Cole Niles graduated from Baylor University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and Rhetoric. He served as the editor for I Will Teach History: The Life & Times of Frank Guittard, written by the subject’s grandson, 1964 Baylor Arts & Sciences graduate Charles Francis Guittard. It was his first professional editing assignment.
In a recent interview, Cole talked about the pleasures and challenges of editing the book, and discussed his future plans.
How did you happen to be hired to edit Charles Guittard’s third book, I Will Teach History?
I had written a review of his first book, A Ph.D.’s Reverie: The Letters, for the Baylor Line Foundation’s magazine, Baylor Line. Charles read my review when he was looking for an editor of I Will Teach History and asked me if I would be interested in editing a biographical project about his grandfather. I said yes.
Where did you develop your skills as an editor? Did you read books or take courses?
No, I never read books or took courses on editing, and I did not consider myself a professional editor. However, writing has always been one of my strengths and I have been a staff writer for the Baylor Line Foundation where I wrote about sports and occasionally did book reviews, like the one of Charles’s earlier book.
Did you have a role with respect to editing The Letters — Charles’ book before I Will Teach History?
No, that book had already been published before I met Charles.
What was it that you liked about editing History for Charles?
More than anything else it was Charles’s unusual take on constructing a biography. Instead of the standard chronological narrative style, Charles chose to tell his grandfather’s story almost completely conversationally through dialogue with Charles’ four grandchildren, whom he calls “the peanut gallery.”
Why did you like that offbeat way of telling Frank Guittard’s story?
Offbeat, yes, but it was just a much livelier and more personal way to tell Frank’s story — the grandchildren’s questions and comments were a hoot. More than that, the peanut gallery in effect stood in for the reader, asking questions the reader might have wanted to ask, and making comments the reader might have wished to make. The overall effect was to draw the reader into unwrapping Frank’s story. Then too, there was a certain amount of sibling rivalry among the members of the peanut gallery which often bubbled up to enliven the narrative.
What about the story itself? Was Frank Guittard’s story interesting to you?
For sure. Frank’s long struggle without financial help from Ohio to get his degrees was compelling. He had to drop out of Baylor four years after enrolling — but with less than four years of college credit — to go on the road selling a book of canned sermons door-to-door to farmers’ wives. But the odd twist of fate that resulted in his getting his teaching job at Baylor also comes to mind.
What odd twist of fate?
It was a totally unpredictable event involving President Oscar Cooper, who was President Samuel Brooks’ predecessor as president, and a session of Baylor chapel Cooper presided over — and there was a small dog in the mix. That’s all I will say today. I don’t want this interview to be a spoiler for the book.
Definitely. Some of the subjects were pretty new to me, like Baylor’s early literary societies — they were really debating clubs. I also enjoyed learning about Baylor’s student self-government experiment and the evolution controversy on Baylor’s campus, which all occurred during Frank Guittard’s tenure at Baylor almost 100 years ago. All the disciplinary rules that President Rufus Burleson enforced — such as Burleson’s invisible line between the women’s dorm and everything else — were really entertaining. It was such a different day and time. Then too, since I like to write, I appreciated some of Charles’ creative reconstructions of several scenes in Frank’s life, all based on the research Charles did.
Such as the reconstruction of one of Frank’s History 105 classes, and the campus tour Frank must have given Mamie Welhausen, his eventual wife, when she first visited him in Waco. I also enjoyed Frank’s encounters with farmers’ wives after he had to drop out of Baylor and sell one of Pastor T. DeWitt Talmage’s book of sermons. And there are other bits Charles included or created, such as excerpts from Frank’s “Funny Book” — Charles included these — and a mock debate between his grandchildren comparing Frank’s story to that of John Wesley Hardin. Charles created that piece.
John Wesley Hardin was a notorious Texas outlaw, and Frank Guittard was a history professor. I don’t get it.
I’m not surprised, but that’s what makes that piece interesting. You’ll have to read the book.
Exactly what did your role as editor involve?
Typically, Charles would send me his latest draft of a chapter. I would edit the draft, making comments on grammar, word choice, transitions, or even making questions that a reader might have for the author. When I edit, I never want to make the changes for someone. The author always has the final say in whether to accept a suggestion or not. Once I had finished reading the document, I would send the draft with my suggested changes noted back to Charles, and then wait for Charles’s draft of another chapter.
Did you make other suggestions to Charles regarding the text?
Oh, yes — suggestions as to punctuation, suggestions as to sentences that were too long and needed to be broken up, suggestions about sentences that were not clear and needed to be rewritten — just really everything that occurred to me, including chapters that could be shortened or in one case deleted. Also, Charles wanted me to identify any material in a chapter that seemed to be repetitious of another chapter.
Did Charles generally accept your suggestions, or did he overrule them?
He overruled some, but he usually made changes based on my advice, even if he did not follow 100 percent what I may have suggested initially. Sometimes I only raised questions about the content that did not always require a change — just questions for Charles to think about.
What did you think of the chapter focusing on the metaphors, paradoxes, themes, and so on that Charles advanced toward the end of the book?
They are very rare for a biography, if not unheard of, and we will have to wait to see whether readers think they are convincing or any help in telling Frank’s story. I did like what Charles called the “central paradox” of Frank’s story — namely, that although Frank was the ultimate planner, chance nevertheless played a key role in the way his life turned out. We already talked about the twist of fate.
Would you like to edit manuscripts of other authors now that you’ve finished with I Will Teach History?
I am definitely open to the possibilities. I like to write. I earned my degree in Professional Writing and Rhetoric at Baylor two years ago. Realistically, I don’t see doing more editing until after I finish my degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. I’m working to get a master’s degree in divinity. I blog a lot about spirituality, too, so maybe that opens up paths moving forward. I’m not tied to being an editor the rest of my life, so we’ll see.
In what way was the experience of editing I Will Teach History helpful to you?
It improved my own writing. Editing a 500-page book is a large assignment, and I had to refresh my own understanding of some things. Charles has said that his own writing improved from writing such a lengthy book and then having to make decisions on my suggested changes to the text.
One final thing — I understand the book contains hand-drawn illustrations by a Baylor art student depicting scenes from Frank’s life.
Yes. Amanda Smith did a nice job, with her vivid illustrations capturing Frank’s story well. The ones of Frank and the bees, which will be on the cover, and the one of President Cooper and the dog are really eye-catching! I’ve rarely ever seen a biography with anything but photographs, so maybe we are breaking new ground here .