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Just Remember What I Told You The Day I Set You Free

Sometimes editing a book is a ratfuck. You keep chasing something through a maze that no longer leads anywhere. It’s a sand trap. The canary’s last song in a forsaken mine.  And sometimes editing a book is like making love to an ordinary woman or  doing algebra. No one ever tells you how slow it is, how 5-10 pages an hour is a clip. Like therapy or sex: are you even doing it right? What goes on behind closed doors? It’s about attention. It’s about asking every question. It’s about having a feel for the fabric. It requires an innate sense of structure, an eye for the telling detail, a finely tuned sense of syntax, tense, rhythm. I think being an editor is most like being a tailor.  Take it in, move the button, hem the sleeve. How handsome you look in the mirror. How trim.

Editing: art or science?

43 Responses

  1. There was, reputedly, a relatively famous early Australian author who used to write standing up at a bench, in pencil, and with butcher’s paper.

    He would throw the papers on the floor and his assistant would collect the papers, edit and re-write. Over time, people started to wonder if the books were not mostly written by his assistant.

    And I’m sure a good editor, even now, has more than a modest role in successful book creation.

    An early publisher of a non-fiction book of mine did no editing whatsoever. In a second edition with a new publisher, an editor showed up and I wondered what hit me. Worth every cent though.

  2. Intuitive (which is to say neither art nor science….).

  3. I knew a writer who fired their editor of many years, and when he got a new one, the writing was VERY different, and not nearly as good. I felt cheated.

    Art or science? Well, as an editor you have to have a knowledge of what proper English is, and a feel for what good writing is, so I’d say it’s both. Even an unlettered person can tell a compelling story, but you still need an editor to make it accessible to the rest of us.

  4. I think it’s art, because it just comes down to taste.
    I like books that meander in a certain way. Or that are maybe tighter where other people would want them to be looser. Writing isn’t math or science. Literature shouldn’t be like creating a uniform. Look good, sound good, fit well, but please don’t be formulated. Don’t be write to be generic. What would Hemingway say?

  5. Yes, 5-10 pages an hour is a clip indeed.

    Once in a while I find myself editing under the influence — of a strong mood or style of writing — and that is the worst kind. Or is it? It’s hard to trust instinct when it is subject to change as well.

    I went to listen to Michael Ondaatje a few years back, and he said it took him a few years to edit a book. Five to six years for a book, start to finish. I do think, however, his work reflects that commitment.

  6. Art.

    I think if revising were science we could eventually get it ‘down to a science’ and slap that science like a formula onto any unruly manuscript. And then spend the rest of our lives running around screaming “gloria in excelsis Deo.” But revising can never become an exact science because no two manuscripts are the same. Each needs more and less and something else in different ways — different places, different amounts. The art is in knowing what to change, when and where to make the change. And why? Because it feels right. Sounds right, reads right. There’s the intuition.

  7. I strongly doubt they are mutually exclusive. Without discipline, raw talent has the potential to be squandered.

  8. i’m going to find at least four instances today when i can use RATFUCK. it’s my new favorite.

    as an unpublished novelist who has yet to work w/ a book editor, my own editing here in the house of revisions stopped resembling any form of art or science about 50 pages back. we’re now at batshit (another favorite) crazy. yesterday, my husband caught me red-inking the ingredients on our hershey syrup bottle.

    • Four possibilities for RATFUCK:

      Forgot to put ground coffee in the basket, bleary eyed staring at a cup of hot water. (muttering)

      Car won’t start. (loud repeated useage)

      Computer shuts down. (barely audible)

      Omigod! Who made this huge mess in the kitchen? (exasperated)

      • Driver in next lane decides to claim his wrong of way into your lane, sending a double-treadfull of dirty slush onto your windshield in the process. (loudly and with feeling)

      • there is absolutely something counter-intuitive to dealing with coffee grounds (dry or wet) before getting to have coffee. the number of messes i have made with them is directly proportionate to the number of minutes it is before 7:00 a.m.

      • Tip: Score a Cuisineart whatsit whosit coffeemaker. Set it like an alarm. If you need coffee at 6:30 set it to grind at 6:25.

        (Walk or take the train.)

        (Notebook, the paper or Nepalese nouveau papyrus kind) for a change of pace. I know, I know too slow and unwieldy–just for a day a week.) Use extra parens, forget about them, it’s okay for this draft.

        One person’s mess is another’s quick-n-dirty abstract art.

    • Amy,

      Put down the chocolate syrup and back away from the fridge (so no one gets hurt, silly).

      Several of my authors have found that writing a 6-8 page synopsis works well for getting out of the trees and back into the forest.

      Make your revision work about big things first.


  9. Can the subjective be science?

    I think editing is, or should be, reading on so deep a level that patterns and possible patterns become clear and can be enhanced into something that rings like a bell or swings like a hula hoop.

    What reading is, I couldn’t say.

