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Archive for the ‘Great Editors’ Category

It’s odd to think of a time when words did not have standardized meanings, when such things as dictionaries did not exist.

profIn fact, of course, there was such a time. In his book The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), Simon Winchester reminds us that Shakespeare had no way to check spelling of words or variances of meaning since standardization did not exist. He could not “look something up.” The concept did not even exist.

While a few men in the early centuries tried to build what would be called early dictionaries (including Samuel Johnson in 1755), these trials would be eclipsed by the proposal in 1857 for a “big dictionary” that was to be an “inventory of the language.” This proposed dictionary would be “the history of the life span of each and every word” that appeared in the English language (104). This dictionary would chart the life of each word, recording its first mention in literature, then subsequent usages, “for every word, a passage quoted from literature that showed where each word was used first” (105). It would then show how the meanings of the word changed across the years — in some cases, across the centuries.

After some fits and starts and times when the very idea of this task seemed impossible (no computers!), Professor James A. H. Murray of the London Public School Mill Hill and member of the London Philological Society was chosen to take on the task of editor and find a way to complete the work. After getting Oxford Publishers on board, the project continued in earnest in 1879.

Murray’s first step was to recruit an army of English-speaking volunteers who would read books and gather words and quotations. The call for volunteers went out in flyers across Great Britain, the British colonies, and America. As people volunteered, Murray mailed them the following, which amounts to a style sheet of guidelines for these researchers:

The quotations, said the editor’s first page, were to be written on half sheets of writing paper. The target word — the “catchword,” as Murray liked to call it — was to be written at the top left. The crucial date of the quotation should be written just below it, then the name of the author and title of the cited book, the page number, and finally, the full text of the sentence being quoted. …

Murray’s rules were clear and unambiguous: Every word was a possible catchword. Volunteers should try to find a quotation for each and every word in a book. They should perhaps concentrate their efforts on words that struck them as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way, but they should also look assiduously for ordinary words as well, providing that the sentence that included it said something about the use or meaning of the word. (134-35)

The volunteers began working — sending their slips of paper by the thousands every day. A first editor read to see if the slip was legible and had all the required elements; a second editor sorted the slips into alphabetical order. A third editor then divided the words into parts of speech (the same word being used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc.). A fourth editor began to “subdivide the meanings into the various shades it had enjoyed over its life [and] . . . make a first stab at writing that most crucial feature of most dictionaries — the definition” (151). The plan was to have “at least one sentence from the literature of each century in which the word was used” (152). Murray did the final edits of the definition, chose the best quotations, and determined the word’s pronunciation.

These new dictionaries were published alphabetically in sets. Portions of A – B appeared in 1885; another portion of B in 1887; the book comprising the letter C appeared in 1897 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria in her jubilee year.

The Oxford English Dictionary was officially completed in 1928, taking 70 years, resulting in 12 volumes with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Sadly, Murray died in 1915 and did not live to see the completion of the work to which he gave so much of his life — practically living in the Scriptorium at Oxford University, placing slips of paper into over a thousand pigeonholes on banks of shelves specially built to sort words. A supplement was published in 1933, and four supplements came out between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, the computer aided in creating a second edition of the OED.

The OED website now boasts “over 600,000 words over a thousand years.” The “big dictionary” is now updated on a quarterly basis, revising existing entries and adding new words and senses of words.

Current principal editor of new words, David Martin, explains that 600 new words have been added in the latest update — new words and phrases such as crowd-surfer, Debbie Downer, facepalm, hashtag (as a verb), and TGIF.

And just who was the madman in the title of Winchester’s book? He was one of the most prolific of Murray’s word-seeking volunteers. You’ll want to read the book for all of those details!

In the meantime, grab the nearest dictionary — you probably don’t own an OED, but you probably have a dictionary of some sort. Revel in the plethora of information therein about every single word.

And be thankful for this great editor James Murray and the thousands of little slips of paper that got the whole thing started.

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She went shopping with Amy Tan and Amy’s mother in Manhattan. She loved bargains, just as Amy does. When it came to finding the cheap deal, she and Amy were joined at the hip.

Her name was Faith Sale and she was Amy’s editor—the one who first saw the potential in a young business writer who began to write novels as a creative release from the doldrums of writing for corporate executives. Sale said in an interview that finding the novel about Chinese mothers and American-raised Chinese daughters was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Before she passed away in 1999, Sale had an editing career that spanned four decades, working with, in addition to Amy Tan, authors such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, and Joseph Heller.

