Monday, December 28, 2009

some thoughts about editing and being edited

I'm cleaning out old files, and I came on this, something I started and abandoned for reasons I don't remember. It's rough, but there might be a useful bit or two in it:

I've spent the last two days giving comments on a novel and two stories, so editing is on my mind. What follows is based on some correspondence from that:

In our time editing and teaching, Emma and I have found three kinds of writers: ones who balk at any suggestion, ones who accept most suggestions, and ones who engage in the revision process, weighing each possibility and often finding solutions that are much better than our quick suggestion. Writers in the second and third groups may first spend a day or two savaging voodoo dolls made to resemble us, but if so, they hide that well.

All three groups include writers we admire beyond measure and writers that we think, well, tell entertaining tales with functional prose. I think the first group, the writers who balk at suggestions, believe the story that leaves their home is the platonic tale, the gift of the muse, the thing wrestled from dream, the creation that was not but is now.

And sometimes they're right.

And, more importantly, when they're wrong, it's still their story.

As editors, when writers accept few or none of our suggestions, we don't get upset. It's their name on the story. We simply ask ourselves if the story works well enough as it is, and then we buy it or we don't.

I understand hating being edited. When I give a story to someone for suggestions, I want to be told that my best effort is perfect. I don't want to hear that it could be bester. For most sorts of suggestions, I curse a little—especially when I think an editor is making a suggestion about style rather than story or grammar or clarity. One editor, who I still love, likes sentences that start with gerunds and would always propose them. I think that construction is as phony as a neocon, so I would glare at those, then decide which ones were harmless and which ones bugged me most, and make the call.

I may be blessed with one quirk when being edited: I never mind suggestions that I cut something. For me, that's not changing the story. That's getting rid of something that's not the story. For writers in the first group, the story is the words: lose a word, and the story is weaker.

I think the story is beneath the words, so I want to cut anything that says, "Look! Here's the story!" I happily strike out explanations and foreshadowings because I hate anything that smells of helping the reader. As a writer, I want these things to be implied by the dialogue or the actions. I don't want them hinted at in the narrative.

This is my hierarchy when cutting: when actions speak clearly, cut dialogue. When dialogue speaks clearly, cut thoughts. Tell as little as possible so the story can tell itself. In my platonic tale, the writer simply tells what happens, or the narrator tells the story to the best of his or her ability, and the reader than laughs or cries in recognition of the story's truth.

Yes, there's a lot of wiggle-room when a story has an implied or explicit narrator who isn't the author. But I'm never afraid to contradict myself. The ultimate writing advice is simply this: Do what's necessary.

As an editor or a teacher, whenever I suggest anything, I'm only suggesting what I would do, not what I think someone else must do. Too many people think what they would do is the only solution. The world has many right solutions that are missed by people with binary philosophies.


  1. As both a writer (who is edited) and an editor, who makes a living at both, I applaud this. Just as appropriate for non-fiction as for fiction.

  2. Better than best, but not as good as bestest.

  3. If someone's writing Bester quality, I'm not sure there is a bestest above it.

  4. Ah, but Bester has his bestest. Is it time to reread The Stars, My Destination? Undoubtedly.

  5. My pleasurest!

    LOL! Good one, Will.