The virtues, and sins, of editing

As a writer, length has always been important. As a newspaper reporter, I tended to write long stories, trying to cram in every detail I had gathered. As a freelance writer, I’m frequently paid by the word. I love long-form journalism, and am enjoying writing for magazines and dreaming up book projects.

 Yet I struggle with the notion that longer is not always better. Mark Twain summed this up in an epistle: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Editing takes extra effort.

 Now comes proof, in several delicious forms.

First was a story by Motoko Rich in the New York Times last month, about how Raymond Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher wants to publish the original versions of some of his marvelously minimalist short stories. These versions reveal that Carver wasn’t always so economical with language, and his editor stripped out entire sections, imbuing them with the ambiguity that made them so intriguing.

Almost immediately thereafter, Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker wrote a fascinating piece on how the British publisher Orion is releasing new, heavily edited versions of old classics.

The subtraction does not turn a good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It is all Dick and no Moby.

 And  today, in the Times, David Carr extolls the virtues of The Week, Felix Dennis’s weekly magazine that summarizes the long stories published elsewhere in favor so that busy readers can know what’s in the news.

Yet shortening a lengthy work is not always an improvement. And I was reminded of that as I put together this post, and looked up Gopnik’s piece online. The piece is not there, but an abstract is.

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