On the Dearth of Books on Editing

I learned to read when I was three. (The couple who lived across the hall from my parents were unhappily childless. She was a schoolteacher; I was a teachable toddler. That’s pretty much all it took.)

By the time I was ten, I was devouring my mother’s collection of best sellers from the ’40s and ’50s: For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith), 
The Green Years (A. J. Cronin), Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk), The Winthrop Woman (Anya Seton), Kitty Foyle (Christopher Morley), A Bell for Adano (John Hersey), The Egyptian (Mika Waltari), Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft (Thor Heyerdahl), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), Exodus (Leon M. Uris), Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris (Paul Gallico), Hawaii (James Michener), An Episode of Sparrows (Rumer Godden), Dear and Glorious Physician (Taylor Caldwell), The Once and Future King (T. H. White) …These books—I read all of them more than once, such is the time-luxury of childhood—were an education. I learned spelling and vocabulary, punctuation and construction; I learned about life outside my own purview. And this is where I learned to edit too.

It’s a difficult thing to teach, editing. It helps if you study li-tra-chure, as I once did. Reading literary criticism, another personal fave, provides insight. Good mentoring (and I’ve been blessed there) is invaluable. But there are precious few books on the subject. I know this because a few years ago I had a crisis of conscience: I was having a hard time articulating why a particular manuscript wasn’t working. And I really do want, you know, to help. Because I said so works fine on four-year-olds but that’s just about the limit of that phrase’s usefulness. I know! I thought. I’ll buy a book about it!

Famous last words.

I ended up with Thomas McCormack’s wonderful book The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. And for reasons too numerous to mention, I’ve only just now read it. I OMG’d all the way through (although this may not be the reaction you were expecting). Because, you see, it turns out I’ve pretty much been doing the things McCormack says to do … all along. There’s still plenty of craft to practice. But my instincts, it seems, are good.

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