“If you turn in something you think is perfect, an editor will go, ‘I know you think it’s great, but it’s not. You need to do this and move this and change this.’ You may think that person’s an idiot, which they might be, but they’re probably not because they’re still in business after everybody else has been fired.”
That warning to all of us who aspire to be published came from our local writing guru Carol Dannhauser, who prefaced her remark by pointing out that there are a lot fewer editors working at magazines and book publishers than there used to be, and that those survivors are overwhelmed with submissions.
Here, then, is a random survey of sources where you can increase that understanding.
Self-editing: In “A Short Course in Line Editing” from thereviewreview.net, author and journalist Michelle Seaton presents a paragraph from a 1940s pulp romance story and uses it to illustrate how you can make your writing tighter and clearer as you line edit. A key point is this:
“Double-check the clauses. When something goes horribly wrong in a sentence a dependent clause is usually at fault. . . .Many times our problematic clauses just need to move out of the sentence, and get their own place.”
Copyediting: “Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor,” at themillions.com, is by Edan Lepuki, novelist (California), short story writer and founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Lepuki conducts a Q&A with copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz. Betz defines the copyeditor’s role this way:
“When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions. . . .”
Acquisitions editing: Christine Kopprasch, associate editor at the Crown Trade Publishing Group, a division of Random House, answers questions from a staffer and the Facebook community of writerunboxed.com in “Interview with a Big Five Editor.” Among the works Kopprasch has acquired is Fairfield Writer’s Blog friend and contributor Maddie Dawson’s latest novel, The Opposite of Maybe, which will hit bookstores in April. Kopprasch gives a behind-the-scenes rundown of an editor’s responsibilities, as well as pointers for writers. Such as:
“I establish a relationship with the author, talking often over the phone or by email, and start editing. Usually I do multiple rounds of editing: a few in-depth rounds with lots of comments and structural suggestions, and then as much line editing and refining as is needed. . . .”
What specifically is it that attracts you to a story, a writing style, or a cast of characters, that eases your mind over taking a chance on an unknown author?
“The voice, foremost, and the I-can’t-put-this-book-down feeling that’s so personal and hard to explicate. . . .”
What is the one thing that will turn you away from a book every time?
“A flat voice. ‘Information dumps,’ too. . . .”
Name [two] things we writers can do to our manuscripts to make your job easier.
“Make your first chapters amazing, both to hook us and help us hook our team. Be sure it’s really ready to submit, which usually means putting it away for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes somewhere in an author’s editing process.”
Editor-author relationships. The standard for Q&A explorations of this critical aspect of writing was established in the Fall 1994 issue of The Paris Review with “The Art of Editing No. 1.” Robert Gottlieb’s stellar editing career has included stints at Simon & Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker. Rather than go one-on-one with interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar, Gottlieb shared the stage with many of the notable writers with whom he worked, among them John le Carré, Robert Caro and Toni Morrison. Here is Morrison on Gottlieb’s art:
“I was an editor myself for a long while. . . .If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good.”
In today’s online environment, slate.com sets the bar high with its occasional author-editor interviews in “The Slate Book Review.” Recent pairings have included author Claire Messud (The Woman Upstairs) and editor Robin Desser (Knopf), short-story master George Saunders (Tenth of December) and Andy Ward (Random House), and novelist Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). Here is a sample from the last:
Tartt: Do you work with all writers the way you work with me? (Which is to say, not really commenting until you have the whole manuscript in hand.) Or is it different with different writers?
Pietsch: . . .Every edit is different. Some writers like to show a chapter at a time or even individual scenes, as they go, for comment; I’ve worked with writers who wanted to read a passage over the phone just after they completed it. Others want to write in total privacy, not revealing a single thing until it’s finished. Sometimes editing consists primarily of a letter asking questions about plot elements, or about pacing, or character, and sometimes it’s entirely line-by-line comments on language. . . .Editing is only useful if the writer finds it to be. And some writers really don’t want an editor’s help at all. Martin Amis told me once that he’d rather have his own mistakes than an editor’s fixes—an opinion that any writer is entitled to!
Tartt: I’m with Martin Amis on that. I’d always rather stand or fall on my own mistakes. There’s nothing worse than looking back, in a published book, at a line edit or a copy edit that you felt queasy about and didn’t want to take, but took anyway.
Editor biography & memoirs. Want to read more about editing and editors? Begin with Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg’s monumental 1978 biography of the remarkable shepherd of many great 20th century writers at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Perkins guided F. Scott Fitzgerald through The Great Gatsby, cleared the way against in-house objections to profane language in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, convinced Thomas Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, helped pave the way for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved County, and steered first-time novelist James Jones away from one work-in-progress to the beginnings of From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award after Perkins had died.
Michael Korda—a successful author of a diverse collection of nonfiction books including, most recently, a biography of Lawrence of Arabia—told the story of his many years as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (1999). Korda edited as diverse a list of authors as you can imagine, from Larry McMurtry to David McCullough to Jacqueline Susann to Ronald Reagan. Another Life is entertaining as well as informative about editing and publishing.
Finally, check out Daniel Menaker’s recent memoir My Mistake (2013). Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker, principally but not exclusively working on fiction, before moving into book editing at Random House. His book weaves the story of his career with his moving personal story about him and his brother. On pages 110 and 111 of My Mistake, he reprints the first two sentences of the original manuscript of a New Yorker book review by the renowned psychoanalyst Robert Coles, followed by the version that appeared in the magazine. The excerpts are an object lesson in the editor’s role in the clarification of prose. Menaker allows that it is “an example of the heavy work that editors sometimes had to do.” You get the sense that he wishes he did not have to wield so detailed a blue pencil.
In an online interview he did with the “Barnes and Noble Review” in December 2013, Menaker spoke of how his own memoir benefitted from being edited by others:
“What they did—what a good editor does—is make your text the way you really would have wanted it to be if you had been doing it on your most disciplined, best day.”
We should all be so lucky to work with editors who do that to our writing.—Alex McNab
March 26 Update: At the millions.com, Edan Lepuki at has just posted a new interview with her acquiring editor at Little, Brown, Allie Sommer. Check it out. It’s a fine bookend to the conversation with Lepuki’s copyeditor cited above. Here’s an excerpt of Sommer’s words—AMcN:
“My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. . . .It all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.”