The Robert Gottlieb Guide to Editing, My Personal Notes

Every field has its titans, larger than life persons with accomplished careers erected upon impeccable talent, judgment and character. The field of editing is no different. And Robert Gottlieb is one of its titans.

Some years ago, The Paris Review published an extensive interview with Gottlieb titled The Art of Editing. It profoundly influenced me: how I behold the writing-editing process, how I sense and interpret the needs of a book, and how I wield the forces of editing. It influences me still.

The interview—with Gottlieb himself as well as several of the prominent authors he edited—is 14,000+ words. Don’t worry; I took notes.

Here now are those notes. I share them in the hopes of making a difference, or rather, channeling the difference they made upon me. It makes no matter whether you’re a writer or editor (or both). Gottlieb’s words speak to the necessities of refinement that all books must undergo to become better.

Please note: I’ve done my utmost to accurately quote what is a direct quote. If in doubt over a particular phrase or passage, please assume it came verbatim from The Paris Review’s original interview. Also, all numbering, organizing and emphasizing of information is my own. Finally, to prevent an awkward reading experience for you, I shall use block quotes sparingly.

Enter now the wisdom of Robert Gottlieb. . .

The Job of a Great Editor

“I used to feel I was a fraud because I had had so much success and done so little to deserve it. And then I realized, you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor. You don’t have to have a great inspirational talent to be a publisher.You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill. Those shouldn’t be rare qualities, and they don’t deserve a lot of credit, because you’re either born with them or you’re not. It’s luck. And that’s why you can be as good an editor your first day on the job as on your last; you’re not developing some unique and profound gift.”

  1. Be a curator more than a revolutionary.
  2. “The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.”
  3. “The first thing writers want is a quick response.” (swift and honest, tempered but tact)
  4. Tell writers not to fear to loosen, open up their writing and be a bit wider.
  5. “The editorial process will be different for everyone. A good editor responses to the strengths and needs of the writer. Sometimes, if the writer is particularly strong, that’s just offering encouragement.”
  6. Writers are like actors, they need “directors” (an editor) to tell them where they’re strong and where they’re weak to get the best out of them.
  7. Editing is largely a profession of perspective. “What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, ‘Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.’”
  8. “Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it.”
  9. “No editor should work with a book he doesn’t like, because his job as an editor is to make something better of what it is.”
  10. As an editor, “your job with [an overly passionate and stubborn] writer is to be able to say, ‘You may have done an equally brilliant job on all of these things, but this has more weight than that, and you have to give some of that up.’”
  11. “It is best NOT to layer another sensibility or another vocabulary on top of what’s already written,” but instead “get inside the text and instinctively understand the terms and the vocabulary of the writer, and make changes in those terms and that vocabulary.”
  12. “…the most strained moments in books are the very beginning and the very end–the getting in and the getting out.”
  13. The ending is especially awkward. “…sometimes the most useful thing you can tell a writer is, ‘Here’s where the book ends.’”
  14. Writers need to be told when their books are bad.

The Qualities of a Great Editor

“Editing requires you to be always open, always responding. It is very important, for example, not to allow yourself to want the writer to write a certain kind of book. Sometimes that’s hard. My favorite of Heller’s books is Something Happened. When we are working on a manuscript, Joe is always telling me (rightly) that I want him to write Something Happened again, and that he could only write it once. Inevitably you will like some of a writer’s books better than others. But when you’re working on a manuscript, that can’t matter. You have to be inside that book and do your best to make it as good as it can be. If you can’t approach it in that spirit, you shouldn’t be working on it.”

  1. “My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable. I suppose it’s lucky I found a wholesome outlet for it.”
  2. “An editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.”
  3. “A good editor should be somewhat of a burden but who always grants permission.”
  4. Great editors read everything.
  5. “Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That’s why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader.”
  6. “An editor has to be selfless, and yet has also to be strong-minded.”
  7. “If you are a good editor, your relationship with every writer is different.”
  8. “…on some instinctual level you have to respond not just to the words of the writer but to the temperament of the writer.”
  9. “Impoverished vocabulary disturbs me.”
  10. Embody “certainty, ease, and assuredness for your writers” as “they live in a world of constant panic and uncertainty.”
  11. “I suppose editing is almost maternal at times: you see yourself as being able to deliver something nurturing and corrective, and the benefit and the pleasure is in seeing the nurturing and the corrective show without your fingerprints.” – Toni Morrison, edited by Gottlieb

The Techniques of a Great Editor

“You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear. I read a manuscript very quickly, the moment I get it. I usually won’t use a pencil the first time through because I’m just reading for impressions. When I reach the end, I’ll call the writer and say, I think it’s very fine (or whatever), but I think there are problems here and here. At that point I don’t know why I think that—I just think it. Then I go back and read the manuscript again, more slowly, and I find and mark the places where I had negative reactions to try to figure out what’s wrong. The second time through I think about solutions—maybe this needs expanding, maybe there’s too much of this so it’s blurring that.”

  1. Lots of little things can affect the reading experience.
  2. Divide into chapters or allow to flow uninterrupted.
  3. Give chapter titles or not.
  4. Book titles (e.g. Lilith) should create wonderful tension not originally present.
  5. “The best editing reflects the uniqueness of the individual author.”
  6. “A good editor can help an author not immerse too much of him/herself in the text. Unless, of course, it’s an autobiography.”
  7. “…when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards.” – Michael Crichton, edited by Gottlieb
  8. “…ask readers, ‘Tell me how you reacted, not what you think ought to be done.’ Because very often people will jump to their sense of what needs to be fixed and bypass the initial reader’s perception of what was lacking in his experience.” – Crichton
  9. Work hard to keep the book’s rhythm the same throughout.