Editor or surgeon?

There are as many kinds of editors as there are writers. From the editor who gives you feedback and lets you decide how to address it all the way to the editor who rewrites your work like a plastic surgeon.

On the extreme end is the legendary short story writer Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. Lish made such deep changes to the stories, that they are almost like a joint work.

In one story, Raymond’s original ending:

For myself, I knew I wouldn’t forget the sight of that arm emerging out of the water. Like some kind of mysterious and terrible signal, it seemed to herald the misfortune that dogged our family in the coming years.

—is transformed into the dry, ironic and Hemingway-esque:

That arm coming up and going back down in the water, it was like so long to good times and hello to bad. Because it was nothing but that all the years after Dummy drowned himself in that dark water.

I had a very fine editor who pointed out numerous plot holes and areas for improvement. Our collaboration forced me to think through various pieces and sometimes make sweeping changes. I definitely appreciated and would work with her again, although a part of me wanted the plastic surgeon approach.

Which do you prefer?

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Write like Hemingway?

Want the maximum readability when you’re writing? Then you need the Hemingway App. A free website (or $10 app) that edits your prose for readability and simplicity. Such fun to try a few lines of a book and see how it does.

Hemingway’s theory of omission is that the writer ought to write all the backstory of a character but then cut anything that isn’t necessary, because the reader will pick up on all the context and the character will feel truer. He focused on using the least and most simple phrasing that he could, with the idea that the “iceberg” of the characters is 90% under the water.

I’m not sure if I always agree, but I do think that many books could be served by providing fewer and stronger phrases that leave more to the reader’s imagination. Given that attention spans and vocabularies are getting smaller, rather than fight this tendency, why not embrace it?

Here’s an excerpt from my book, A Cup for the Dead:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought irritably.

Hemingway App rates this as Grade 8, overall good, but that my second sentence is hard to read.

If I make some changes, I can get Grade 7 with only a complaint about adverbs:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought.

I think it’s an interesting exercise, regardless of whether you follow the advice or not. It helps us think about sentence construction and vocabulary that we choose.

PS: You can get an excellent and short overview of his top 7 tips from Open Culture.