Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis
Princeton, New Jersey, United States
September 05
Lauren B. Davis's new novel, OUR DAILY BREAD (HarperCollins Canada, 2012; and Wordcraft of Oregon, 2011), was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and chosen as one of the "Very Best Books of 2011" by The Boston Globe and The Globe & Mail. Her next book, THE EMPTY ROOM, will be published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada in May, 2013. She is also the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels, THE RADIANT CITY, (HarperCollins Canada 2005) a finalist for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize; and THE STUBBORN SEASON (Harper Collins Canada, 2002), chosen for the Robert Adams Lecture Series; as well as two collections short stories, AN UNREHEARSED DESIRE (Exile Editions, 2008) and RAT MEDICINE & OTHER UNLIKELY CURATIVES (Mosaic Press, 2000). Her short fiction has also been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and she is the recipient of two Mid-Career Writer Sustaining grants from the Canadian Council for the Arts - 2000 and 2006. Lauren leads a monthly writing workshop in Princeton, New Jersey, teaches creative writing at the A.C. Wagner Correctional Facility, and is a past mentor with the Humber College School for Writers, Toronto, and past Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, Princeton. For more information, please visit her website at:


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Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 24, 2010 3:23PM

What we talk about when we talk about editors

Rate: 35 Flag

I teach creative writing in a men’s prison, at monthly workshops in Princeton, and via email.  I’ve taught at universities and writers’ conferences.  Everywhere I teach, and no matter whom I teach, at some point the subject of editors inevitably pops up.

I mentioned to a student recently that part of my job as a teacher was to encourage students to work independently, not to become too dependent on me as an editor.

“A writer works alone,” I said, “in her little room, surrounded by scraps of paper. I won’t be around forever, and if you rely on me too much, if I micro-edit every sentence, you won’t learn how to do it yourself.”

My student sent me this email:

I did think about what you said about dependency on editing suggestion.

i have always had good editing peer review is that way and then with my writing I had a rigorous editor and worked for a year revising.

I think that some of us need that back and forth and at fifty I have gotten more comfortable about my limitations.

I wonder if Raymond Carver had a relationship with his editor and it worked to produce what they did that might have been better than what he did alone we are all the better for it.

I might suggest a little editing on that prose, but the sentiment is not an uncommon one.  Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver’s editor, has a lot to answer for, I think.

Let me make one thing clear. All writers need editors.  My own novels, when they were finally published, were significantly different than the manuscripts I initially submitted. (Which is one of the many reasons I think self-publishing is a bad idea, but that’s another blog.)  And I know they were improved by a good editor.  My editor worked with a large brush — she raised issues of pacing, spots where the narrative slowed down and needed to be cut.  She suggested one particular character was  incomplete, nothing but a stereotype, and she was right.  In one case, she said there wasn’t enough on the page yet, and perhaps I needed another conflict, something to deepen the work.    Also right.  However, in two instances, one where I wanted to add a second plot line, and one where she wanted me to change the ethnicity of a character…I held my ground, and the critics proved me right.

Thus, my experience of the editorial process has been one of equality, and mutual respect.  What my editor did not do was rewrite my sentences.  She did not change the essential nature of my work.

Some would say this is exactly what Lish, a writer of some ambition himself, did with Carver.  Some might say Lish used Carver’s work (and perhaps his fragility) to produce work he might have written himself.  When Carver sobered up, he regretted the control Lish had over his prose, and wrote him what has become a rather famous letter, in which he asked his beloved editor to let his work stand as he, the writer, had intended it.

Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, said this (I’ve excerpted from the New Yorker article for which there’s a link above):

“What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?” Gallagher said recently. “He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.”

In the end, “What we talk about when we talk about love,” what might be called “Lish’s Version” was published to critical acclaim.  And then…
Carver’s next story collection, “Cathedral,” was published in 1983, and was an even greater success, winning praise again on the cover of the Times Book Review, this time from Irving Howe, who wrote that in Carver’s more expansive later work one saw “a gifted writer struggling for a larger scope of reference, a finer touch of nuance.” In an interview with The Paris Review that year, Carver made clear that he preferred the new expansiveness: “I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I’d be at a dead end––writing stuff and publishing stuff I wouldn’t want to read myself, and that’s the truth. In a review of the last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it.”
In the end, a writer must take responsibility for her own work, if she is to have any peace with herself.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed.  Room for the writer alone.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed. Room for the writer alone.

