Donna Tartt in conversation with her editor

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Every book is different and the editor’s job is always the same: to work with the writer in the way they want to be supported, to understand as well as possible what it is the writer has set out to do, and to point out any places where the editor believes that the author has not lived up to the expectations they have created. It’s an intimate process, and an extraordinary trust to be allowed to see a writer’s work before it goes out into the world.”

Editor Michael Pietsch in a revealing conversation with his author Donna Tartt. Read the Slate article.

An excerpt from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Deborah Treisman on editing Alice Munro

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Editing Alice Munro’s stories is sometimes a lesson in feeling extraneous . . . But the process is one of excitement and deep investment in the story at hand. Whenever she disagrees with a suggested edit, I virtually always see, afterward, that it was the correct thing to do.”

An excellent insight into the editor/author relationship by Deborah Treisman, Alice Munro’s editor at the New Yorker.

Read Alice Munro’s New Yorker stories here.

On Editing: Muriel Spark

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“I don’t strike out much. I write on … I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first … I very seldom change paragraphs and things around … I’ve heard that it’s very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn’t suit me because I just write on.” (BBC Radio 3 interview with John Tusa)

Muriel Spark’s minimalist approach to editing and revising her work appears to have differed markedly from that of the last author I featured in this little series. Spark is relatively unusual in having been a publisher’s editor herself, working for Peter Owen in the 1950s, an experience she memorably drew on in her novel A Far Cry from Kensington (more of which below). Owen has acknowledged her skill in the role and regretted that he hadn’t always heeded her judgement: “When she was my editor, she did want to bring in Samuel Beckett – and that was one of my mistakes.”

Another formative experience was a précis-writing course which she did in Edinburgh rather than going to university. As she explained to John Tusa: “Well, I always liked to keep it short, and I thought probably I would get some ideas how to express myself as briefly as possible. It was a challenge … I always wanted to keep it short and pithy.”

Her facility with composition was a subject she returned to when she spoke to Stephen Schiff for a New Yorker profile* in 1993: “I don’t correct or rewrite … because I do all the correcting before I begin, getting it in my mind. And then when I pounce, I pounce. I can invent very easily. It really seems to come through my hand.”

When interviewed by Mark Lawson for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in 2004 she spoke admiringly of Georges Simenon and the way he deliberately limited his vocabulary. This is in stark contrast to the practice of one of her greatest creations, Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington. Bartlett is clearly based on her bitter experience as an editor of being stalked by an aspiring author with a huge ego and little talent to justify it. Spark (like her narrator, Mrs Hawkins) knew bad prose when she saw it:

“At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story … Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.

‘Mrs Hawkins, I take incalculable pains with my prose style.’

He did indeed. The pains showed. His writing ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.”

Spark illuminates the well spring of her own beautifully limpid style in another absorbing interview with Eleanor Wachtel from 1999: “I consider that my books are mostly poetry, although written in prose, and not in poetic prose, but [with] poetic insight, I think … Whether it comes off or not … I leave that to others, but I do know the method.”


* The New Yorker article is available to subscribers only, alas.

On Editing: Tobias Wolff

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I am always fascinated to discover how authors I admire approach the process of editing and revising their work. Here are some thoughts on the subject by Tobias Wolff. As well as producing short stories, novels and volumes of memoir, Wolff lectures in creative writing, which makes his observations on the craft both practical and inspiring. I particularly enjoyed his comments on his relationship with Raymond Carver and his account of Frank O’Connor’s endless tweaking of his stories, even after publication. Follow the links after the quotes below to the full interviews. 

“I revise constantly as I’m writing . . . These are not holy texts. This isn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is work that as long as it’s available to me to make better, I will.”

