The Importance of Thoughtful Editing (Or: Why I Tear Apart Manuscripts Like a Rabid Dog)

I don’t actually do this.

Throughout June, I edited the first draft of a novel for a friend of a friend. He was a first-time writer and I was the first person to read his 600+ page novel. Though I’d never edited a novel before, my creative writing classes and current position here at The Missouri Review convinced him I was up for the task. When we first met, the author asked me if I was a tough editor, and I told him yes.

“That’s good,” he said. “I don’t want you to go easy on me. I want you to be honest.”

“Okay,” I told him. “I’ll tear it apart.”

“Tearing apart” is the nickname I have for my editing style. To define tearing apart: when the constructive criticism for a piece of writing purposefully outweighs the praise. If I’m tearing apart a manuscript, I won’t return the document to the writer until I’ve filled all the margins with notes. Although I always make sure to highlight great moments in whatever I’m reading, I relentlessly search for weak moments. I nit-pick over word choice, circle unimpressive images, cross out irrelevant sentences, and engage the writer in my notes by asking questions about the story as I go. In general, I won’t stop editing until the manuscript is covered in colored ink.

Often, when I return a document and the writer sees my edits, they look like a truck just backed over their foot. Their gut instinct, always, is that my edits are solely negative and that I hated their writing. Once the writer reads my actual comments and realizes that I didn’t write “YOU SUCK” in the margins, they don’t seem quite so pained. In the case of the author whose novel I edited, when I met with him a week ago I gave him a three page outline addressing the main issues he needs to fix in his final draft, then discussed these issues at length for two hours. By the end, he said, “Honestly, I thought you were going to be meaner.” The fact that he felt this way, even after I suggested he cut entire chapters from the novel, illustrates the benefits of tearing apart a manuscript. Even though I recommended major cuts, I offered so many suggestions for revision that the author didn’t feel stunted. Most importantly, the amount of detail and attention I gave to each page proved that I cared about his writing. He trusted my opinion because he knew I cared.

Undoubtedly, there are professional editors, professors, and even fellow students, who edit the same way I do. This “tear it apart” idea is not unique to me, and probably carries many other snazzy names. However, during the three undergraduate writing workshops I’ve had, no one has ever torn one of my short stories apart. Yes, I received plenty of positive and negative feedback for each story. But no one ever handed me back a story covered in elaborate edits and said, “This is all right, but it’s not great yet. Let’s work on making it great.” This isn’t because I’m a talented writer. Rather, it’s because no one will look me in the eye and bluntly tell me what’s holding my story back from reaching its full potential.

While I’ve encountered many helpful fellow students in my past workshops, every workshop inevitably contains at least one person from the following two groups: the Cheerleaders and the Naysayers. The Cheerleaders focus on the positive aspects of a story either because a) they aren’t experienced enough to recognize the weak points in a story, or b) they don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings with negative comments. The Naysayers, however, are writers who either a) can’t intelligently articulate their negative thoughts apart from saying, “I don’t know, this just fell flat,” or b) won’t offer thoughtful criticism because they think the story is simply a hopeless case. Whether it’s through overly positive or overly negative feedback, Cheerleaders and Naysayers produce the same result: vague, useless editing.

With my own work, historically, the Cheerleaders compliment the details or the overall tone of the piece. The Naysayers sometimes argue that the description is overwhelming. I’m quick to tune out the fluff and the snide remarks, and once the workshop ends I gather everyone’s notes in a pile and put them away with the draft. It’s not until months later, when I pull out the same story for a final edit and read with a more detached gaze, that I always notice the mistakes no one brought up during workshop: shaky plot points, wandering thematic elements, and too-neat dialogue. These are the kinds of mistakes that become more apparent during a second read-through or, arguably, a slow tear-it-apart first read. In these moments, I wonder if the Cheerleaders and Naysayers (as well as my uncategorized peers) actually felt my writing was great – or if they all suspected my story was a hopeless case, and were just too polite or lazy to tell me so.

This kind of bad attitude, this need to privately dismiss our peers’ imperfect first drafts, is what leads to poor editing in workshops, which eventually manifests itself into unexceptional writing. It’s true that only a handful of the writers in my past workshops will ever see their work published in a prestigious journal. It’s true that many of us will never finish writing a novel, much less see it in print. It’s true that most of us received an A for effort, regardless of whether our writing was flawed or flawless. But to dismiss any individual work as a hopeless case is nothing short of unfair. No piece of writing is a hopeless case. If an editor reads closely and analyzes the details, tears it apart page by page, he or she can always help lead the writer to a more fulfilling final draft. It’s not just about finding mistakes. It’s about investing the time and energy to show the writer that you believe in their work. Even if it means using a lot of ink.