All that is secondary, however, to the fact that unless a writer learns how to craft fine sentences without any help, she is unlikely to get to have such discussions with an editor. A poorly written manuscript will be tossed onto the rubbish heap long before it ever reaches an editor’s critical eye. Whether or not one prefers Lish’s minimalist style, or Carver’s ultimately more expansive style, no one can deny that the work Carver submitted was well-crafted. His sentences worked.

If one is a non-fiction writer, with a marketable back-story (celebrity, scandal, allure of some sort), with what the publicity people call a ‘platform,’ you might — just might — get away with poorly crafted work.  Much depends on whether or not the subject matter is tantalizing enough.  It is sadly possible.  Maybe a publisher will sense dollar signs, and hire an editor, who will act more or less as a ghost writer, and have the book ‘polished.’  Once can’t help but wonder how much of her book someone like Sarah Palin actually wrote, for example.

If you are a fiction writer, however, this simply will not happen. An editor will, if they’re any good, help you shape your vision, but only if they have confidence in your ability as a writer, and how are they to develop that confidence if you turn in a manuscript full of sloppy, awkward and unclear sentences?

On of the best things an emerging writer can do for herself is to learn the craft well, and to be patient with it.  It might very well take years of working with words, punctuation, rhythm, imagery, sentences…all the tools of the writer’s trade.

If you want the benefit of working one day with a wonderful editor at a publishing house, learn to be your own best editor first.


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I needed to hear this. I keep writing and work is okay, but if I had an editor to guide me--watch out! I think I have become a better editor in the few months since I started writing, but who knows. Unless you have someone you can trust to at least review your work on a regular basis...
This is so interesting and insightful, Lauren. I have been thinking about external editing vs. internal editing a lot recently, as I've been contemplating getting an MFA or taking some fiction writing courses. Thanks for sharing your expertise.
One of the things I love about Open Salon is the camaraderie of familiar fellow writers, each of which relationships started as a discovery. I'm happy this piece was an Editor's Pick so I could discover you. Your clarity is marvelous.
Well, I'm quite humbled to be included in the "Editor's Picks." It's lovely. And what a terrific opportunity to get to know you all better. Thanks, everyone!
What a clear explanation of what an editor does and does not do. I would pity any editor who had to wade through my writing. (Well, I doubt I'd ever end up in that situation, but I'm just sayin'.)
I write non-fiction, and have a background in newspaper journalism, but I think your points apply to those areas, too, not just fiction. I've been lucky to have worked with some highly talented news editors. One editor in particular would frequently hand back my articles with suggestions of more people to interview. While I grumbled, I did realize that I may not have devled deep enough, and the additional quotes made it stronger. This was a great explanation of editors' roles. Rated.
Thank you. I am brimming with appreciation for this post. As an editor, I respect the work authors put into their manuscripts as much as I respect their voice. My goal is to help them get facts right and to look good in print.

Recently I learned about a certain ratio of mistakes per keystroke. I shiver when I think of errors. But I am human. When I am alone, I deal with the fear of missing something important in a manuscript and I pray about the concept of forgiveness.
As an owner of an editing business, my goal is to make my client look good; not me. Sometimes it is more difficult than others. R-
I do believe Gordon Lish made Carver accessible - reading the edits to "Beginners" confirms this for me, and for that I'm grateful, as I am for your link.
I lost interest with Cathedral.
Michael Woods says it best when he suggests that Lish found the silence in Carvers' stories.
As in music, the silence is the other half.
Thanks, Lauren. I enjoyed this muchly.
I have had magazine editors take my work and give it such shine that I thought their names belonged in the byline, and others simply publish what I send them, typos and all (of which I can be assured a list from my father). Gradually, I'm learning to be more collegial with editors and not defer to them as I tend to do with teachers. Three things have helped: 1) the book "The Forest for the Trees"; 2) co-authoring my first book with an experienced author; 3) working as a journal editor myself. Now, if only I had a blog editor! (Business venture, anyone?)
A good post about editorial limits and why they matter. The Carver-Lish story sends a chill through most fiction writers. An author's equivalent of the actor's nightmare is to have a book published and see it become successful beyond all expectation, and to know that it is a lie.
Great editing is an art as much as great writing is. The best editors are facilitators of the writer, just as the best teachers are facilitators of their students -- in both cases, the hard work of creation rests elsewhere. As both a writer and as an editor for others, I've found that one of the most powerful tools is simply to ask questions. (Something else I stole from teaching, not to mention therapy!) Getting the writer to think about and talk through their intentions and then reflecting back whether or not that hit the page. Writers are often surprised that it didn't, or that readers aren't reading their minds and getting what they're trying to say.

