My Love Affair with Editing
By Eric Olsen
I’d been writing for magazines for many years—writing anything that might bring in a buck or two—when a fellow who was familiar with my work offered me a job as an editor. He was a bit “old school,” I suppose, in that he assumed that any writer who could write with a certain level of competence—meaning that I could write roughly to assigned length without too many misspellings or grammatical errors, and generally could meet a deadline—would also be a good editor, or good enough.
At first, I wasn’t so sure, but I took the job and I can tell you this: I’d been an editor for, oh, maybe 15 minutes, when I realized I loved it. In fact, I swore I’d never go back to writing, an oath I would break eventually, but for a time I did throw myself completely into my new role as editor.
My love affair with editing derived from two facts that quickly became obvious to me:
First, editing is a whole lot easier than writing. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to stare at a blank page all day and try to make something from nothing and organize a bunch of facts into a narrative that makes sense and is accurate and maybe even a little entertaining, and do it all on time and to length; editors get pages that are already full of words and facts and all that, and all they have to do is make them better. How hard can it be?
And, two, editors have all the power. The writer does all the work, and the editor decides if he gets paid or not. Oh how I loved that power.
It was only a bit later that I began to realize that with the power come responsibilities, one of which is to not be an asshole. I also realized that with power there seems to be a natural, perhaps inevitable tendency to become just what you swore you wouldn’t….
When I was writing, I generally enjoyed the process of being edited, because a good editor (i.e., not an asshole) could always make some improvements, catching things I might have missed because I was too close to the work, because I was writing on a tight deadline and didn’t have the luxury of setting the piece aside and coming back to it later with fresh eyes. Generally, these were the editors who viewed editing as a sort of collaboration with the writer. Together, writer and editor would produce a work that neither could have produced alone. And because an editor’s name doesn’t go on the finished piece, a good editor’s work is even a little selfless, and ultimately benefits the writer, whose name is on it. The writer gets a payday, for one thing, and since the writer’s work is perhaps a bit better thanks to his collaboration with a good editor, the writer’s career might benefit as well, in the form of another assignment and maybe even another payday.
Some editors, alas, are assholes. They let their power go to their heads. These are the guys—almost always guys, come to think of it—who view editing as a means to declaring their dominance as the Alpha Male within the pack. They’re the type who’ll write “No!!!” in the margin and then let the writer figure out what that’s supposed to mean, and the piece is due that afternoon and gosh, the editor’s out to a two-hour lunch and unavailable to elaborate. And while this editor’s name won’t go on the finished piece, this sort has a knack for somehow letting everyone who matters know that if it weren’t for him, that miserable piece of crap would have ended up in the shredder. At least if I wrote “No” in the margin, I’d leave off the exclamation points and then I’d attach a memo offering an explanation and maybe some suggested ways to revise. I rarely wrote “No” in any case, preferring a more delicate, “Let me suggest” or “You might consider.”
And the assholes always got the promotions.
When I broke my oath and started writing again—I just couldn’t help myself—I found that my years as an editor, years of close reading and paying attention to every word and trying to understand the writer’s intentions and choices and weigh my understanding against how well these played out on the page, I realized the experience had improved my own writing, tightened it, made it more precise.
Of course, the sort of close attention to every word required of a good edit isn’t always the best thing when you’re simply trying to get some words on the page, any words, a first draft, when the trick is to stuff that pesky internal editor into a back room so you can just let go. But oddly enough, when I went back to writing, thanks to my years as an editor, I felt more in control of the tools of the trade, the words and how they go together, and in an odd way it freed my writing, made it a little more natural, more me. As long as I could keep that pesky internal editor quiet until needed.
Which brings me now to book reviewing.
Recently, my friend Don Wallace sent me the link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Arthur Krystal titled “Should Writers Reply to Reviewers,” which got me to thinking about editing as it relates to reviewing. They have much in common, it occurred to me, and Krystal’s article points to what that similarity is, the fact that just like editing, reviewing requires close and careful reading, and it’s a sort of collaboration with the writer, and when done well, it enhances our entire culture. The critic’s role is to serve literature (and I mean “literature” in the broadest sense). Just like the editor’s.
An honest review, done with care—like good editing—might give the writer some ideas about how to approach the next project. And certainly it can inform the reader and enhance his or her experience with the book. And for writers who write reviews, surely the close reading required to write a good review can only help improve the writer’s own work.
On this last point, consider John Updike, for example. He must have written, what, four million book reviews in his lifetime? Five million? Six? In fact, in Picked-Up Pieces (1975), a collection of essays, Updike offers some rules for reviewers—he ought to know, huh?—that get at this idea of the book review as a collaborative process (some of which rules could just as well apply to editing):
1) Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2) Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3) Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4) Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5) If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
[from “Among the Reviewers” by Wyatt Mason, Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 2007]
There have been a lot of articles lately about the sorry state of editing—I’ve even committed one myself—and as many if not more articles of late about the sorry state of book reviews: what good are they, do we need them, and if we do, what is a good review, should reviewers be mean, and so on.
But then that debate has been going on for decades. In 1928, Edmund Wilson wrote: “When one considers the number of reviews, the immense amount of literary journalism that is now being published in New York, one asks oneself how it is possible for our reviewing to remain so puerile.”
And Wilson, remember, was writing about a time before the Internet….
More on this to come.