Against Humiliation

The time it takes to edit and design and get writing into print might shock you. I’m at the end of that cycle right now with the summer issue (the theme is “Reinvention”; the issue includes first fiction by Bart Skarzynski—whose first essay we also published—an essay review on wrongful-conviction literature by Steve Weinberg, more fiction by Rose Whitmore, Daniel A. Hoyt and Leslie Parry, nonfiction by Jim Dameron, May-lee Chai  and Aaron Gwyn, poetry by Dan O’Brien, Andrea O’Rourke and Kimberly Johnson and a Found-Text feature on jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. I think that’s about everything).

The first stage, the editing part, is gratifying. This last stage is not so fun, but it’s a necessity. With our spring issue, a glitch in In-Design left me struggling to collate various versions of page proofs that all had the same page number (179). This might not sound too bad, but it was. You’d think the different text on each page would be a sufficient marker—but, not so. I’d get everything in order, ready to check marked-up copy against corrected copy. Immediately, I was lost. I became grateful for page numbers other than 179. I didn’t know I liked page numbers so much, but I’ve realized I do. They are as valuable a printing convention as paragraphs, capitals and end punctuation. Readers don’t think about things like that unless they’re not there, but if they are missing, some readers become incensed. Browse book reviews on Amazon if you need proof. (Also, if you teach creative writing, reviews of any product on Amazon are a great writing prompt.)

The recent embarrassment for Barnes and Noble over its Nook e-book version of War and Peace—in which every appearance of the word “kindle” had inadvertently been replaced with the word Nook—reminds me that this not-so-creative stage is important, if only to keep people from laughing or getting mad at some humiliating oversight that undermines all the other work we’ve done on the issue.

In off-duty hours, to take away the edge I acquire checking proofs, I’ve been reading in a shamelessly unsystematic way. Last night I read two thirds of the book of Malachi and the accompanying scholarly commentary and then got sidetracked reading selections by W.H. Auden from the Norton Anthology that is currently on my nightstand with some other very eclectic things: Tranströmer and a history of the English language. These books are all impeccably edited. I have not found any errors in them. I notice errors, though I wouldn’t trash a book for poor copy editing unless it was unbearably poor. For other reasons, maybe.

Then I settled into The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It seemed a good fit, since my right brain has lately mandated that I work on a story about dissociative identity disorder, gender and the scary Old-Testament apocalypse, the book of Daniel.


Interpreting the "Not Quites"


Over the years we’ve occasionally had writers who took offense at being rejected by TMR. Some never submitted again. What more often happens is that after three or four tries here, a writer stops submitting on the grounds that we must not like their work.  Others hang in there and keep sending, up to twenty, thirty or more times. This year, both Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize winners in prose have, in the past, come right up to the brink of being published in TMR and then been let down.  For at least six years I’ve been reading work by Anna Solomon, our fiction winner, inviting her to send revisions in a couple of instances—and yet we’ve finally said no, until now. John Hales, the nonfiction winner, has been faithfully sending us near misses for probably fifteen years, perhaps more.  Patience and a degree of forgiveness of our past rejections has paid off this year for both of them.

“Blog about some manuscripts that came close recently that you almost accepted but didn’t,” someone suggested. People want to know why their manuscripts were rejected.”

I know they do.  So do I.

Experience tells me, though, that the reasons a capable manuscript is rejected may be difficult to articulate.  “Not quite” is a euphemism for a lot of serious problems.  But it can also mean precisely “not quite.”

Here are some of the problems with pieces that crossed my desk in the past week.  These were pieces that had been looked at and passed along by more than just one or two readers:

I saw—we often see—a couple of pieces with great verbal dexterity—marvelous lines but not much emotional impact. High concept that fails to engage readers’ sympathy is a related problem, and we saw that.

In one concept-driven story we read, the conceit was outright silly, though the writing was nice, and the writer had obviously worked hard. Also, characters who don’t feel or behave in plausible ways are everywhere.  Readers respond to characters based on their own individual experience, so this is partly a matter of familiarity and opinion; but if more than a couple of us have the same reaction, then the problem is really there. Unfortunately, it’s common.

