Teach Yourself Editing

★ : The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (Paperback) by Susan Bell, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 10, 2009 – See all my reviews

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The author of The Artful Edit, Susan Bell, a veteran editor of fiction and nonfiction books, teaches at New York’s New School graduate writing program. She notes: “Many writers hanker to learn about a process that lives at a hushed remove from the `glamour’ of writing: the edit. They want what most creative-writing classrooms are hard-pressed to give, which is detachment from their text in order to see it clearly. . . . Classroom critiques, while helpful, are limited. Too often they don’t give a systematic view of a writer’s work, and train him to develop a thick skin more than a sensible one.” This accords with my experience in an MFA program.

Bell cites editing practices of several established writers such as Tracy Kidder’s The Soul Of A New Machine, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

The second and third chapters (nearly half of the book) present a detailed analysis of the editing process of several drafts of F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It’s a good choice of novel as most readers are likely to be familiar with it. Moreover, the editing back and forth between Fitzgerald and the publisher’s editor, Max Perkins, is well documented in books such as Scott Berg’s “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”

The second chapter, fifty pages long, looks at the big picture and culminates with a handy summary “Macro-Edit: Diagnostic Checklist.” The list comprises subtitles such as Intention, Character Credibility, Structure Rhythm, Foreshadowing, Theme or Leitmotiv, and Continuity of Tone. These macro-editing guidelinesis are a major strength of the book.

The third chapter, also fifty pages long, examines language details and culminates with “Micro-Edit: Diagnostic Checklist.” Here, I would have liked to see some exercises for the reader to do and to compare with suggested solutions as provided in Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.”Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (The latter lacks exposition of issues in macro-editing.)

The final chapter traces the history of editing: “In the last thousand years, editors have roughly gone from servile to celebrated to censorial to collaborative, and finally, to corporate. . . . In our era, more than others, writers must buck up and take care of themselves.”

I highly recommend Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit for macro-editing and complementing it with Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers for micro-editing.

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