Monday, January 25, 2010

Editing and Revisions

Editing is a sensitive issue—for writers, for editors, for everyone involved. Virtually all writers can benefit from working with a good editor. But note: the key terms here are “with” and “good.” Which is to say, the writer and editor have to be well matched—they have to understand each other and be able to communicate. What most writers resent is an editor who has a very different view of the trajectory of their work and then attacks the manuscript in a vigorous manner based on that view.

Most notably, editors are essential for serving as a sounding board for ideas, catching unintentional repetitions, and identifying passages and plot developments that don’t work. Word by word revisions are less important, and in some cases counterproductive. Finishing the manuscript of a novel is after all very different from writing and editing a magazine or newspaper article.

Two Case Studies…

In recent years, two cases in particular have called into question the issues of editing and rewriting. In 2007 Penguin published On the Road: The Original Scroll. This was the quasi-mythological first draft of the manuscript that Kerouac showed to publishers in the early 1950s. The novel wasn’t published until 1957, in a very different form. Many readers consider the earlier draft to be more interesting: with no paragraph breaks, the writing seems livelier, more rhythmic, more that of an avant-garde novel. The published version of On the Road pales by comparison. A major problem with the published novel is that the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. Read by an adolescent, On the Road is exciting; read later in life, the book is dull as dishwater, the characters either pitiful or unintentionally comical. With the earlier version, this may be less of a problem, since the language of the novel stands out as the main character.

Legend has it that the editors ruined Kerouac’s book. As it turns out, this isn’t true. The novel as originally written simply wouldn’t have been published by a mainstream American publisher. (True, a decade later, Grove Press might have brought it out, as they did Naked Lunch.) And so, Kerouac went to work revising his manuscript, over a period of years. Malcolm Cowley brought it to Viking, several times. The Viking editor who finally acquired it was Keith Jennison; the manuscript editor was Helen Taylor. Neither of them “ruined the book.” The major revisions were by Kerouac himself. This information comes from a Publishers Weekly article by Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s longtime agent (August 27, 2007).

Instead of a being a writer who produced an unpublished, avant-garde work, Kerouac wrote a bestseller and became a cultural icon, seemingly overnight. He hated himself for it, and never recovered. The moral here doesn’t so much concern what editors do to books, as what publishers and the culture demand and the extent to which writers are willing to compromise in order to be published.

A different but equally problematic case is that of Raymond Carver. It appears that Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor at Esquire and Knopf, heavily rewrote a number of Carver’s stories, changing endings, deleting large amounts of material, altering the style. Carver reportedly was not happy, but he allowed the changes. The problem isn’t whether Lish did a good or bad job—one would have to study the original versions, which are now available thanks to Tess Gallagher, and compare them to the published stories. The real issue is whether an editor has the right to radically rewrite literary fiction to this extent—and if he does so, shouldn’t he be credited as a coauthor? Lish may have been a despicable person with a crazed ego, or he may not have been. The thing is, no writer with an ounce of self-respect should have allowed such radical revision to take place.

Bad Editing and Good

How and at exactly what point agents assumed an editorial function is a tale waiting to be told. I can imagine an agent who is a skilled editor—they no doubt exist—but I have never encountered one. Salesmanship and attention to written detail are not characteristics that are necessarily or commonly found together.

The worst case scenario is when an agent pulls a manuscript in one direction, and the editor subsequently pulls it in another. The writer then feels abused, like a rag doll, as if he or she is writing a work for hire and has very little control over the work. It’s the literary version of sitting in a noisy cube and dealing with incompatible demands. Marx, I believe, used the phrase “alienated labor.”

Editing and requests for revisions are tricky enough when coming from people who know what they are doing. Things go downhill fast when one is revised by an editor who doesn’t actually know the rules of English grammar and who doesn’t understand what the writer is trying to do. This is similar to having an incompetent electrician rewire your apartment. And yes, over the years I’ve seen this happen—editing that actually makes a manuscript worse. (Fortunately, it wasn’t mine.) An editor who knows grammar but is deaf to the rhythm of prose is even worse—they will have grammar on their side but will run roughshod over the subtlety not to mention spirit of the text.

Aside from incompetent editing that simply screws up sentences, there’s also the request for revisions aimed at making a manuscript more sensational (ie, “appeal to a wider range of readers.”) We see this in an attempt to transform a literary novel into a commercial one. The result rarely strikes the right tone for either. One can also imagine editing that weakens or dilutes a manuscript, whether out of general timidity, fear of offending, or from some other motive. This is something like what happened to On the Road.

Nearly as problematic is editing that makes a manuscript neither better nor worse, just different. This seriously ups the ante in terms of confusion. It also adds to the publisher’s costs without delivering any clear benefit to either writer or publisher.

What Makes A Good Editor?

To my mind, the most important thing is that writer and editor listen to and understand each other. If I were to attempt a list of attributes that are desirable, I would suggest the following no doubt incomplete ones:

An editor should be widely read in the literature of the present and the past, have a knowledge of the arts and of the world that goes beyond the confines of popular culture, and should be sensitive to the nuances of language and to differences of style. He or she shouldn’t think that “one size fits all” or that the same solutions are necessarily appropriate to different manuscripts.

Writers can make things easier by not being arrogant or convinced of their own infallibility. But nor should they allow themselves to be induced to make changes they think are simply wrong.

Ah yes, and if life were perfect, we’d have healthcare reform that actually worked.


  1. Thanks for the interesting and pointed discussion of Gordon Lish's editing of Carver. I tell the story of Carver's long relationship with Lish in RAYMOND CARVER: A WRITER'S LIFE published last year by Scribner (where I had a supportive, wise, tough, and sympathetic editor). I speculate there that Carver was probably troubled by Lish's editing as early as 1971, when "Are These Actual Miles?" became "What Is It?" in ESQUIRE. But it took Carver years to have the nerve to object. If Kerouac damaged himself by compromises he made with Viking, we have a parallel worth investigating.

  2. nice post.. i have been thinking about this a little. that is interesting about 'on the road.' i want to read the original script version now.

    i read this recently, as well, which seems good to me:

    thinking of various aesthetic choices as simply 'different' rather than 'better'/'worse' seems helpful and relevant for a society that, i hope, is increasingly opening to diverse (but as yet marginalized) ways of living. seems like 'better' is the same logic as what is at work with homo- and trans- phobias. seems like removing the hierarchy involved in evaluative standards like good/bad seems to also suggest a broader kind of liberation, and i like that