Not because of the impact he made — which was considerable — on journalism, on Alabama, and on students like me. I think of him because he hated that word. It often was used at the expense of a better, more accurate word, unless it was referring to rammed earth, or wisdom teeth, or constipation. I remember cringing in the packed pews of his memorial service when his eulogist praised him for impacting others.
Thomson instilled in his students an ear for precision and what he called “an economy of words.” He collected new words in a reporter’s notebook, a reference tool he used religiously to enrich his vocabulary. He bristled whenever we used the wrong word or more syllables than were necessary to make a point.
Is this the verb you want? He scribbled in our margins. Is this the right metaphor? Is this what you mean to say?
Thomson was an editor’s editor. Where others did a hatchet job, he performed plastic surgery. He was incisive, cutting and reshaping stories with such precision that you never even saw the scars. You know you have a great editor when you cannot tell where your words end and his begin.
I came back to Alabama from a career I started 2,000 miles away, not so much for a Master’s degree but the chance to learn from Thomson again. He was the only one I trusted to guide me through my first nonfiction book. His death that year left me foundering, adrift like a sailboat with a broken keel. I wrote the book. But without the help of my mentor, it never felt ready to publish.
I will rewrite that book one day. I think I will be ready when I’m in my 50s, the age Thomson was when he died. Until then, I will — as he used to say — “let it marinate.”
Former University of Alabama journalism graduate student Kim Cross is working on her next first book, What Stands in a Storm, slated for publication in April 2015.
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