  10. I’s an art, I think, like painting or poetry, and you edit what suits you. Did I detect an adverb? Heavens!

  11. Religion. I kind of really mean that..Editing -the art and science of it all — requires faith — sometimes an enormous leap of faith at every step along the journey. Vision. And also a belief that -as someone wrote in a good book on writing — books have a soul.

  12. “Editing: art or science?”

    The question could be viewed as presenting a false dichotomy, or at least an implication of an exclusive disjunction, when an inclusive disjunction may be a more accurate understanding of the practical extent of possible or necessary actions across the limited subset of the terms as deployed.

    Or in other words, both.

  13. Art and science are pretty much the same thing! Methodical practice, attention and brilliant flashes when you successfully strike a deal with nature.

  14. Maybe it’s from being married to a biologist, but I’ve honestly come to think of the first draft as art, and the subsequent edits/rewrites as science. That’s not to say there’s no pleasure or inspiration or creativity in the process from that point on, just that I find I can be far more cut-and-dry about my work when I edit.
    (And for those who are wondering, the symbol for the element Edit on the periodic table is WTH. Just learned that this morning.)

  15. Oh, do I love this post! I’ve been editing nonfiction books for 25 years (and managed to get one published myself), and I still find the process mysterious and inordinately satisfying. It’s a combination, I’d say, of intuition and experience, and I love it beyond all accounting because every book is different and has different needs and every author is different (and I grow to love nearly all of them).

    I sometimes start out overwhelmed and blubbering, but then the nature of the problems begins to crystallize and I cram notes every which way on the ms. (hard copy to start, always, then transfer to electronic file, which affords a revealing 2nd edit). I can’t concentrate on the movie because I’m thinking of better chapter titles, a better book title, whether that part at the end of chapter 7 should be in chapter 1.

    And then the glorious editorial letter, an art form in itself when done with equal amounts panache and egolessness, and the grateful author who now adores you. Damn, I’m good, you think, and then move on blubbering to the next ms.

  16. Oh, of course it’s both art and science! You must be able to discern what needs to be trashed, what needs to be finessed, and what needs to be left alone. Once those decisions are made, you need the confidence and skill to cut, massage, and repeat ad nauseum.

  17. I see Dr. Jekyll in the lab, hovering over a series of steaming chapters … I mean, test tubes.

  18. A little of both. Just wish it didn’t feel like I was sprinting on a treadmill while doing it!

  19. This sounds like another of those “feelings or craft” conundrums.

    I’m beginning to think that how a book actually ends up is completely random. Largely dependent upon editor variables like caffeine, traffic, bad sex, good sex, what movie you last saw and how lumpy your oatmeal (or thighs) were when last you paid attention.

    So, neither art nor science as much as existential barometric sensitivity.

  20. I think I might be able to do algebra faster at this point.

  21. I say it’s a gift. Or a curse. Depends on what I’m editing.

  22. Both, but it oscillates constantly for me. Sometimes it’s as much instinct as drive. Sometimes it’s like building something in the dark. I only know I’ve succeeded when the light comes on.

  23. Luck. Editing my own writing, I print it out and suddenly see that the last sentence in the first paragraph belongs at the top. Right on! And what luck, I think, because I didn’t see it the first fifty times I read it.

  24. Analysis with flashes of intuition–pretty much a continuation of the creative process.

  25. Sitting here intimidated to comment because all the others are so well written. I’ll just say…both.

  26. I think it starts as a science, and then, with enough confidence, flair and bravura, becomes art. As @Linda and @josephinecarr said, it’s intuition when it’s at its best, but mere pedantry when it’s at its worst.

    What about the inner editor that writers have to deal with? Is he a scientist, artist, or just plain old Mephistopheles?

    I’m trying to brutalize mine into quiescence by writing 1,000,000 words this year. Simply write him out of existence–it’s working thus far!

  27. I edit others’ work pretty well. And I almost always *enjoy* it. Editing my own work can be a challenge or a pleasure or somewhere in between–depending on about 87 different things, most of which I could not name. Close, deep and wide reading is essential. But so is just the right amount of detachment, as one needs to be ruthless, ruthless I say!

  28. I think that’s the most perfect description I’ve ever read of the act of editing.

  29. I just picked up Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” His third prologue offers the perfect answer to your question.

    “…to write is human, to edit is divine.”

  30. Self-Editing is war with yourself. Battle after battle with whoever the idiot was who wrote that first draft.

  31. Well here I am as usual, late to the party, but couldn’t not comment on this one. My favorite comment I ever got was from a writer I fought with about everything (jacket, publicity and marketing plans, etc) except the editing. I told him we were like a couple who had great sex but couldn’t get along together outside of bed (MY favorite comment I’ve ever made about the author-editor relationship). On another occasion he said, ‘It’s a weird thing you do – you’re like a mechanic who can figure out exactly why it’s knocking under the hood.” I still like that analogy best and I took it as high praise.

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