A good editor might make your writing. A bad editor will ruin it.
Raymond Carver has long been one of my favorite writers. His terse, emotionally complex prose isn't to everyone's taste, but I've found it to mine. Recent revelations about his relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish, make me wonder just who it is I've been appreciating all these years.
The opening lines of his classic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in particular, have always grabbed me and held on tight:
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.
It's one of the most fascinating opening passages I've ever read, saying as it does so much with so little. But as it turns out, Carver's original version was something quite different. Titled Beginners, it read like so:
My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Herb and I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, but we were all from somewhere else.
You can see a side-by-side comparison of the whole story here. You can learn more about the relationship between Carver and Lish here.
Lish seems to have been the kind of editor every writer hates: heavy-handed and prone to not only rewriting but inserting passages of his own. And yet I can't -- if I'm being honest -- deny that he improved the work in significant ways.
It points out just how difficult it can be to bring written material to print. The creator, naturally, has a huge stake in what's being said. But there's no denying that an engaged, thoughtful set of outside eyes can take something good and push it to greatness. Or, more often, take something middling and make it good.
The keys to making the process work are trust and communication. It will not work without both, and the sad fact is that there are far more bad editors out there than good ones. The right mix is delicate and hard to come by, but it's worth looking.