I teach creative writing in a men’s prison, at monthly workshops in Princeton, and via email. I’ve taught at universities and writers’ conferences. Everywhere I teach, and no matter whom I teach, at some point the subject of editors inevitably pops up.
I mentioned to a student recently that part of my job as a teacher was to encourage students to work independently, not to become too dependent on me as an editor.
“A writer works alone,” I said, “in her little room, surrounded by scraps of paper. I won’t be around forever, and if you rely on me too much, if I micro-edit every sentence, you won’t learn how to do it yourself.”
My student sent me this email:
I did think about what you said about dependency on editing suggestion.
i have always had good editing peer review is that way and then with my writing I had a rigorous editor and worked for a year revising.
I think that some of us need that back and forth and at fifty I have gotten more comfortable about my limitations.
I wonder if Raymond Carver had a relationship with his editor and it worked to produce what they did that might have been better than what he did alone we are all the better for it.
I might suggest a little editing on that prose, but the sentiment is not an uncommon one. Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver’s editor, has a lot to answer for, I think.
Let me make one thing clear. All writers need editors. My own novels, when they were finally published, were significantly different than the manuscripts I initially submitted. (Which is one of the many reasons I think self-publishing is a bad idea, but that’s another blog.) And I know they were improved by a good editor. My editor worked with a large brush — she raised issues of pacing, spots where the narrative slowed down and needed to be cut. She suggested one particular character was incomplete, nothing but a stereotype, and she was right. In one case, she said there wasn’t enough on the page yet, and perhaps I needed another conflict, something to deepen the work. Also right. However, in two instances, one where I wanted to add a second plot line, and one where she wanted me to change the ethnicity of a character…I held my ground, and the critics proved me right.
Thus, my experience of the editorial process has been one of equality, and mutual respect. What my editor did not do was rewrite my sentences. She did not change the essential nature of my work.
Some would say this is exactly what Lish, a writer of some ambition himself, did with Carver. Some might say Lish used Carver’s work (and perhaps his fragility) to produce work he might have written himself. When Carver sobered up, he regretted the control Lish had over his prose, and wrote him what has become a rather famous letter, in which he asked his beloved editor to let his work stand as he, the writer, had intended it.
Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, said this (I’ve excerpted from the New Yorker article for which there’s a link above):
If you want the benefit of working one day with a wonderful editor at a publishing house, learn to be your own best editor first.