In her autobiography, The Opposite of FateAmy described her relationship with Faith this way:

Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. (63)

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, hit The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for several months, winning both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award.

joy luckI appreciate that Sale paid her dues—working her way up through the levels of editing as she moved to various publishing companies. Beginning as a secretary at Knopf, she moved on to Lippincott in 1959 where she was an editorial assistant, then moved up to assistant editor. In 1963, she moved over to Macmillan as associate editor. After living out of the country briefly, she did freelance work upon her return—working for publishing companies, literary agents, and authors. In 1977, she was named senior editor at E. P. Dutton, and then joined Putnam where she was vice president and senior executive editor.

In an essay she wrote for Editors on EditingSale emoted about her love of being an editor. She saw good writing as “the highest form of art” (268), and she knew that she wasn’t someone who could accomplish it. Like Maxwell Perkins, she had no visions of being a writer; she was an editor through and through. She saw herself in service of the art by helping the writers.

What I try to be for an author is the smartest, most sympathetic reader of the manuscript. . . . This means I must earn the author’s trust, make the author feel comfortable with me and my perceptions. . . .

When I’m hooked, I’m unshakably committed for the long haul, regardless of obstacles. But I can’t fake it: my devotion to fiction is born more out of instinct than intellect, based more on emotional response than calculated judgment. The moment of connection is the moment I become a book’s (or an author’s) advocate—its nurturer, defender, supporter, mouthpiece, bodyguard. . . .

Having made the decision to take a book on, I must figure out how to convey to the author what I think could or should be done to make the book the best it can be. It never is—because I think it never should be—making the book into anything other than what the author has envisioned. In my role of the author’s best reader . . . what I mean to do is help the author to realize the author’s intention. (269)

She saw the editorial process as organic, working back and forth with the author, with both trying to take the raw manuscript, deepen and enrich what exists, sharpening the book and the plot arc and the characters. Then she shepherded the manuscript through copyediting, answering questions the copy editor may have that she knew she could answer on behalf of the author, discussing with the author if she didn’t. She wanted to “make sure that nothing is being done to harm the work in any way. I also look over the proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian. And I follow along through the further stages of production so that neither the author nor I will discover any surprises in the printed book” (271-72).

A good editor doesn’t stop when the book gets sent to copyediting and then to proofreading. There has been so much communication with the author that the editor knows the book through and through. Authors may want particular things that go against the rules of grammar—and a copyeditor may make changes that the author would not want. The editor will know this . . . and keep it from happening.

Great editors know that the book belongs to the author, and they fight for it every step of the way. Faith Sale understood that. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy adds this:

[Sale] was . . . wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt. (64)

Confidence and a kick in the butt. And bargain shopping. Sounds like a perfect match.

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Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.

So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.

harriet

I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”

“Why?”

“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”

After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?

Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.

geniusI learned about Ursula Nordstrom by reading a book of her letters: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998). She was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is considered the Maxwell Perkins of children’s publishing; in other words, as Perkins was willing to take a risk with an author, spot talent, and then coddle that author along by way of encouraging letters, Nordstrom did the same but with children’s books. If not for Nordstrom, we might never have seen books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).

The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)

Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.

charlotteWhile I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!

Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.

I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.

Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.

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to killYou’ve probably never heard her name–I hadn’t until last night when watching a TV special about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and her unknown and previously unpublished second book titled Go Set a Watchman.

The editor’s name was mentioned in passing, and I asked my husband to pause, replay, and help me catch it. Tay Hohoff is described in a blog post by Clarissa Atkinson, a fellow employee at J. B. Lippincott, as a “respected editor” and a “challenging presence.”

Ms. Atkinson goes on in another post to describe the To Kill a Mockingbird years at the publishing house:

J.B. Lippincott . . . was a family-owned Philadelphia firm, old-fashioned even in the 1950s.  I worked in the branch office at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street – an editorial office, in which the New York tail wagged the Philadelphia dog. My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend (more or less substantiated by Wikipedia), Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.

Is anyone surprised by this “faithful support and encouragement” from an editor? Not me.

We’ve all heard the story by now. How friends of Harper Lee’s gave her a year’s worth of pay and told her to just go write for that year. The result was this astounding book published in 1960 that was an instant classic and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. 

