Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Drive-Thru Book Review: The Fitzgerald Admiration Society

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself
by Susan Bell
ISBN: 978-0-393-05752-2

The previous book I reviewed was on the how of editing your own work. This title is more about the why of editing. Both the self-editing book and this one talk about The Great Gatsby as the classic example of a well-edited novel*: a fact that Bell does not fail to mention. Repeatedly. Only on going through the acknowledgments and bibliography did I discover that the author published an essay and taught a course on the subject. This would have been good to know going in, as my only memory of Gatsby is likely the one many share: being forced to read it under great duress in a high school literature class. Bell does pepper the work with some examples of before-and-after, but primarily to marvel at Fitzgerald's ability to tone and refine. Admirable, but not quite as useful to those of us who are painfully aware how far short of Fitzgerald we fall.

Chapters are:
I. Gaining Perspective
II. The Big-Picture: Macro-Editing
III. The Details: Micro-Editing
IV. Master Class
V. Servants, Dictators, Allies: A Brief History of Editors

Plus copyediting symbols, bibliography, acknowledgments, and credits. There are some practical points, though the advice is not unique to this book. What I found most interesting were interviews that Bell conducted with authors, or editors (not all copy editors), many of whom offered insights into their methods. As a whole, though, the book is more a philosophical treatise on the "art of editing" than a guideline to "the practice of editing yourself." (Oh, judging-a book-by-its-cover, how you have failed me yet again...)

I didn't dislike the book (honest, Monda!) but I'm already convinced of the need to edit and the value of re-reading and revising with an editor's eye instead of an author's. If you need to psyche yourself up to making an editing pass at your own work, this would be a worthwhile read. But if you're in the editing trenches, trying to triage your sentences, you won't find any bandages here.

* I suspect that one reason Gatsby is held up to such praise is that early revisions of manuscripts and correspondence have been preserved, and that like me, many people have been exposed to it as a Classic at some point in their lives. There may be other works that have the same documentation available, but Gatsby is slim and approachable.


Monda said...

HA! Yes, I'll agree that a quick reread of Gatsby before diving into The Artful Edit is a good idea. I'll also agree that the book is mainly useful to first-time self-editors.

That said, I love the draft-on-a-clothesline idea.

mpclemens said...

I did try the clothesline trick, though virtually. I've got a wide monitor at work, and reduced the document size to wee-tiny, and had it put as many pages as possible on screen -- that emphasizes where my chapters breaks are falling vs. where they should probably fall, and highlights chatty parts and overly-condensed parts.

Interestingly, I've used this trick for years in coding: reducing the font size to something very small just to see the topography of the whole.