The Ugly Truth About Editing (feat. Raymond Carver)

Some eight years ago, a particularly irritating day during my tenure as correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Singapore, I came up with a list itemizing the three kinds of copy-editors one can find:

1.The hands-off editor, who will change little, will mainly check spelling and logic, and trust the reporter knows what he’s talking about; the hands-off editor may be motivated by confidence in the writer, lack of time to work deeply on articles, fear of reprisals by bullying reporters, or sloth.

2.The hands-on editor: has specific, detailed views on the exact usage of words and the exact tune of leads, and will rework stories mercilessly, cutting out and writing in (always making sure that the end-result is slightly shorter, so he can claim the moral high ground of brevity) until he’s satisfied that the story looks as if he himself wrote it. And he did.

3. The bugger: a hands-on editor that is too lazy to do the meddling himself, and orders you to do it for him (his rationale: he’s forcing you to learn how to do it right; but he couldn’t tell right from a banana).

In my professional experience, the second kind is most common at least in U.S. media, because of a variety of reasons, but mostly because heavy work on copy is a way to justify your position: if you make somebody a stuffer, he will stuff, and if you make him a highlighter, he shall highlight: that seems to be how human minds work.

I could go on about this subject for ever, but there’s no need. Those interested in how reporters perceive the work of editors would be better advised to look at this document here, circulated between New York Times writers circa 1995:


Anyway: Gordon Lish, who made his career making Raymond Carver’s life miserable, is perhaps the patron saint of all three kinds of copy-editors. In a review in the Times Literary Supplement, Catherine Humble describes the man in all his glory:

The literary editor Gordon Lish once said that, to be a writer, “You have to have an interest in the world”, admitting, “I’m not terribly interested in anybody else’s heart or mind”.

True to his calling of torturer of other people’s writing, Lish became perhaps the world’s well-known copy-editor when he mercilessly cut Carver’s prose into legend. That’s no mean feat: reading about Lish’s work with Carver, one gets the impression that Carver wouldn’t have had a fraction of the success he had without Lish’s help. Lish did discover the genius of that writer, lost in between the verbiage Carver had used to hide it.

And this is the ugly truth about editing: it’s not pretty, and it very often works badly. There are no sound rules. A man like Lish, so obviously good at what he did (at least while working with Carver) is still a pretty hopeless writer, and a man with a very uninteresting brain, as Humble shows in her TLS review of Lish’s latest book as an author, White Plains. Even the very best of editors was a hit-and-miss character whose obsessions and manias just happened to be the perfect cure to Carver’s writing:

White Plains (pretentiously subtitled Pieces and witherings) is closer to a snarling rant than a work of fiction. Consisting mainly of monologue, streaked with autobiography, the book reads like the freewheeling wordplay of a mad person. “Gordon Lish” appears in nearly all the stories, and lest we forget the book’s subject, we are told in “Mr Dictaphone”, “this book is devoted to the telling to you the tale of me”. Grandiloquence and sleaze abound. “Naugahyde” is a pointless little story about a couple discussing a chair they once had sex on. The writing is so utterly self-conscious (“He said, ‘Nice.’ He said, ‘It’s nice when it’s nice’. . . ‘You’d do well to do as well’”), one might mistake it for pastiche. It is curious that a man of letters like Lish cannot see how derivative his writing is. “She said, ‘Mmmm’. She said, ‘Nothing stays the same.’ She said, ‘Everything changes’ . . . ‘Nothing doesn’t change’, he said.”

Come on, but there must be some saving grace, somewhere, right? Nope:

From the man who produced the ingenious title “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” comes the less memorable “Jelly Apple” and “My Napkin, It Fell”. Lish’s penchant for clever neologizing (“stochastic” and “chthonicistical”) is depressing. If anything of interest emerges from this wordy mush, it is Lish’s recollection of his old publishing days. In “Postcards” he describes suing Harper’s for printing a bombastic letter he sent to his students (in which he introduced his “no questions or interruptions” rule). In contrast to the beating heart of Carver, bitterness forms the pulse of this book. Authors, for Lish, are always unappreciative, “snatching my inspirations from me right the fuck out from under my nose from the fucking moment I mint this shit”.


About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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4 Responses to The Ugly Truth About Editing (feat. Raymond Carver)

  1. This was a fun piece but your three prongs of editors is missing another type: The editor who can write better than you, has your interests at heart, fights for you when needed and tells you to back off when you lose sight of the big picture, and at the end makes your story better. This was Bryan Gruley for me and everyone in our bureau. I feel fortunate that I got to experience that.


    • David Roman says:

      I would put Gruley in the first category then, which is spacious and provides for the better angels of editorkind; but they are few and far between, because we humans are all sinners


  2. landzek says:

    No wonder the world is so screwed up. Lol. News is always fake. 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Homepage

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