As for editing yourself, it is the hardest and most important part of writing in my opinion. I am often surprised how many people write without doing much revising or editing of their work, but I think it's largely due to what you illuminate here, which is that the act of editing is mysterious to most people. They think it's just about correcting errors or trimming a sentence here and there. The process of crafting writing still often seems like a dark mysterious art that few can really explain so that others can understand it.
I really appreciate this post and your clear, understanding voice. This is very helpful and thought provoking. Congrat's on the EP too - it helped me find this. Nice to meet you. r
Something a writer friend said to me now makes sense...Thank you so much for the enlightenment.

Editor and Enemy aren't necessarily similiar just because they both begin with "E."
Fascinating stuff here about Carver and his editor. And thanks for the
the broader perspective of an editor's role in the craft of writing.
Having just finished my second non-fiction book, I've lived the difference between someone who reads quickly and asks a few fact-based questions (first book, 1.5 pages of revisions) and someone able to help sculpt a narrative (second book, 6 pages of revisions.)

The larger challenge is accepting the notion -- very un-American -- that it's not all about you, the writer, but about your editor's eye. Yes, you must develop the skill to make the changes s/he asks for, but you have to balance the ego to put words onto paper for publication and payment with the necessary humility and sense of cooperation to listen carefully, know what's worth listening to and making the changes.

One good friend suggested viewing my new book, a memoir (hard to remain detached from such material) as an engine that needed fixing. Just get on with it.
I've worked with many editors, good and bad, mostly good. The good ones make you better. They catch errors and repetitions and illogic. Bad ones (like Lish; I agree about him), are arbitrary and prescriptive.
I think non-fiction authors might have a different experience than fiction writers, since a scientist, say, might not be a crackerjack writer of prose, and need more substantial rewriting. I wouldn't expect any editor of my fiction to hold my hand throughout the process, try and help me articulate a vision, or replace large chunks of prose. For one thing, none of them are so highly paid that they want to spend time doing this. And I also have enough confidence (or arrogance) to make such assistance unwelcome.
A friend of mine who worked in publishing for years put it very succinctly: "Writers write, editors do everything but rewrite." In other words, find your own damn words.

Is there no way to stop the spam shopping comments? I think I've deleted 30 of them? How annoying.
Lauren, thanks for this insightful and thoughtful essay. I went to your blog and read some of your other essays. I'm very impressed with your ability to consistently convey clear thoughts and positions on a variety of real issues writers and other humans have to deal with on a daily basis. For any other readers interested in engaging essays of the highest quality, here's the link:

I look forward to more of your writing. thanks!
I'm a fan of critique groups. They help you find the typos, the awkward phrasing, and hopefully, the sags in your plot. You can get a critique partner who is awful, or not critical, but you can a lot of help towards becoming a better writer before you manage to capture the eye of an editor.
It's too bad tomreedtoon has taken this attitude, but I can see where it comes from. There is a widespread fantasy that "writing" (hitting a keyboard and cranking out a lot of words) = being a "writer", i.e. someone whose work and ideas is deemed commercially viable. Those of us who aim for commercial recompense know it's not easy or simple and expect a tremendous amount of rejection.
If you've been popping on to this thread, you may notice a couple of comments have been deleted. I treat a comment thread as though it were my dining room table, and thus, although I encourage discussion and certainly not everyone has to agree with me, I do expect people to behave towards me, and my guests, with respect. I can't tolerate behavior I consider rude, cruel, bullying, racist, sexist or unkind. So, if I notice comments that don't meet my standards for civility, I delete them, just as I would ask someone to refrain from such comments in my home. (The same goes for all that 'shopping' spam!) What people do in their own 'home' is their business, but here, my standards apply. Good heavens, I teach in a men's prison, and if gang-bangers and drug dealers can be polite and respectful, even when disagreeing, surely we can. Thanks for your understanding.
Thanks Lauren. It's great to have this group to draw from. Nice post. r
The longer I have written and cooked, the more I have realized that a an high quality, expertly sharpened knife is required to be able to cut with precision and get rid of the fat. It helps too, if the quality of the product your cutting isn't some poor imitation of something better. Excellent post.
Thanks for this. While I will never be a professional writer, I do want to at least be able to write a blog that people can understand. I write for enjoyment and I'm learning more and more each day because of people like you.
interesting to see that with all those credentials and fine work it's still taken you a so long to be established on OS. Also, that you stuck with it when there are so many other sites available. it affirms the site as a "writer's site," and you as a writer in my view regardless of the credits.