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March 10, 2008

Editors, Editing and Me

Real writers, meaning book writers, seem by and large to get along with their editors, unless the editors are particularly egregious. Most writers I know seek out not just professional editors but every manner of friend and expert to vet their prose, point out errors and tweak their style. They think of writing as a dialogue, not just with their eventual readers among the general public but between them as id and ego and a necessary editorial super ego.

Me, maybe because I'm an only child or a journalist, knowing that whatever the faults of this particular piece there will be another the next day, or maybe because I'm an eogmaniac or simply insecure, have resisted editing. Not that resistance has done me much good. Bob Gottlieb, who ran Knopf in the early 80's and edited my first book, "All American Music," simply suggested that I beef up the specific musical analysis in each chapter by 20 or 30 per cent, as I saw fit. He was right, and I did it, on my own terms in myk own words. Then Bob Christgau volunteered to read the text line by line, which he did with his typical fierce exactness. I bridled occasionally, but I appreciated him, too.

At newspapers, editors and editing come in various forms. In the arts, there are overall culture editors and their assistants and their higher-ups, who may care about the arts but who usually care more about corporate self-advancement. Standing in line with Anna Kisselgoff, about to enter her retirement party in early 2005, we discussed the myriad culture ediors we had profited from/tolerated/endured over the years. Curiously, those few who were expert in the arts were not necessarily the best, either because they weren't editing pros or because they too fell victim to serving their higher-ups rather than their writers or, Heaven forfend, the arts. Almost without exception, those who were sycophantic upwards were bullying downards.

More to the point, though, are the editors who actually edit your prose. At all three nwspapers for which I worked I found both backfield editors and copy editors intermittently helpful, both to catch especially dumb mistakes (Diane Nottle, the assistant dance editor, saved me in my recent Mark Morris "King Arthur" piece from calling England the "Emerald Isle"; she suggested "scepter'd isle") and to refine clumsy infelicities of style. Copy editors can be very helpful as long as they are not intrusive. Despite my grumpiness, I think I almost always comported myself with mature good manners with editors. They may think otherwise, and on my side it was sometimes hard.

When I edited the Times's Sunday Arts & Leisure section, most of the actual editing of the writers was handled by the specific editors for music, art, film, etc. I tried to plot the juxtapostion of articles on the front page, set an overall direction for the section (which had been determined as I was being hired largely by Joe Lelyveld, the executive editor, and me), annoyingly question details on closing day, but otherwise let the editors edit with their own voices even as they let the writers write with their own voices. Most of the time, it worked, and it confirmed my theory that the best way to edit a section, or run a festival, or (I guess) be CEO of a corporation is to pick your associates well and then let them do their thing. (And to keep alert for too obvious sycophancy, which seems very hard for top executives to do.) Of course, that won't work if your overall boss doesn't apply the same theory of management to you: in other words, to trust you and not bother you with details. Lelyveld trusted me; his sucessor, Howell Raines, did not.

The trick to this kind of journalistic editing, it seems to me, is to help the writer stay true to their own ideas and style, rather than rewriting perfectly plausible prose to make it into something superior in the editor's eyes or to conform to some overly rigid idea of a newspaper's institutional style. Even if the rewrites are presented in the guise of helpful suggestions, it's wasteful to spend one's time trying to restore one's own voice through a blizzard of fussy editorial intrusions.

Alll this was brought into focus for me by a smart symposium on editing in the current issue of the Threepenny Review, in which book and film editors discuss their craft. And by a memorial service on Saturday for H. Wiley Hitchcock, the musicologist, at which a speaker referred to "his faith in editing as a fundamental creative act." Of course Hitchcock's editing of musical scores was designed in part to prepare them for performance, but I guess that's not so different from preparing a manuscript for publication or a film for release.

When I was at the American Academy in Berlin in January, I became friends with Susan Bell, a book editor who last year published "The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself." It's pretty wise, and for a writer to brood on these matters should indeed encourage a more careful reading, re-reading and general betterment of one's own prose. Still, Susan seems to cling to her faith that every writer needs someone to challenge a book in progress, to provide a foil for further improvement. And maybe she's right. 

Writing for my own blog and this one on the Internet has been a great pleasure, because I know my prose, however carefully self-edited, is going straight to whatever readers it attracts unmediated by editing. That leads to more typos and mistakes than a Times article, perhaps. But it's more fun.

I do worry why I am not more open to sharing my drafts with others, professional editors or freinds. What insecurity does this reveal, what unwillingness to open myself up to good ideas? Am I just lazy, or nervously impatient? As I age, maybe I'll grow wiser in that regard. Maybe I'll come to accept the idea of writing serious work as a creative marriage between me and an editor. But I still like the image of myself as a lone voice, with a new book suddenly appearing out of nowhere in a reader's hand, shining and complete. 

March 10, 2008 2:16 PM | | Comments (1)


In a 5/11/1929 New Yorker piece, E. B White wrote: "'Writing is not an occupation,' writes Sherwood Anderson. 'When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?' Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter. Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature." Or before, in other words, perhaps, they thought of themselves as "real writers" at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, yet blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, in "Accelerating Culture," "for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence."

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