Commonplace Book: The Joys of Editing

Lovely piece by Rebecca Saletan in Poets & Writers about editing, including this precis of a key moment in editing.

At its best—and it is often this good—editing means getting to be such a friend, and entering into that strange and almost primal process of divining the shape the work is trying to assume. It was Matthiessen himself who gave me my first experience of being taken seriously as an editor, back when I was an assistant to the formidable Jason Epstein, and Peter was working on a collection of stories. One day he asked if I would look at one he’d been laboring over. Something was hampering it, but he didn’t know what. I read it and instantly saw—or rather, felt—what was off: The story was constructed on a hinge, and the hinge was stuck, much as an actual hinge might be.


This ‘hinge’ issue (for some reason I usual think of these as pivots) is one of the major things in writing. Odd that it gets relatively little attention in writing instruction (or did in mine at least). In an essay, a story (even in a blog post sometimes) how the cards get turned over to reveal a pattern–and the moment that comes clear–is so important, and tricky to get right, with implications for what comes before and after. To try a different analogy, it is when the water hits the shore, and whether it is a gentle lap, or a tsunami, how it was prepared for is what makes the piece work. It’s hard to see how to fix it yourself (forest and trees idea, since analogies seem to be on sale today), and therein lies one of the many advantages of working with a good editor (and keeping them in editorial enterprises).

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