The Art of Editing

The creative work of a literary editor is very similar to what a film script editor does. Book editing is not different from script editing: it involves a good understanding of the material and the author’s intentions. An editor is the first reader/audience member who points out to the author what could be improved it the story. Here’s a little insight into what a collaboration between a writer and an editor can look like. Robert Gottlieb has edited hundreds of books. He has worked with historians and biographers, musicians, actors, and fiction writers such as John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton, John le Carré, Toni Morrison and many others. In his interview to The Paris Review Interviews, Robert Gottlieb and the writers who have worked with him discuss the editing process. Gottlieb on different types of writers:

For a while I was editing the two best writers of quality who were writing spy novels, John le Carré and Len Deighton, and you couldn’t find a more perfect pair of opposites in the editorial process. Le Carré is unbelievably sensitive to editorial suggestion because his ear is so good and because his imagination is so fertile—he’ll take the slightest hint and come back with thirty extraordinary new pages. Deighton, on the other hand—who is totally willing,couldn’t be more eager for suggestions—is one of those writers for whom, once a sentence is down on paper, it takes on a reality that no amount of good will or effort can change. So you can say to him, Len, this is a terrific story but there is a serious problem. He’ll say, What is it? What is it? And you say, Well, on page thirty-seven this character is killed, but on page a hundred and eighteen he appears at a party. Oh my God, Len says, this is terrible, but I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Then you get the manuscript back, and you turn to page thirty-seven, and he’ll have changed it to, He was almost killed. /…/ Your job with a writer like that is to be able to say, You may have done an equally brilliant job on all of these things, but this has more weight than that, and you have to give some of that up. Sometimes in the heat of discussion, that can seem to a writer like an attack. And that’s not helpful, though at times it can be therapeutic. If you are a good editor, your relationship with every writer is different. To some writers you say things you couldn’t say to others, either because they’d be angry or because it would be too devastating to them. You can’t have only one way of doing things; on some instinctual level you have to respond not just to the words of the writer but to the temperament of the writer.

Michael Crichton on Gottlieb’s notes:

Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me “dear boy,” like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards.

Michael Crichton on editors:

Even now, when Bob first calls me back about a manuscript, I panic. But I’ll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like ‘ambulance’ on ambulances, the words ‘everybody needs an editor’.

Gottlieb on common mistakes:

It’s often the case that the most strained moments in books are the very beginning and the very end—the getting in and the getting out. The ending especially: it’s awkward, as if the writer doesn’t know when the book is over and nervously says it all again. Sometimes the most useful thing you can tell a writer is, Here’s where the book ends—in these next two and a half pages you’re just clearing your throat.

Toni Morrison on the editor’s reactions:

What I find most useful are the moments when Bob is disturbed by something in a book. He is a marvelous reader, and surrenders completely to a text, so when he finds something invalid or unpersuasive, or if something leaves him disoriented, I know it is important for me to go back to it.

Gottlieb on the editing process:

You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear. I read a manuscript very quickly, the moment I get it. I usually won’t use a pencil the first time through because I’m just reading for impressions. When I reach the end, I’ll call the writer and say, I think it’s very fine (or whatever), but I think there are problems here andhere. At that point I don’t know why I think that—I just think it. Then I go back and read the manuscript again, more slowly, and I find and mark the places where I had negative reactions to try to figure out what’s wrong. The second time through I think about solutions—maybe this needs expanding, maybe there’s too much of this so it’s blurring that. Editing requires you to be always open, always responding. It is very important, for example, not to allow yourself to want the writer to write a certain kind of book. Sometimes that’s hard. /…/ Inevitably you will like some of a writer’s books better than others. But when you’re working on a manuscript, that can’t matter. You have to be inside that book and do your best to make it as good as it can be. And if you can’t approach it in that spirit, you shouldn’t be working on it. /…/ When you’re editing a manuscript with him the two of you can look at it as though you were two surgeons examining a body stretched out upon a table. You just cut it open, deal with the offending organs, and stitch it up again.

Charles McGrath on details:

Bob [Gottlieb] has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on that one sentence, or that one paragraph, that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew wasn’t quite right but was close enough so that you decided to worry about it later. Then you forgot about it, or you convinced yourself that it was okay, because it was too much trouble to change. He always goes right to those places. It’s an instinct. He and I share a belief that if you take care of all the tiny problems in a piece, all that small attention will somehow make a big difference.

Gottlieb on the editor’s attitude:

Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That’s why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader. It’s the number one qualification. Because you could have all the editorial tools, but if you’re not a responsive reader you won’t sense where the problems lie. I am a reader. My life is reading. In fact, I was about forty years old when I had an amazing revelation—this is going to sound dumb—it suddenly came to me that not every person in the world assumed, without thinking about it, that reading was the most important thing in life. I hadn’t known that. I hadn’t even known that I had thought it, it was so basic to me.

Michael Crichton on the writer, the editor, and the manuscript:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

Gottlieb on feedback:

Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it. You can’t be the one who says, Send him to Hong Kong at this point, let him have a love affair with a cocker spaniel. Rather, you say, This book needs something at this point: it needs opening up, it needs a direction, it needs excitement. When people say to me, Oh you’re so creative, I try to explain that I’m not creative. I simply have certain other qualities that are necessary for my kind of work.

Gottlieb on the editor’s courage:

An editor has to be selfless, and yet has also to be strong-minded. If you don’t know what you think, or if you’re nervous about expressing your opinions, what good is that to a writer? I remember one book of John Cheever’s I was working on, I felt there was a minor problem with the ending. At first I thought, Who am I to be telling John Cheever to change the end of his novel? And then I thought, Well, I’m the editor he chose, and I can’t, out of cowardice, withhold what I think. I’m not forcing him to do anything. I’m saying, This is what I think is wrong, and it’s up to him to decide whether to take my advice or not.

and goodwill:

As an editor I have to be tactful, of course (which I wasn’t very good at when I was young). But goodwill has to be natural. You can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work that way.

Read the whole interview here



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