Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Stephen King: ""The Editor is Always Right ... To Edit is Divine"

Those of us who edit for a living, and especially those of us whose working-place value-added comes about by subtracting from the length of early drafts, will appreciate the comments of best-selling writer Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (quoting here from the third edition in 2000).

On the value of having a good editor (p. 13):
One rule of the road not directly stated elsewhere in this book: `The editor is always right.’ The corollary is that no writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.
On the value of making an effort to hold down the length of your work (pp. 222-223):
In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would’ve been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” I wish I could remember who wrote that note … . Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast … [E]very story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing—literary Viagra. 
Of course, these themes don't just apply to writing fiction. Back in 2001, Hal Varian wrote an essay on "What I’ve Learned about Writing Economics” in the Journal of Economic Methodology (8:1, 131-134). Varian wrote: 
It is critical to have a sounding board. The blues singer Taj Mahal says, ``if you cain't get a wife, get a band.'' My advice for authors is: ``if you can't get a co-author, get an editor.'' You need to have someone with good taste who can read your writing and tell you want works and what doesn't.

Tightening prose requires effort, but on average, it as King writes, "the effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing." My sense is that for many academic journals, the dialog between authors and editors that determines whether a paper will be published often does not take readers much into account.