Editing tips from Raymond Carver

Carver

With two versions of American short story writer Raymond Carver’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love available, we have a unique opportunity to compare the writer’s original work with the heavily-edited stories that made up the successful collection. We can learn lessons about how editing can alter a story as well as about the relationship between writer and editor.

Carver was known for his realistic portrayals of mostly down-and-out characters and his stark, minimalist style and was acclaimed for his short fiction. However, two decades after his death, his widow and literary executor Tess Gallagher succeeded in getting a publisher to release a new version of his 1980 short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In fact, the new version was really the old version. The revised edition of the book bearing its original title of Beginners contained the short stories as Carver wrote them before they came under the heavy hand of longtime editor Gordon Lish. Carver, it was revealed, was ambivalent in some cases about the extensive editing Lish had done.

When we read the stories as they appear in each edition, we can learn about both content editing and line editing and just how much a story can be altered by either. Content editing looks at issues of plot and character, and the original stories in Beginners reveal the extent of Lish’s influence such as changing entire endings. Line editing works with fiction at the sentence and word level. If we think of the words and sentences as the scaffolding for a story, a comparison of the stories reveals how much those choices affect the tone of a story, the way we see the characters and more. Lish applied his scalpel here as well, shaping and toning some of Carver’s more tortuous sentences into the clean declarative style we think of as Carver-esque.

The other lesson we can consider deals with the relationship between the writer and the editor. Editors work hard to improve fiction, and as writers, we don’t want to get reputations of being difficult to work with or refusing. On the other hand, Lish’s editing in the stories was so extensive that in some cases it amounted to more of a collaboration than a series of edits. As writers, it can be difficult for us to be objective about both our work and critiques of our work. We may err on the side of growing defensive and not wishing to make any edits, or we may find ourselves making cuts that we are ultimately uncomfortable with as Carver did. In the end, the stories have our names on them, and we need to make sure we’re comfortable with what we release.

Would you be willing to make the same extensive cuts and changes in your own fiction?

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