Jeremy W. Sherman

stay a while, and listen

The Artful Edit

Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit offers a brief but thorough introduction to editing your own writing.

The book is structured around three steps: gaining perspective, macro-editing, and micro-editing. Macro-editing addresses the structure of the work. It requires elucidating then shaping that structure and the characters and themes that build it. Micro-editing examines word choice, continuity, and other concerns at the level of the individual paragraph, sentence, and even word.

Each practical chapter ends with a bulleted summary and exercises. The summary frees you to focus on reading the book. Without it, you’d regularly interrupt your reading to scratch down notes. The exercises give concrete practices to improve your editing.

After each chapter comes an interlude wherein various authors reflect on writing and editing. These leaven the book’s didactic tone, but all are forgettable save the last, Michael Ondaatje’s “One Doesn’t Just Write a Book, One Makes a Book.”

The chapter on gaining perspective covers the usual approaches – bury the work to revisit later – and some unusual approaches – string your work across your study, step back till it’s just squiggles, and examine its topography.

The macro-editing chapter seamlessly blends literary criticism with instruction in the structural elements of writing. Before-and-after passages from The Great Gatsby demonstrate each element, while excerpts from letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Max Perkins illustrate the editing process.

The micro-editing chapter tries to maintain the style of the macro-editing chapter but fails. It drags, and I was glad to move on.

The last two chapters turn from the mechanisms of editing to its variety and historical background.

Second to last is a chapter of interviews with authors and artists about their editing process. The story of Walter Murch editing the film The Conversation stands out. The director demanded a refrain repeat exactly the same throughout the film. He threw out one take because the actor’s accentuation differed. Murch decided against the director’s instructions to cut this take back in over the last seconds of the film. The different word stress recontextualized the refrain and so the film. The other interviews reinforce the variety of approaches to writing and editing, but none stays with you the way Murch’s will.

The last chapter recaps the role of the editor since ancient Rome. It ends with Robin Robertson editing Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton. The history entertained; the story behind Ulverton grabbed me. The men developed unconvential ways of editing this intricate work, including extensive color-coded diagrams tracking leitmotif, themes, and lineages across fictional centuries. Their cooperation parallels Fitzgerald and Perkins', bringing the book back to where it started: the necessary pleasure of editing.