Is Line Editing a Lost Art?
"A great teacher is a gift. A great line editor is a miracle."
“Extraneous baggage”—that was how Albert Erskine, line editor of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, described slow sections of the submitted manuscript. McCarthy listened. He spent months revising and condensing the book. Erskine could be trusted; he’d edited McCarthy’s work since The Orchard Keeper. Before that, he’d edited William Faulkner. He started his career as an editor back in July 1935, when he helped establish The Southern Review.
Erskine was listed as the business manager, but he soon began selecting and editing the magazine’s fiction. He published stories by Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, and Eudora Welty. Years later, Erskine helped Welty with her final novel, Losing Battles. “He had me out to his house as a guest,” she recalled, “eating wonderful food and having a lovely time, and every day we went to his desk and went over this long manuscript, line by line.”
Erskine battled and bartered over sentences. He told Faulkner that he used redundant synonyms. He asked Robert Penn Warren to get more specific about cicadas. He edited Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the novelist complained in a letter that “Erskine’s having a time deciding what kind of novel it is, and I can’t help him.” Erskine and Ellison edited together, reading the manuscript aloud and sharing the book’s sounds. Line editors both rile and save writers.
The duality arises from the word: line. Line suggests a sense both mercurial and typographic. A line is poetic and literal; where the hope of intention meets the reality of the page. Line editing is the ultimate union of writer and editor; the line-edit means we cede control, and the pen, to someone else. It is a gift of trust, and it must go both ways.
Joseph Heller once told The Paris Review that his editor, Robert Gottlieb, thought “it was a shame” that the reader didn’t get to a particular chapter until late in Catch-22. Heller “cut about 50 or 60 pages from the opening just to get there more quickly.” Gottlieb, though, preferred to disappear from the public discussion of books he edited, thinking an “editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.”A great teacher is a gift. A great line editor is a miracle. Jayne Anne Phillips was both.
Anyone in the business knows books are not solo acts. Toni Morrison, who was also edited by Gottlieb, said she never wrote “with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.” Line editors are not readers in the public sense; they are private practitioners, whose profession operates on a sense of both trust and authority. Gottlieb calls the receipt of a writer’s manuscript as an action of “emotional transference.” The days and weeks before hearing back are fraught, but writers know line edits are worth the wait—and the emotional weight.
Line editors are often mistaken for copyeditors. Copyeditors tend to polish and perfect work at a later stage, but the confusion is telling. George Witte, editor-in-chief at St. Martin’s Press, has said “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Often copyediting is done from a distance, but as with Erskine and Ellison, Gottlieb and Heller, line editors have a direct relationship with the writer. They are a book’s “ideal reader,” according to Witte, and because they have often been the writer’s acquiring editor, are also the writer’s “source of money, the point of contact, the guide through the publishing process, the cheerleader, the writer’s advocate, the person to cry to, or, perhaps, to complain about, the lunch or drinks companion, sometimes the friend, and above all the most attentive and most honest reader of an author’s work.”
Line editors tighten sentences when tension and clarity is missing, but they also give sentences breath when constrained. Beyond removing clichés, they excise a writer’s pet words and mannered constructions. Line editors help sentences build into paragraphs, and paragraphs flow into pages. They keep a writer’s eye and ear connected. A line-editor allergic to praise—who wields only a hammer—can break more than a manuscript. Worse yet, they can break a spirit.
Manuscripts, and spirits, are often saved by line editors. Ernest Hemingway began an October 1949 letter to Charles Scribner already in a mood: “The hell with writing today.” Then he opines about editor Maxwell Perkins and the novelist Thomas Wolfe: “If Max hadn’t cut ten tons of shit out of Wolfe everybody would have known how bad it is after the first book. Instead only pros like me or people who drink wine, not labels, know.” Years earlier, Hemingway had warned Perkins about his personality: “please remember that when I am loud mouthed, bitter, rude, son of a bitching and mistrustful I am really very reasonable and have great confidence and absolute trust in you.”
In a pair of essays for The Guardian, Blake Morrison and Alex Clark struck elegiac notes about such personal line editing. Morrison identifies 1912 to 1925 as “the golden age of editing,” but thinks the art of careful line-editing ultimately had a more recent, and practical, death. He says most publishers think editors have to move faster now; they have to be “an all-rounder, involved with promotion, publicity and sales.” Literary agents have replaced editors; agents “offer authors stability,” while editors “are nomadic, moving from house to house.” Clark echoes this sentiment, wondering “whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market’s latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor.”