And those of us who write wonder how in the world this writer crafted one book (well, now we know of two) that had this kind of success. We can only dream of that.

I think it has much to do with her upbringing–her father was a well-respected lawyer in her small hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in the deep South in the days before the Civil Rights movement. She touched a nerve by taking on the topic of racism and showing what it takes to stand up for what’s right.

Still, she also had a good editor who helped to shape the book into something readable. In 2010, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Newsweek ran an article titled, “Who Helped Harper Lee with Mockingbird?” that discusses Tay Hohoff’s role in the book:

Lee had dropped out of college during her senior year to move to New York to become a writerto the dismay of her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer. She spent nearly a decade doing odd jobs and scraping by before she submitted five stories to a Maurice Crain, an agent who, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed. But he and his wife liked Lee, and he encouraged her to try a novel. The result, then called Atticus, was a mess. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance—but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.

It’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?

That’s the role of a great editor. Sending a writer back to keep rewriting. Being there when the writer is facing a brick wall and muddled pages. Making sure the pages tossed out the window get gathered up and worked on because the editor sees something that maybe even the author can’t yet see.

ADDENDUM 7/14/15: Reviews of Go Set a Watchman are popping up online, and most of them are not kind. This one, in particular, gives credit to Tay Hohoff for the work she did in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird, a touch clearly missing from this most recent publication. But I disagree with the sentiment that there aren’t editors like that around anymore–there are, and they work very hard to bring diamonds out of the rough.

7/25/15: Excellent commentary from The New York Times. Unfortunately, I do feel that this may have been far more about money than about the writing or the writer.

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On May 12, 2015, the writing world lost a great encourager, teacher, and mentor. At age 92, William Zinsser passed away. Author of the book that is (or should be) on the shelf of every writer and editor, On Writing Well, Zinsser left a legacy of helping people learn how to put words together. On Writing Well was first published in 1976 and has gone through seven editions as Zinsser updated it to take into account new technologies.

on writing well

The focus of the book is writing nonfiction, but the principles of good writing span all genres. Simplicity, economy of words, style, usage, voice, and understanding one’s audience are important for every type of writing–from the business email to the fantasy novel.

Zinsser spent his career writing and teaching writing. During the 1950s, he wrote editorials and features for the New York Herald Tribune. In the 1960s, he was a freelancer, writing for the likes of Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and Sports Illustrated. The 1970s saw him at Yale University teaching nonfiction writing and humor writing. In the 1980s, he worked as editor of the Book-of-the-Month club, a mail-order book sales club that operated from 1926-2014. The remainder of his life he continued freelancing, writing eighteen books, and (of all things) playing jazz piano!

But he’ll be most remembered and loved for what he did for helping writers understand their craft.

Referring to writing, Zinsser wrote:

There isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say to the right method for you. . . . All [writers] are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write about what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write.

So Zinsser set out to help writers not be stiff, but instead to be able to truly commit acts of literature. I love that! But he also encourages:

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. . . .  Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.

It’s not an easy life–this writing life. Those of you who have chosen to live your life with words–reading them, studying them, marveling at them, talking about them, writing them–you know this all too well.

But it’s that moment when it all comes together, when we have written well, when we have committed an act of literature–it’s that moment that makes it all worthwhile.

Thank you, William Zinsser, for your encouragement.

 

 

 

 

 

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I love this book and was so excited when I found it a few years ago. I go to it often and read excerpts to my editing class. Betsy Lerner created a product that helps writers understand editors and vice versa. Titled The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Putnam, 2000, updated 2010), the first section of this book describes some general types of writers, and the second section peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. Lerner knows wherof she speaks having been an editor for fifteen years before becoming an agent. forest She says, “This book is about what I’ve seen and what I know. I wrote it to help writers achieve or get closer to their goals. At the very least, I hope that in contemplating your life as a writer you may get some perspective on your work and in gaining that perspective, see the forest for the trees” (9).

I teach my students that, as editors, they are working in tandem with authors–Betsy describes it as an intricate dance.  The manuscript arrives on the editor’s desk. The editor will close the office door (or bring the manuscript home where she won’t be interrupted, she hopes) and sit back to read through the entire manuscript–either electronically or on hard copy. The scary red pen may be wielded–perhaps on the manuscript itself but certainly on a nearby notepad. She’s taking notes about first impressions–what’s working and what isn’t, what’s clear and what isn’t, when the pacing seems slow or a character seems out of place. She’s not correcting grammar or sentences; she’s seeing if the book in its entirety works.

