes began to play in the workshop at age 10. “I started doing things just for fun,” he said.

Holmes struggled to find his calling in college. In 1967, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study mathematics and sciences. Soon after he switched to political science, and then decided to transfer to Yale to study philosophy. “I kept thinking, ‘what’s the point to philosophy?” he said. “Why spend all my time studying about how to live my life rather than just living my life well?”

In 1968, the Vietnam War protests began and “all hell broke loose.” Holmes marched in Washington, D.C., holding a candle for a friend’s brother who had been killed in combat. “We were 19, so it was a big adventure,” he said. “It was quite remarkable because there were just so many people.”

In 1970, Holmes dropped out of school to avoid the draft and moved back to Nebraska where he began creating woodwork out of his dad’s basement. “It was a combination between a political philosophical statement and a practical one where I could earn some money doing it,” he said.

After a year, Holmes felt a hunger to expand his knowledge in woodworking. He felt stifled by his resources in the United States, and he reached out to a man in England in search for an apprenticeship. After some correspondence, he found work in a shop right outside London. “It coincided with my desire to get out the country,” he said. “The war was still going on. Things were not great. I just thought I needed to get away.”

Holmes moved to England with his girlfriend. Two months after he arrived, he met his future wife, Margaret, in a small laundry mat. “She thought I was French,” he said. “That obviously was debunked when I talked to her.”

It was living in a small apartment in London with Margaret that Holmes began to write. In 1979, he contacted Fine Woodworking Magazine, a fast-growing magazine that focused on hand woodworking techniques. “I just wanted to do something else,” he said. “I’d always enjoyed writing, and I thought, ‘Well, you write about what you know about.”

Despite having no previous writing training, he became an England correspondent. He wrote profiles on English woodworkers for an American audience. “I’d send my stories to Fine Woodworking, and they’d send it back edited,” Holmes said. “And like every other writer who has no idea what he’s doing, I was outraged that they changed a word.”

After a year of writing for Fine Woodworking, he was asked to move back to the United States to temporarily take the place of an assistant editor. Holmes agreed and moved within a week. Holmes was relocated to an assistant editor in the book department three months into his new job. Three years later, he returned to the magazine department as a managing editor, and then became the founding editor of Fine Gardening Magazine.

“I worked very hard for them not to call it Fine Gardening Magazine,” he said. Holmes said editing for Fine Woodworking Magazine was different than editing for a newspaper. He and the other editors didn’t work with writers. They worked with woodworkers. Much of the material they received was extremely raw. “It was a lot easier to take their experiences and turn it into stuff people could read about than to have a writer try to go out and write about something they didn’t know about,” he said. Another challenge he faced as an editor was conveying ideas. How-to articles made up the majority of the magazine’s substance. Holmes once demonstrated the difficulty of writing a how-to article by asking a

Another challenge he faced as an editor was conveying ideas. How-to articles made up the majority of the magazine’s substance. Holmes once demonstrated the difficulty of writing a how-to article by asking a 5th grade class to write instructions on how to jump rope. “It was interesting because we’ve all done it, but if you begin to try to explain to someone how to do it with words, it’s an interesting exercise,” he said.

Holmes said the first responsibility of an editor is to figure out what the writer wants to say. The next step is to figure out how you help them say it. He enjoys the process of trying to make things clear and interesting. His favorite phrase is to “omit needless words.” “If you just go through and get rid of words that aren’t necessary, that’s a lot of the battle won,” he said.

Developmental editing was also a large responsibility as an editor for Fine Woodworking Magazine. He had to decide what ideas or parts of a story were necessary and what were not. “It’s like drowning kittens,” he said. “Every author thinks that everything they’ve written is absolutely necessary, and so sometimes you have to take that little cardboard box of kittens and be like ‘nope.’”

Holmes accredits his knowledge in editing to the people he worked with, in particular, John Kelsey, an editor with a newspaper background. “He was like a magician,” he said. “He would just take what was there and remove about half. What was left was very organized prose.”

Holmes didn’t set out to be an editor or a woodworker. He didn’t receive any former training. He took chances and learned his love for each trade as he studied them. In both editing and woodworking, he gets to work through the process. He gets to be the bridge to someone for what they want, whether they are a writer or a commissioner of his work.

“I guess my goal would be to help people who need help,” Holmes said. “That might be a person who needs to write a book. That might be someone who needs a furniture maker. But it gives me a sense that I’m helping people do something they want to do.”

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