The Second. Or Even the Third.

To see what fiction-editing craft might be, start by looking at the faults it’s intended to detect. There are two kinds: surface faults and internal faults. A surface fault is local, as immediately evident to the naked eye as a skin blemish. You can point to specific words that constitute it. Most surface faults do not produce delayed reations.

They include failutres of diction, grace, freshness, materiality, credibility, pace, vividness, understandability, interest. These dermal components—blemishes and triumphs together—because they are on the surface, don’t require special craft to detect. They require diligence, solid training in English, a good sensibility. Given these qualities, any editor can tweeze, scrub, and buff, so that at least the skin of the script will be acceptable to the eye.

Diligence is required because the potential number of dermal blemishes is immense. A reader’s responses are all but uncountable. He reacts, however fleetingly, to each word, to its combination with other words, to their sequence, to clichés, repetitions, stale modifiers, abstract generalities where concrete spcificities are needed, phrases, images, and metaphors that simply misfire, wit that is not witty. But, again, they’re right there, on the surface, and sensitibility alone—supported by diligent application—will be sufficient to spot them. They can be red-penciled on the page en passant during the second read.

(The second. Rarely should a book be edited on only one reading. A pencil may be close by on first read, but used only to flag quick items. Reading fiction with a pencil in hand the first time vitiates apt response.

For example, some editors, during their first reading, do such things as write a list of the characters, their descriptions, and a diagram of their relationships. This helps the editor to keep things clear. But the private reader doesn’t so this, so the editor has disjoined his own reaction from that of the audience.

Such editors will often then base their editorial remarks solely on their many notes. This yields a second example: Suppose something early in the novel turns out to be irrelevant. It would not have been flagged the first time through because the irrelevance wasn’t evident at that time. So it will never be flagged. There are lots more reasons why a one-reading edit is inadequate, and serious writers should be disturbed if they know it’s happening to them.)

Thomas McCormack

Transcribed by me from pages 16–17 of my paperback copy of The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, Paul Dry Books © 2006.


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