Finally, several pieces were imitating current or recent trends or writers: one in collective voice, one with footnotes that made up quite a bit of the story.

Writing is hard, and none of the “misses” I’ve mentioned were terrible.  They just weren’t working, not for the TMR editors, right now. If there were a magic formula for immunity to literary rejection, I’d be selling it online.  Read, write, revise, submit, try again.  There it is.

Evelyn Somers is the assistant editor of The Missouri Review.

Jane Austen gets the Raymond Carver treatment?


Interesting news from the Telegraph: “Jane Austen’s famous prose may not be hers after all.”

Prof Kathryn Sutherland said analysis of Austen’s handwritten letters and manuscripts reveal that her finished novels owed as much to the intervention of her editor as to the genius of the author.


“The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing.

“This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book,” Prof Sutherland said.

Prof. Sutherland proposes that one William Gifford was this very editor, Austen’s own Gordon Lish.

At The Missouri Review, we take literary editing very seriously, and our senior staff have many personal anecdotes of the very forms of magic they’ve seen editors work that transform good stories into great stories. But our conception of authorship still looks askance at the editor. I had a writing professor who was became nearly to apoplectic when describing how he felt Gordon Lish had exerted his editorial tyranny over Raymond Carver — and it is hard not to feel a stab of pain when one reads of Carver’s plea to Lish to stop cutting his drafts by as much as 70%. As yet, it doesn’t appear that Austen’s relationship with Gifford was anything near as fraught, but I expect idea of Gifford’s possible role in shaping the “voice” of Austen is deeply troubling to many Austen fans.

So what do you think about authors and editors? Is an author diminished by being the recipient of an editor’s polishing blue pencil? Are editors the writer’s friend or foe?

The Tip of the Iceberg and What Lies Beneath

About rewriting and editing the American playwright Tennessee Williams said, “You have to murder all your little darlin’s.” It’s been known for several decades that the editor Gordon Lish did more than slay a few precious lines in Raymond Carver’s 1981 story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In fact, it is clearly illustrated in Lish’s papers at the Lily Library at Indiana University that the editor cut apart, rearranged, and re-titled much of the collection. Lish claimed to have rewritten the endings of ten of the thirteen stories, even bragging that he changed the stories so much that they were “more his than Carver’s.” Lish was what Charles McGrath called in a recent New York Times article “a macro editor, ruthless and aggressive.”

Despite the collection’s critical success (it was a break-out book for Carver), the Carver/Lish “collaboration” lead to some hard feelings. Embarrassed, resentful and fearing for his reputation, Carver eventually severed professional ties with Lish. Before his death in 1988 at 50, he restored and republished in magazines such classics as “So Much Water So Close to Home” and “A Small, Good Thing.”

Now almost twenty years later, Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher hopes to pick up where her husband left off. She wants to reinstate what was sacrificed in the name of minimalism by publishing the 1981 collection in its original, un-Lished version.

It is understandable that Gallagher might want to unhitch her husband’s legacy from Lish’s wagon. Looking back, much of the work Lish edited in the 80s for the now defunct literary magazine Quarterly was suffused with the same sense of modern malaise and straight-jacketed by minimalist technique. In the late 80s and early 90s, creative writing students were swept up in the trend. Too many writing workshop stories adopted the formula: loaded dialogue, an obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to blur distinctions between characters, abrupt beginnings and endings, and a deterministic, and at time nihilistic world view. As Carver’s life got better and he shook off feelings of loneliness and alienation, his fiction became more optimistic with moments of redemption. And it seems natural that fuller, more generously written stories should better allow these changes in the author.

Gallagher’s project is not without its critics. Carver’s last editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, made his disfavor clear in the New York Times: “I would rather dig Ray Carver out of the ground.” He sees Gallagher’s project as an attempt to rewrite history. For now she seems in for a fight with Knopf who declined to publish it and would consider it illegal if another publisher picked it up.

In fiction writing classes, I have taught both Lish’s minimalist and Carver’s restored maximalist version of “So Much Water.” The story’s rich and perplexing central conflict easily warrants two different stylistic approaches—the tip of the iceberg and what lies beneath. Looked at together, the differences are instructive. I’d guess that the same is true of the stories Gallagher wants to make available.