The truth—and the history—is complicated. Science fiction writer Samuel Delany has reflected that in a career that started in 1962 and spans to the present, he has only had one true line editor for fiction, Ron Drummond. Delany thinks the “marathon reading” done by acquisitions editors “tends to blunt just those finer sensibilities needed to get inside a text and take it apart from within in order to make useful suggestions for improvement that the writer can hear and respond too.” The mode of acquisition is one of decision: this book works, it will sell. For Delany, that mode is similar to a writing workshop style of criticism, which will “list toward the generalized and effect-oriented, rather than toward the specific and causally sensitive.” These criticisms are not invalid, but they “refer to a memory of the text, not the actual experience of reading the text—which is what the writer, writing, is always more or less skillfully modulating and manipulating.”A writing instructor can teach many things, but most important is the convergence of practice and mystery.
What Delany suggests—and what seems true for Erskine, Gottlieb, and other line-editors who stay the course—is a single, critical, editor-as-reader, who evolves and grows with the writer. Instead of thinking about line editing as a forgotten art, one callously consumed by the book business, we should consider it a privilege—a gift—enjoyed by some writers, but not most.
Rust Hills—the fiction editor at Esquire before, and after, Gordon Lish—said that “teaching fiction writing and editing magazine fiction have many odd differences,” but “they do have the same rather odd ultimate purpose in common: trying to get someone else to produce a fine short story.” Line editor as teacher and guide feels like a useful metaphor—and one that I’ve experienced myself.
Curved arrows sweep across the page. Double-strikethroughs delete extra words. Questions line the margins. Black blots seep two pages deep, with an explanation: “My pen broke!” Blue-colored edits are no gentler: “don’t need”; “passive voice”; “where are we?” A concluding end-note spans the back of two pages, opening with gentle praise, but then reaching the soul of the story.
A great teacher is a gift. A great line editor is a miracle. Jayne Anne Phillips was both. Her pen-marked copies of my manuscripts were concise lessons in form and function. I sat in her office at Rutgers-Newark, and hung on her every observation. She conferenced with students the hour before our workshops. Those weren’t superficial conversations; Jayne Anne did real work. She went through the whole story, sentence to paragraph to page. She spoke about my stories—my shaky drafts, my ambitious scenes—as if they mattered. We respected her. She intimidated us—not because she was unkind. Because she was such a gifted writer.
Like Jayne Anne, my undergraduate fiction professor grew up in West Virginia, and we read her short fiction in advance of her campus visit. Black Tickets possessed me. Other books would grab me—In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson—but Black Tickets was first. All writers need a book that makes them believe that words matter. Her book did that for me.
“See I’d met this old dirt farmer in a bar the night before. Said he was selling his truck cheap and I could come down to La Rosa and pick it up.” The first sentences of “El Paso” demanded my attention. Her sentences punched, her details popped: “Us walking in the dust yard past old tires and a rotten bedspring, mule tied to a pump by the chicken shed, and he stands finally by this thing that’s a red 50s Chevy with a built-on bed shelved with chicken cages. Crosses and a blackened corn husk doll hanging from the mirror, keys strung on a hair ribbon.” A world born from precise and unusual detail.
A few years later, when I learned that Jayne Anne founded the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, I had to apply. She was the program’s director, and also taught fiction workshops. I loved being in her classes. We read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Fat City by Leonard Gardner, and she showed us the songs of their lines. Lines was the word she used to describe sentences. No matter their construction, sentences were to be linear and profluent. Subject, verb, object.
A writing instructor can teach many things, but most important is the convergence of practice and mystery. Jayne Anne taught us technique without neutering art. I recently asked her about her method of reading student manuscripts. “I have to think about talking about line editing, because it feels completely intuitive to me,” she says. “I look at a line and know pretty much immediately what changes, deletions, movements of phrase, would make it better, stronger, tighter. Clarity, meaning, sense, as Frank Conroy (also a line editing teacher) told his grad students. It’s harder of course to edit oneself, but I can’t help (sometimes) reading even published writing as a line editor.”
Jayne Anne was the first teacher to convince me that all true editing happens on the printed page. We need to touch a manuscript, feel it as real, before we can make it something better. She says “students usually know very quickly if a line-edit is helpful. It’s as though the line clicks into place or syncs into rhythm. Real writers begin to internalize that attention to the line, a sense of musical phrasing, the beat of the syllable, the clean edge of a full stop.”
Her method brings me back to her office in Newark, where I learned that editing is not something we do to writing; editing is writing. “So much more comes into play in the paragraph, in the story, throughout the novel,” Jayne Anne says, “but the line on the page is the rock solid basis of it all, completely obvious and present, unlike the murk of intention, which is so often only what we think we know about what we’re trying to write.”
“Intention can make for an interesting conversation, but it doesn’t write a book. So often, the writing is sparking, throwing off sounds, smells, glows, meant to draw us deeper in as writers—but we enter through the line itself, always.” When I got back my manuscripts from Jayne Anne, the pages were warped with marks; they felt heavier, worn. She entered my stories through their lines, and I am forever grateful. Saxe Commins, Faulkner’s longtime editor, helped the novelist both professionally and personally. Faulkner’s description of their relationship captures the complex bond between writer and line editor: “We never always saw eye to eye but we were always looking at the same thing.”