An editor on the writing process

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Howard Junker, editor of ZYZZYVA, has entertained us with his opinion on self-editing. In this recent post, he strongly states self editing does not exist, even going so far as to say, “It’s the difference between thinking and brain surgery: it’s good to think for yourself; it’s tempting fate to cut open your own skull and poke around.”:

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself will be published in August by Norton, unless cooler heads prevail.

There is no such thing as self-editing. Full stop.

There is rewriting, which all too few writers do very much of, but the editor is, by definition and by necessity, An Other.

The worst thing a writer can do is to launch an internal editor during the writing process. Nothing could be more stifling.

Rewriting can certainly address every issue, from structure to spelling, but that is not editing. Editing is the next step, submission to the taste and judgment of somebody else, a step on the way toward offering the work to the public.

The idea offered in this book of using a different font to give yourself “fresh eyes” is an idea so cockeyed that only a demento like DeLillo would try it: I’ve heard he blows up his work, line by line, to headline size. What nonsense.

Ditto: hanging pages on a clothesline. (To do what, see if they’re dry yet?)

The author of this atrocious self-helper, according to PW’s preview, claims that Fitzgerald was “the consummate self-editor.” I wonder what Maxwell Perkins would have had to say about that.

It’s the difference between thinking and brain surgery: it’s good to think for yourself; it’s tempting fate to cut open your own skull and poke around.

How provocative is THAT? While I usually find myself nodding to Howard’s observations, I beg to differ on this particular subject (maybe that’s natural, given my position as a writer, and his position as editor). I love this post for its bravado, despite my vehement disagreement.

Like Ed Champion, I think every writer has their own writing process, whether they mull over every word and sentence in one draft (like Chang-Rae Lee or as Ed states, T.C. Boyle) or whether they write umpteen drafts (like Toni Morrison). If he’s making a roundabout point that writers should free themselves and not worry about editing, I get that–the spirit of the piece should be unapologetically forefront. But even so, you want a piece that’s somewhat edited by the time it gets to a literary agent or an editor (or so I’ve been told).

Howard also seems to think that we writers have a staff of editors at hand–not all of us are so lucky as to have an editor. I love Howard, he edited a story of mine in ZYZZYVA beautifully, gave it a haircut that brought out all its bones and intriguing features. But he’s not someone I can call for a favor. Maybe next time, I’ll send Howard and ZYZZYVA a first draft!

Update: Howard has written a corollary post, Writing/Editing that I now utterly agree with.

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3 Comments

Filed under Publishing, Writing

3 responses to “An editor on the writing process

  1. Very interesting. I think I agree with his post. In particular: Editing is the next step, submission to the taste and judgment of somebody else, a step on the way toward offering the work to the public.

    Writers can write and revise (and revise revise revise) and still will be too close to the work. Having a co-worker, a stranger from an online critique group, or a friend/relative who can give you his or her honest opinion and reaction to the work can act as an editing device.

    Writers just can’t do that for themselves, unless they’re willing to place a story in a locked trunk for several years, pull it out and look at it with “fresh” eyes. Who has time for that?

  2. Howard has a point, but there are exceptions. Emily Dickinson did okay without an editor.

  3. Emily Dickinson was a recluse who probably had all the time in the world to do her own editing.

    Granted, you have a point. I think current writers depend more on editors than those from less contemporary times.

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