Edit Thyself: A Maxim for the New Media

There are today more than 100 million blogs; 175,000 are begun each day, and 1.6 million posts are added daily. There are thousands of magazines of all varieties. Almost 300,000 books were published in 2006; self-publishing has harnessed cheap printing technology to take off in recent years. People are increasingly producing their own journalism, literature, and entertainment for themselves, their friends, and random virtual passersby. More and more people are writing today for the public than ever before. And therefore, more and more people need editors than ever before.

Fortunately for all the bloggers out there, veteran editor Susan Bell has written a fine new book, The Artful Edit, to help writers learn to “self-edit”­—not bypassing traditional editors altogether, but improving their writing through dispassionate revision. “Writers need to calibrate editing’s singular blend of mechanics and magic,” Bell writes. “For if writing builds the house, nothing but revision will complete it.”

But why is self-editing so important? Because writers need perspective. When a writer spends weeks, months, perhaps years tinkering with his own prose, he loses the larger view. He rejoices in an excellent turn of phrase but perhaps cannot see its proper place in the story he is telling, the event he is recounting, or the idea he is developing. He may follow a pleasant stream bed too far, leading him into a narrative wilderness. When these things happen, it is useful for writers to climb a hill, survey the landscape, and place their work in context. This principle is especially important for Web 2.0 authors and journalists: “Without an editor to give you a professional opinion, you must depend on yourself.” Editing, Bell insists, is the practice of reading well. A good editor sees into and through the manuscript, applies a wealth of outside knowledge to it, and has the discretion to know when to tear a passage to shreds and when to leave it largely intact. With practice, a writer can learn to read his own writing well, and The Artful Edit is a lesson in reading well.

The centerpiece of The Artful Edit is a case study of the collaboration between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, that yielded The Great Gatsby. Bell addresses what she calls the macro and micro aspects of editing. The macro edit concerns purpose, narrative, character, structure, theme, and tone; the micro concerns language, clarity, continuity, and authenticity. Bell’s instructions come from a life of the red pen, and they are good; The Artful Edit sits at my desk near The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style. Editors and writers—Web 2.0 or not—will benefit from her advice. Although her tips are aimed at authors of literary fiction, they will be useful for nonfiction writers too.

Bell also traces the history of editing, from Mesopotamian scribes through Italian Renaissance printing to William Shawn at The New Yorker, following crests and dips in editorial power. (The book’s weakest moment is when, without blinking, she skips over several centuries in a sentence: “How editors and living writers worked together from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is woefully undocumented. The Catholic Church held strict rule over art for most of that time, and a suite of prudish popes and draconian Councils turned editing largely into censorship.”)

Another lacuna in her history—although not nearly so egregious—is her treatment of the dual role of twentieth-century editors. Editors then were both gatekeepers and polishers. They decided who and what got published, and they made writing better. Now the gatekeepers are getting pushed aside. Although Bell points out that we still need the quality control that a good editor can provide, she is realistic enough to admit that the new media world cannot have all the editors it needs: “In our era, more than in some others, writers must buck up and take care of themselves. And this isn’t a bad thing.” Today’s independent, Web-enabled writers and creators must learn the craft of self-editing. It will help their readers, and more important, it will make them better writers.

This review of The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell, was originally published on American.com on August 30, 2007.