“I think you almost do have to cultivate a kind of split identity as a writer. One, you have to be this free spirit who allows the work to come out and not to be critical of yourself too much when you’re writing or you’ll paralyze yourself, constipate yourself. And then after it’s down, you have to become this cold-eyed editor who hates you and wants to find fault with your work. You consider every sentence guilty until proven innocent.” (Panhandler magazine)

“I’ve always had very good experiences with my editors . . . I find it immensely helpful to be given different ways of looking at something I’ve done . . . I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way.” (Paris Review)

“I don’t think that anyone can be taught to be a writer. Absolutely not . . . What you can do is help people become good editors of their own work . . . I can think of no better way, in fact, to learn to appreciate the complexity and infinite possibilities of literature than to try to write some yourself.” (Missouri Review)

The Role of the Editor in the Age of Ebooks

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A recent article by Harriet Evans on the Guardian Books blog made some thought-provoking points about the changing relationship between authors and editors. As ever in the online arena, some of the thoughts it provoked were less considered than others, with one commenter opining: ‘Editors were perhaps once useful, for encouragement, for…test readings etc, but now they’re irrelevant.’ A more constructive view came from a reader who said: ‘The ebook / codex debate is only about form and irrelevant to the points raised in this article. The issue of the text deserves more attention in such debates.’

This, of course, is the heart of the matter: it’s all about the writing. But the one point on which I disagreed with the article was Harriet’s suggestion that the editorial process is inevitably an adversarial one. As a former editor herself, she is ‘passionate about the process. And yet I cannot tell you how much I hate it.’ The mortifying experience she goes on to describe in which she is on the receiving end of harsh criticism of her work is not one I recognise from my own working life. The author / editor relationship is a collaborative one, which requires honesty on the part of the editor, but tact and discretion as well. Above all, it’s about creating an atmosphere of trust.

That’s why I don’t believe any reputable freelance editor would either withhold constructive criticism or flatter an author simply because they were being paid by the author rather than the publisher. For the record, I seldom work directly for authors, but as the landscape of publishing changes I can see this happening more often in future. I’d like to think that whether I’m working on ebooks or p-books, I’ll apply exactly the same level of professionalism to the task.

The Great Editing Debate: A Round-up



Book editing used to be one of the dark arts, but a recent spate of articles and blog posts has brought the profession into the limelight. The person widely acknowledged to have started the public debate is the Guardian‘s literary editor, Claire Armitstead (above), when she voiced her frustration at the standard of book editing. Andrew Motion chimed in with his comments on judging the Man Booker: ‘Not nearly enough novels get the editing they need.’ (Those with longer memories may remember James Naughtie saying much the same thing last year.) Even the BBC has got involved.

However I bookmarked an article by Liz Thomson on the London Book Fair website back in January on ‘The Lost Art of Editing’, so perhaps this isn’t such a new complaint. Liz gives a valuable perspective on the editorial process from within the publishing industry. While her conclusions aren’t as downbeat as the article title suggests, she admits that: ‘While the best authors recognise the added value a good copy editor brings to their work, the skill is under-valued, training largely inadequate.’ At around the same time, Stephen Guise (former editor at Little, Brown, now freelance) took a bleaker view, asking ‘Who’d Be an Editor?’: ‘In the future there’ll be fewer editors in-house, and less editorial experience further up the greasy pole. Not only must this have an effect on the quality of books published today, it also suggests the question: to whom will the editors of the future turn for advice?’

And indeed, to whom will authors turn? In this regard it’s cheering to see a novelist (Ed Hogan) openly praising his editor (Francesca Main at Simon and Schuster): ‘Francesca’s comments on The Hunger Trace were illuminating. So much so, in fact, that my first reaction was to get a bit upset! Once I started work on the changes, however, I realised not only how vital they were to THT, but how they would change the way I approached my work in the future.’ Ed goes on to say: ‘I don’t think any of this stifles creativity. Having someone you trust at the other end means you can experiment a little more, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be told if it doesn’t work.’ Sam Leith is another grateful author, but has slightly more mixed feelings about the editorial process: ‘The experience of being line-edited is awe-inspiring, professionally heartening and completely horrible. No hostile reviewer can be as withering as a friendly line-editor.’

Perhaps the last word should go to another editor, Alex Bowler at Jonathan Cape, whose blog post sheds light on why some of us got into this profession in the first place: ‘There is a rich and serious pleasure to copyediting which goes beyond those of the pedant … When you’re lucky enough to have the time to copyedit well, you develop a unique, intimate knowledge of whatever it is you’re working on; you start to see patterns, structures, traits, secrets, and feel that for a week or so you’re closer than any reader in the world to the strange, alchemic magic that makes a book great.’