My rating: 5 of 5 stars
as a closet scribbler, i’ve read an awful lot of books on writing well, and most of them are somewhere between “awful” and “useless” on the scale (a couple of exceptions: Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird). the tsunami of books on writing never abates. (which leads to a question: why don’t plumbers write books on plumbing? or auto mechanics on fixing engines? and for sure i can tell you that an elegant weld is a thing of beauty that will probably last longer than most books. but anyway.)
still, it’s actually rather rare to find a book on what to do after you’ve written something, on how to edit a work of fiction. you can probably find more books on how to format a screenplay than how to edit a novel.
those books that i have read on editing tend to cover the low-hanging fruit: continuity of plot, character, setting. but these aren’t the really gnarly issues for me. for me, it’s what to do with 300 pages of hot steaming mess that puddles like a changeling and yet still has holes you can drive a truck through.
so Susan Bell’s book came as quite a lovely surprise.
she starts us off gently by reminding us that we can’t edit until we have distance from a work, and gives some ideas on how to go about getting that. and then she teaches the reader what editing really means–not just fixing the commas and making sure your redheads don’t suddenly become blondes halfway through, but really looking at a work from a number of (nicely detailed) angles and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
there are chapters on what she calls macro- and micro-editing, which include everything from some on structure to testing the heft of your symbols. throughout the book are bits by authors of wildly differing works on what their process and thinking are in rewriting, all of which are quite informative and not at all merely ornamental.
how to look at your book as if you were an editor, not a writer, is the next step up the ladder. she gives us a chapter on how artists in other media edit and prepare their work, which contains some very surprising insights for writers.
the final chapter, on the history of editors, didn’t do so much for me, personally. always fun to know more, but it did not seem useful for me as an editor.
the one thing i wish she’d spent more time on is structure. probably because this is my own particular weakness, and despite doing everything from writing out scene synopses to actually making a diagram of the structure of a screenplay, i still don’t get it. some day i hope to find my structure guru, but it does seem to be the One Writing Task That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
still, this book is a keeper: i shall not lend it out, nor purge it in my periodic shelf clearings. if you’re in need of learning how to edit your own work, or the work of friends and acquaintances, this will prove an excellent resource for you.
(by the way, i worked as a non-fiction copyeditor for years, and i still got a lot out of this book.)