Editing: How Much is Too Much?

The more I learn about editing, the more I realize it’s like walking a tightrope. And that rope is as thin as dental floss.

As a book editor (magazine editors have much more leeway), you have to watch for structure, grammar, and spelling, but you also have to look at stories from both a macro and micro view. Macro things could be the narrative arc, plot, character development, voice, etc. Micro could be cadence, word choice, even comma placement. At the same time, even if you may have strong opinions on how to revise a manuscript, you have to be very careful how you present your proposed changes to the writer. The book is, at the end of the day, the writer’s work, and it’s up to them to accept or change anything. In that way, editors are very much in service to their writers, which is funny, because as a writer I always hear the opposite.

I take a lot of writing classes, and in every single one I’m told to make things as easy as possible for the editor or publisher, especially if I’ve never been published before. As a writer, it’s all about pleasing the editor. But as the editor, it’s all about walking on eggshells around the writer. How did this relationship get this way? It’s a little maddening. (If you want to read interviews of famous writers and editors about their processes, check out Paris Review).

Book editors are not supposed to judge or impose on their writers. They are not supposed to show their voice in the work, only to make the writer’s work the best it can be. To do this, they need a clear vision of the writer’s intended audience, among other things. This is all very tricky, with no hard rules. So the question becomes, how much is too much? When do editors cross over that line from being a guide to rewriting?

One of the most famous examples, and huge debates, revolves around Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. Carver was known for his minimalist style, even winning awards with his debut collection of short stories, which was almost unheard of. But it turns out that Lish heavily edited all of Carver’s stories. Both versions of many of Carver’s stories are now widely available, and if you read them, you can see that not only did Lish cut 40 or more percent of Carver’s stories, in many cases, he rewrote large chunks.

Is this overstepping his duties as editor? Well, I think that depends. In some cases, Lish sent the changes to Carver for approval before printing. Carver accepted them, which I think makes it ok. But other times Lish went ahead and made changes without Carver’s approval, which I don’t think is acceptable.

What do you think? How much is too much?


2 Replies to “Editing: How Much is Too Much?”

  1. It is too much when the author feels that his work, his right to call the work “his”, or his artistic aspirations are being compromised.

    This of course in a more general setting than just editing. Notably, in my second hand impression, it is relatively common that publishers attempt to force a work in more commercial direction, e.g. recently that vampire stories dial up the romance significantly to draw more “Twilight”readers.

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