At the end of a satisfying week of Advanced Novel workshopping at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival last week, our instructor gave some final recommendations to the class. One of them was to buy this little book, “The Artful Edit,” by Susan Bell. That gave me the excuse I was looking for to rush right out to Prairie Lights, one of the best independent book stores in the world, and on one of my favorite places to hang out in Iowa City. They only had one copy, and it was mine.
Published in 2007 by W. W. Norton, this book is destined to be a classic, right up there with Annie Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” which is one of my all-time favorite books on writing. Bell has been a professional editor for over 20 years, for Random House books and Conjuctions magazine. But even better, she is a great story-teller.
My favorite writing books provide a combination of technical advice, and anecdotes about famous writers (and some not-so famous ones as well.) Technique is useful, but how do I know a specific technique really works? By seeing how it worked for someone else – preferably someone whose writing I admire. As Bell states in Chapter IV, Master Class, “I cannot furnish a formula for editing, as none exists. Instead I’d like to offer what has helped me hone my skills: a close look at the work and work process of other artists.”
She does this by revealing a specific technique through anecdote – either from her own experience or that of another writer, and is careful to include the specific results that were achieved by use of the technique. She weaves in quotes from other writers, historical and cultural references, writing exercises, and excerpts from books and essays to yield a multi-layered tapestry studded with writing gems.
The book is short yet substantive. It is divided into five chapters. The first three give a top-down view of self-editing, from Gaining Perspective, to Macro Editing and finally to Micro Editing. In Chapter IV, Bell gives space to three writers and two artists to discuss how they revise their work, and Chapter V is A Brief History of Editors, from ancient scribes to some of the most effective editors of the 20th century.