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.

Course Announcement: Editing Your Work

To all the Chicago-area writers: Three weeks from today, I begin teaching a four-week course called Editing Your Work, through the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago Graham School. In the class, we will examine strategies by which writers may read their own work with fresh eyes; discuss the different levels of editing; look at “before and after” examples from published writers; and practice applying various techniques of revision to our work.

And now a brief tangent from the Department of Coincidence:

I was going through my course materials from last year and made an amusing discovery. For one session, I had students read a short essay called “The Joys of Trimming” (because oh, how I love trimming!). I hadn’t remembered this, but the essay was written by the novelist Pamela Erens—whose latest book, Eleven Hours, I happened to review for the NYT Book Review earlier this month.

The Erens essay will probably be on the reading list again, so if you check it out now, you’ll be a step ahead. To register for my class, or any other Writer’s Studio courses, please visit this page and click on “search courses.”

'I Hate Adverbs'

Cue the violins! In the latest issue of New York magazine, Christian Lorentzen offers a clever, thoroughly cranky rant on a matter of craft that bedevils many a writer. "I hate adverbs," he declares, and goes on to enumerate the reasons. Among them:

Anything an adverb does can almost always be done more elegantly by the adverbial deployment of the other parts of speech. Almost always more elegantly: in most cases with more elegance.

See what he's doing there? (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Also:

An excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives. You might have to say someone ran swiftly or walked slowly, but you’d never have to qualify galloping or lumbering. The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs — also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of “moreover,” “accordingly,” “consequently,” and “likewise” are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying “indeed” is tantamount to saying, “I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.” Next time you come across the word “meanwhile,” ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase “of course” but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. “Nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and the atrocious “however” are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word “but.” But you can never have too many helpings of “but,” and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.

I give some version of this feedback to clients and writing students all the time. (We'll cover adverbs in the class I'm teaching in June-July, in fact.) Lorentzen rightly notes that adverbs cannot, should not, be banned from the language. Moderation is key. As is intention. In adverbs ... as in life?

Live, From Chicago ...

I'm teaching a class this summer — Editing Your Work — at the Writer's Studio, part of the University of Chicago's Graham School. If you're in Chicago and curious about this or any of the Writer's Studio's other offerings, please come to this open house on Thursday, March 31. I'll be presenting a mini-lecture, and other faculty members and alumni will be lecturing and reading. You can also sign up to participate in an open mic, if you have an excerpt of prose, poetry, or a script/play you'd like to share.

As for my class: a brief description is below. If you're interested in registering, you can do so here.