What we talk about when we talk about editors

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):

“What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?” Gallagher said recently. “He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.”

In the end, “What we talk about when we talk about love,” what might be called “Lish’s Version” was published to critical acclaim.  And then…
Carver’s next story collection, “Cathedral,” was published in 1983, and was an even greater success, winning praise again on the cover of the Times Book Review, this time from Irving Howe, who wrote that in Carver’s more expansive later work one saw “a gifted writer struggling for a larger scope of reference, a finer touch of nuance.” In an interview with The Paris Review that year, Carver made clear that he preferred the new expansiveness: “I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I’d be at a dead end––writing stuff and publishing stuff I wouldn’t want to read myself, and that’s the truth. In a review of the last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it.”
In the end, a writer must take responsibility for her own work, if she is to have any peace with herself.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed.  Room for the writer alone.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed. Room for the writer alone.

All that is secondary, however, to the fact that unless a writer learns how to craft fine sentences without any help, she is unlikely to get to have such discussions with an editor. A poorly written manuscript will be tossed onto the rubbish heap long before it ever reaches an editor’s critical eye. Whether or not one prefers Lish’s minimalist style, or Carver’s ultimately more expansive style, no one can deny that the work Carver submitted was well-crafted. His sentences worked.

If one is a non-fiction writer, with a marketable back-story (celebrity, scandal, allure of some sort), with what the publicity people call a ‘platform,’ you might — just might — get away with poorly crafted work.  Much depends on whether or not the subject matter is tantalizing enough.  It is sadly possible.  Maybe a publisher will sense dollar signs, and hire an editor, who will act more or less as a ghost writer, and have the book ‘polished.’  Once can’t help but wonder how much of her book someone like Sarah Palin actually wrote, for example.

If you are a fiction writer, however, this simply will not happen. An editor will, if they’re any good, help you shape your vision, but only if they have confidence in your ability as a writer, and how are they to develop that confidence if you turn in a manuscript full of sloppy, awkward and unclear sentences?

One of the best things an emerging writer can do for herself is to learn the craft well, and to be patient with it.  It might very well take years of working with words, punctuation, rhythm, imagery, sentences…all the tools of the writer’s trade.

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.


  1. Lanham True on September 24, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Lish’s editing did, rightly or wrongly, expose the clean bones of
    Carver’s prose. I wonder this then allowed Carver to grow
    clean narrative flesh onto those bones, as in his later style?
    This may just be me, though. Secretly I wish for my own private
    little surgeon/editor — so many of my prose babies come out

  2. lucky 8 on September 24, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Lauren, I was just reading Open Salon and was delighted to see that this wonderful essay was chosen as an Editor’s Pick. Congratulations – just great to see your words of wisdom getting such well deserved attention.


  3. Léna Roy on September 24, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I love this! Great reminder that fiction needs some tremendous
    marinating before putting it into the oven to cook – then if it’s
    cooked just right, an editor will smell the deliciousness and help
    trim the fat. Or not, as we all know! xo

  4. red-handed on September 30, 2010 at 7:55 am

    I’m starting to think I was lucky; my own editor didn’t ask to change a word.

Leave a Comment