Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Right Words at the Right Time: Guest Post on Editing & Being Edited

Caroline M. Grant and I are honored to be here at the invitation of Melissa Clark, who contributed a gorgeous, funny, illuminating essay, "Rachael Ray Saved My Life," to our new volume, The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family and How We Learned to EatOur book pairs 28 original recipes with stories about family food and why it matters--even in our lives beyond the table. It was a long journey from conception to publication, and as we mulled over this cycle's theme, our thoughts naturally turned to editing and being edited, and just how important editors are to getting the right words in the right order.

from Lisa Catherine Harper: 

When I teach writing workshop in grammar schools, I urge students to think about word choice. It’s not just about telling your story, I say. It’s about telling your story with the best possible words. Then I quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” They have fun explicating that one, and then we brainstorm better words for “rain.” 

Finding the right word at the right time is also why I love editing—my own work, other writer’s work. It’s the most satisfying part of the process. Combing through sentences word by word, putting those right words in the right order, studying how sentences build paragraphs, how sections create arcs—sometimes it’s like sculpting, other times like solving a gorgeous puzzle. It’s nerdy work, this calibrating of a piece, but when it works: lightning. 

But the right words in the right order is only part of the story of being a writer. A long time ago, a good friend told me that it was the editor’s job to say no. And the editors would continue to say no--over and over and over--until that day when one of them said yes. It’s not personal. It’s how publishing works. And it has proved true in my writing career and in the career of everyone I know. It’s not just a matter of the right words at the right time. It’s a matter of the right pitch to the right editor at the right time. You might have the wrong pitch. Or you might have the right pitch to the wrong editor. (This has happened to me.) Or you might have the right pitch to the right editor, but the wrong timing. (Maybe they just published a similar piece. Or they have someone on it already. Or maybe the zeitgeist has just passed you by.) This constellation--right piece/right place/right time--matters for editors, too. Caroline and I said no for all these reasons when we working on The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: some pieces weren’t well-written enough; others duplicated stories we already had; still other terrific pieces just didn’t fit the arc of the book. 

The lesson is this: get the right words in the right order for the right place. Don’t be discouraged. Be tough. Believe with Wallace Stevens that “After the final no, there comes a yes.” 

From Caroline M. Grant: 

I joined a writing group ten years ago, when my eleven year-old was a toddler. The group consisted entirely of mothers of toddlers and preschoolers, and everyone chipped in a few dollars to pay a sitter who wrangled the kids in one room while we critiqued our work in another. Over the years, our group has had more kids, gotten married and divorced, moved away -- keeping up with critiques via Skype -- and moved back. We haven’t paid for that sitter in years; our kids are mostly old enough now to sit for themselves (although we’re all looking forward to a new baby later this spring.) 

The seven of us have published four books, staged a couple plays, and published dozens of short stories, poems, and essays, but as Lisa writes in her piece, we are all still far more experienced with the editorial “no” than that rare, affirming “yes.” Which is one reason that this group reads my work first. 

Whether I think the draft I send for critique is as full of holes as my old sieve or tight as a tomato skin, their words get my words closer to what I want them to be. 

This kind of group critique isn’t for everyone, I know. Plenty of writers prefer to craft their work independently, send out their pitches, and then work directly with editors to fine tune their pieces for publication. But through my years of editing, both for Literary Mama (an online journal which developed out of this writing group the year before I joined) and on my two anthologies, I can often spot writing that hasn’t had any but the writer’s own eyes on it. Maybe it’s an obscure reference or metaphor that doesn’t quite work (“tight as a tomato skin”? what do you think?), but the chances your words will work for a large audience are better if you try them out on a small audience first. 

My writing group doesn’t gush with praise and encouragement like so many cheerleaders. They examine each line, and offer sharp suggestions where they’re needed. After ten years together, we well know each other’s writing tics and pet peeves, and I rarely use an adverb without wondering if Sybil will strike it out (does that one pass the test?) If a piece is heading off in the wrong direction, they can help redirect it; if it’s working they say so, and then I know it stands a good chance of working for an editor, too. And when an editor does send me the wrong words, whether the brusque “No, I don't want it" that I received once, or all the other more expansive no’s I’ve received over the years, my writing group always comes back with right words: "Send it back out."


  1. LOVE THIS: "The lesson is this: get the right words in the right order for the right place. Don’t be discouraged. Be tough. Believe with Wallace Stevens that “After the final no, there comes a yes.”

    Another reminder for my wall. Thanks for sharing today.

  2. The only guarantees in life are death, taxes and 'no's' from editors! Great post ladies. So happy to be a part of your delicious anthology- your 'yes'.

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