Partner Edit: 2

Revision and Editing: Dear Genius.

The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend… Isaac Bashevis Singer.

…writers are either putter-inners, or taker-outers…F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Most of the rewrite is cleaning… James Baldwin.

Every word is there for a reason, and if not, I cross it out. I rarely allow myself to use English in a spontaneous, unchecked way. I always have a sense of trembling––but so does the compass, after all. I cut adjectives, adverbs, and every word that is just there to make an effect… Jerzy Kosinski.

I usually write to the point that the work is getting worse rather than better… John Dos Passos.

It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of a story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of a story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts…Raymond Carver.

Often in rewriting, I omit things, substitute others, not because the new idea is better, but because I get tired of the old. Often I strike out what is vivid and replace it with something dull…Leo Tolstoy.

Many readers and writers think that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the Great Gatsby on his own, but this is not strictly true. He wrote in collaboration with his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Maurice Sendak did not write Where the Wild Things Are on his own. He wrote it in collaboration with Ursula Noordstrom. The process is re-told through their letters in the book Dear Genius.

Fun fact: Where the Wild Things Are was originally Where the Wild Horses Are. Noordstrom convinced Sendak that the horses were a bad idea––not least because Sendak wasn’t good at illustrating horses.

It’s not just a modern thing. The 14th century Italian poet Petrarch was edited by Pietro Bembo, and in the process modern Italian was created. A significant development for both Bocaccio and Dante.

Following in the footsteps of editing was of course it’s ugly younger sibling: censorship. As the Renaissance ebbed, and the Inquisition expanded editing became mostly censorship under the auspices of the church.

This continued unabated in to the 20th century. Here we have a censored––or perhaps edited Emily Dickinson poem, published in the Springfield  Daily News in 1861:

This was the published version:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not Frankfort berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl.

This was the original though:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in Pearl;
Not all the Frankfort berries
Yield such an Alcohol.

So perhaps the negative view of editing stems from the days of censorship, and this brings us back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Max Perkins, and the age of collaboration.

Editors are fundamentally readers––we are taught to see readers as secondary, pedestrian, and servile, whereas writers are primary, precious, and ingenious–– and we are writers, right? We are the glorious ones. We only take on the role of editor as a temporary status when we are critiquing our fellow writers’ work in the workshop.

Not really. 

We shouldn’t proclaim the glory of the writer, while ignoring the creativity of the reader.

To produce great writing we have to self-edit. We have to learn to balance the roles of both reader and writer when it comes to our own work.

Simply put: we have to be creative writers and creative readers with our own work.

And then there is the belief that editors don’t really edit any more, so writers have to be their own editors.

So it would be negligent to teach creative writing without teaching creative editing.

What I want to explore over the next couple of classes is judgement-free experimentation with our own writing.

We will not be talking about what has to be changed, or what needs to changed, but what could be changed (which is of course pretty much anything and everything). Nobody here has omniscient powers about what is right or wrong in a text. We can only make suggestions. The only approach we can take is to change it, and see how it reads. 

Essentially, editing is divided into two parts: Macro and micro, or ‘Big-picture’ and ‘line editing.’

Let’s begin with macro-editing (…what a bitch of thing prose is! Flaubert).

According to Susan Bell in The Artful Edit there are three kinds of editor: 

1: Arrogant and blind.

2: Panicked and too timid, too aggressive.

3: Pragmatic and cool.Macro Editing:

Intention, character, palpability, motive, structure, rhythm, tension, foreshadowing, theme (leitmotiv), continuity of tone.


Language, repetition, redundancy, clarity, authenticity, image, dialogue, continuity, visuals, show-and-tell, beginnings, transitions, endings.

These lists apply (with some adaptations) to all kinds of writers: Novelists, memoirists, poets, songwriters, and definitely graphic-novelists.

Logic suggests that we do the macro-editing first, then the micro-editing later, but that is not how writing normally works, so don’t worry if you feel you are doing it the wrong way around. You are not.

Exercise 1: The Blind Re-Write: 10-15 minutes. If you brought your project with you, then you can give it a read-through to begin the exercise.

In your journal––from memory only––without looking at the original (no peeping), rewrite the first pages of your main project. Write quickly. Don’t overthink it. Don’t take your pen off the paper any more than is absolutely necessary. Just make sure you can read your writing.

Write only on the left hand pages (so you can mark it up on the right pages).

What I hope we can focus in on is the rhythm and flow––and perhaps continuity of tone. Are we going to discover a change of pace. You probably wrote this material haltingly. Now you know where the piece is going it’s gong to change in unpredictable ways. 

Let’s take Raymond Carver at his word. Write 2 to 3 pages in your journal in 10 minutes.

Begin on a left-hand page, and write only on left-hand pages (you will use the right hand pages for notes and inserts).

Write quickly. Don’t overthink it. Don’t take your pen off the paper any more than is absolutely necessary. Just make sure you can read your writing.Now we begin the editing process:

Imagine you are a quality inspector at a helicopter factory… (paraphrased from Josip Novakovich).


1: What happens? Does enough happen?

2: Is your story structured around a conflict?

3: State the conflict in one sentence.

4: How soon do you introduce the conflict?

5: How long can you sustain the tension of this conflict?

6: Identify the key event (turning point/ plot point/ inciting incident).

7: Blow-by-blow, does your narrative have a logical progression?


1: List your main characters. 

2: Do you have a clearly defined protagonist and a main antagonist?

3: What are the other characters there for (if any). Can you get rid of some of them?

4: What are your protagonist’s desires, obstacles, strengths, weaknesses, quirks?

5: What are your main antagonist’s desires, obstacles, strengths, weaknesses, quirks?

6: What is rare about your protagonist?

7: Does your protagonist change? Is there the potential––or need––to change?


1: How many settings do you have? Do you have too many? How many is too many? Can you have too few?

2: How does your setting relate to your characters and plot?

3: Does your setting deepen your characterization and ground your plot?

4: Have you revealed your setting gradually, along with character and action? Or given the setting in a chunk?

5: Have you used your setting for special effects? Foreshadowing? Mood expression? Beautiful images? Change of pace?


1: Is your POV consistent?

2: If your POV is inconsistent then why does it shift? Does it have to shift? Does it shift mid-sentence? Does it shift too often?

3: Do you use interior monologue? How do you format it? When do you use it? What effects do you use it to achieve? Are these successful?


1: Does your story begin at the right moment? Does it need to begin earlier? Can it begin later? You need dramatic build-up, but do you spend too long in a pre-amble to the inciting incident?

2: To abuse the often-used analogy of the reader as a swimmer:

Do you allow your reader wade in gradually from the shoreline, slowly adjusting to the new environment?

Do you make your reader plunge straight in, with a brief shock, and then adjustment?

Do you hurl your reader into a heaving tempest?

All of these can work, but is the approach you have chosen the best for your narrative?

3: Have you used flashback or fast-forward? What effect have you used these to achieve? Can you tell the story without them?


Does your dialogue sound natural?

1: Do you characters talk in snippets, or sentences? Is there variation? Unless there is a compelling reason your characters should not converse in long unbroken speeches. Break up long stretches of dialogue with action beats, and interjections from other characters.