The Invisible Art of Literary Editing

By | September 20, 2023

Editing is the invisible art. When it’s done well, the reader doesn’t notice the editor’s
work, though you can bet the reader will notice a lack of editing. Good editors work
behind the scenes, putting writers and their words at center stage. Great editors deliberately
avoid the spotlight. (And like stagehands, they look good in black.) But all this invisibility
makes editing a hard craft to learn. How can you figure out what you can’t see?

Traditionally, the answer has been apprenticeship. If you’re lucky, you work under a
mentor, picking up their techniques piecemeal. If you’re not so lucky, you teach yourself,
learning through trial and (lots of) error. Apprentice or autodidact: For years, those have
been the only options.

There should be a better way. A more transparent, less haphazard method of learning
the craft. That’s the aim of this book: to pull back the curtain on the editing process, to
make the invisible visible, in order to demystify the editing process.

The layout mirrors the editing process. Part One lays the foundation for any editing
venture: aesthetic. After helping you discover your aesthetic vision and mission, this part
will show you how to communicate it to various audiences.

Part Two moves into the acquisition phase, from solicitation to selection. Here you’ll
find advice and model texts for corresponding with writers. At the end of the section, two
publishers reveal the details of their acquisition process.

Part Three is the heart of this book: case studies in editing. An array of editors have
shared real examples of their work, so you’ll get to see their editing process in full, from
the marked-up manuscript to the final publication. Each case study contains an interview
with the editor, in which they talk about their methods and guiding philosophy. From here, the book moves from observation to application.

Part Four teaches editing techniques by way of exercises. You can try your hand at editing by applying these techniques in a low-stakes way to one of the stories in the appendix that we lovingly refer to as “CPR dummies.”

We start with the big picture: considering aesthetic. When we ask our college students to define “aesthetic,” their first responses are broad.

It’s a look, they might say. A mood or a vibe. The feeling or impression you get
from seeing both the parts and the whole. How the text and art interact.

Yes, yes, and once again: yes. But that broad base is only the beginning. The aesthetic
of literary journals, magazines, and books varies as widely as the individuals who produce
them. Trends influence aesthetic, and so does personal taste and sensibility. It’s worth
paying attention to what you think is good and worthy of admiration. Everyone has likes
and dislikes; those are innate responses. But interrogating those responses might reveal
deeper, more interesting aspects of your aesthetic: Why do you like what you like? What
are the causes and components of that pleasure? How does that translate into the way you
edit an essay, a literary magazine, or a novel?

We all have biases, some of which we may need to examine and potentially work
against. Are any of our likes or dislikes rooted in a personal experience, causing us to
either champion or discount a piece or writing (or a writer)? Are we reading submissions
with an open mind, or are we reading through the lens of our preconceptions? Our biases
play a role in shaping aesthetic, too.

Editors in the process of developing an aesthetic vision must think about what they
want to make, and how to present it to the world. Material and delivery. Content and
design. Editors who are conscious of aesthetic are better able to articulate what they’re
looking for from writers and artists.

Imagine you are creating your own literary publication from scratch. (To get those
creative juices flowing, forget about money, time, and other precious resources for a
moment.) What will it be? An all-haiku journal? A magazine of first-person essays about
nature? Flash fiction, longer stories, entire novellas? Dirty realism, magical realism, high
fantasy? Will your publication be online, in print, or both? What shape will it take? (Each
issue of One Story features a single story, the pages and cover folded and stapled like a
‘zine. HOOT is a magazine on a postcard.)

As you think about your own aesthetic, seek out and study other models. Think about
what you want to make, like a present you give to your readers. A distinctive, singular new
thing that is not merely a mood or a feeling, but a special double issue devoted to nostalgia,
for example; not just a cool cover, but an image that evokes the Great Depression-era
photography of Margaret Bourke-White.

The details are in the discovery.


Authors of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing:

Bryan Furuness is Senior Lecturer of English, Butler University, USA and is the author of the novels Do Not Go On and The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. He has also edited several anthologies, including My Name Was Never Frankenstein: And Other Classic Adventure Tales Remixed.

Sarah Layden is Assistant Professor of English, Indiana University-Purdue University, USA. She is the author of Trip Through Your Wires and The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. Her recent nonfiction appears in The Washington PostPoets & WritersSalon, and The Millions.

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