The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin, this is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare you from hitting your reader over the head as if your point were a two-by-four. (194)

A good editor is careful. She needs to explain her point clearly and she needs to be respectful of the author. She knows that it’s never easy for an author to finally turn in a completed manuscript only to have it come back covered in comments and suggestions.

Editing is a science and an art. There is a basic architecture to every book, and if the author has a wobbly narrative leg or an insufficient thesis to stand on, the editor must find the blueprint or create one. What an editor learns as she gains experience is that while no two manuscripts are exactly alike, certain predictable patterns crop up, and as with math problems, the more experience you have, the more readily the solutions appear. (196)

I tell my students that, while they may see the problem in the manuscript clearly, they need to be careful and kind when making the suggestions. The best editors build trust with their authors by giving positive as well as negative feedback. They need to be respectful of the words (most of my students, writers themselves, understand that). In short, they need to be good dance partners. But then, so does the author. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with an editor, trust that person. Yes, it’s still your book, but the editor is going to be your very best reader. No one else is going to read your book with the same attention and care. Let your editor help you, as Betsy Lerner so aptly explains, “see the forest for the trees.”

Tell me about your experiences with editors. How have they helped your manuscript improve?

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I just finished reading Sol Stein’s excellent book, Stein on Writing–A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and StrategiesI found myself marking passage after passage, “This will be great to teach my students in my feature article writing class,” or “Wow, that’s a real encouragement to me,” or “I never thought of it that way before.”

Born in 1926 and now 88 years old, Sol Stein founded the book publishing firm of Stein and Day in 1962 which operated until 1989. During his tenure there, according to his website, Stein “edited and published some of the outstanding writers of the 20th century, including James Baldwin, David Frost, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan, Dylan Thomas, Lionel Trilling, W. H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and three heads of state.”

Describing his editing of Elia Kazan, Stein says,

The author I have spent more time editing than any other is Elia Kazan, winner of two Academy Awards and director of five Pulitzer Prize Stein on Writingplays who turned to fiction and became a number-one bestselling novelist. In his autobiography Kazan said, “I was now in a new profession. My publisher Sol Stein was my producer, and my editor Sol Stein was my director. . . . He saw quickly . . . that I delighted in saying the same thing over and over, thereby minimizing its impact (‘One plus one equals a half,” Sol would say’).” (205)

Throughout this book, Stein offers advice to writers of both fiction and nonfiction on the basics of plot, pacing, dialog, characterization, and just plain how to be a better writer and get noticed by editors. To flesh out the concepts he teaches, Stein uses anecdotes from his editing of great writers and from working with students in his classrooms. Speaking of his advice to Kazan:

Eliminating redundance was an important factor in [Kazan’s] novel The Arrangement remaining number one on the bestseller charts for thirty-seven consecutive weeks. . . . Catching “one-plus-ones” is a function of what is called “line editing.” Shouldn’t writers rely on editors to catch things like that? The hard fact is that editors do a lot less line editing than they used to. If a novel requires a lot of line editing, it is less likely to be taken on by a publisher, who has to consider the cost of editing. Which is why it is incumbent upon writers to become, in effect, their own editors. (205-206)

I know, I know. You want to be a writer. And I do know how difficult it is to see the forest for the trees. And, yes, you do indeed need readers in a critique group, you need editors and copyeditors who will see things that completely escape you. But here’s the deal. Write that article or essay or book and then let it simmer for awhile. Go away from it. Let others read it. Reread it yourself–slowly, carefully, out loud. If you’re fortunate enough to get published, editors and copyeditors will still bleed red ink all over it (or at least Microsoft Word comments), but it won’t be because you didn’t do your job.

Stein continues:

The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. The writer, professional or not, looks forward to the opportunity of excising words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters that do not work and to improving those that do. Many a would-be writer thinks whatever he puts down on paper is by that act somehow indelible. . . .

Judith Applebaum quotes Hemingway as saying to an interviewer, “I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Asked what stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”

Of the most successful authors I have worked with, I can think of only one who fiercely resisted revising. . . .Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur. (277)

Sure, we all want to be published. Sure, we’re in a hurry to get our words out into the world. But let’s make that writing, when published, something of which we can be proud.

Like Hemingway, let’s take our time getting the words right.

 

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