Thomas Ricks and the ‘Offstage Act of Editing’

This essay from the Atlantic is the sort of piece I often file away, figuring I’ll pull it out for some future class on writing and revision, or share it with an author who needs a bit of encouragement: the right words, at the right time, about a familiar-sounding situation.

Thomas Ricks, a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, describes the distress* that ensued when he submitted his most recent book to his longtime editor, Scott Moyers, who responded with … displeasure.

“Two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him,” Ricks writes. “It was not that he disliked it. It was that he fucking hated it.”

Of course the editor didn’t put it quite so indelicately, but such was the sentiment as Ricks inferred it.

Ricks writes of being devastated, but also confused. Yet rather than recoiling from that confusion, he did what every good writer does—or at least what every good writer who trusts his editor does—and instead went toward it. He read and reread, asked blunt questions of himself and of his book. And then he got his hands dirty:

Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.

The willingness to deconstruct and reconstruct is key. Ricks doesn’t tear down the whole thing and start from scratch. His strong foundation (all that research and accumulated knowledge) remains. But he recognizes that for the book to fly, and to fly off shelves, it needs a whole other shape and feel—something he could see only after his editor’s strong critique.

Some readers have criticized Ricks’s essay as a straight-up piece of marketing. But as an editor, I must say, I appreciate his candid portrayal of the revision process, as well as his public praise for an editor he dearly respects. He concludes:

Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.

*The Atlantic’s subhed claims that “hijinks” ensued after Moyerss first reply, but something closer to “distress or “handwringing” (or “self-flagellation”) would be more like it.