J.C. Wigriff's picture
J.C. Wigriff from Carbondale, IL is reading Playboy (for the articles) July 31, 2014 - 11:24pm

So, this friend of mine saw a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, used at our local Goodwill, and thought I might (insert: like it; want it; need it), so she bought it for me out of the kindness of her heart (her kindness apparently caps at $2.75 USD). The book was written by Renni Browne and Dave King, both career editors, the former of which is the founder of editorialdepartment.com, and looks like the type of feisty old woman who would tell you about the time she told John Irving to go fuck himself while she's drinking Glenlivet from a tumbler.

Anyway, I was flipping through this book, and almost immediately they start showing examples of passages that could have been written better and presumably should have been edited… examples taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. My immediate reaction to this was who the fuck are these people to assert that, what is arguably the greatest American novel ever written, should have been written differently? Well, I looked up reviews of this book on Amazon, and it seems that I’m not alone. Here is an example:

“The book is certainly worth reading, but I am concerned they missed the forest for the trees in certain places. The best example of my concern is in the first chapter on showing not telling. The authors take issue with the following line from F. Scott Fiztgerald's The Great Gatsby:

The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.

The "problem" is the ly-adverb "confidentially". The authors suggest it would be stronger to eliminate this adverb explaining the girls' emotion, and instead write the following:

The two girls and Jordan leaned their heads together.

Their rule is to avoid using adverbs to tell the reader which emotions the characters are experiencing, and instead convey their emotion by dialog and actions. This is a perfectly reasonable rule, and I agree it should be followed, most of the time. In the above example however, the rewritten version doesn't quite convey what Fitzgerald intended. There could be many reasons for the girls to have leaned their heads together. They could have been tired from the party and from the alcohol they consumed, for example, and simply flopped their heads to one side in exhaustion. The notion that they leaned closer to gossip was lost when the word "confidentially" was removed. To address this, we could give a more detailed explanation of exactly how they leaned together. Here is my suggestion:

The two girls and Jordan leaned their heads together, glanced from side to side, and lowered their voices.

A problem with my version however, is that the longer explanation might interrupt the flow of the scene. None of us can get into Fitzgerald's head, but I'd like to offer a reasonable guess regarding his reason for using the dread ly-adverb. Most of us have a mental image of how a group of gossiping girls behaves. The word "confidentially" encapsulates this mental image, and adequately conveys the mood of the scene. It's a shortcut, and if it's not overused, it can be effective. I sense the authors are too rigid in the application of their rules.

FINAL QUESTION: Would The Great Gatsby have been a better novel if F. Scott Fitzgerald had not made "mistakes" like the one above? I doubt it. For me, Dave King and Renni Browne lost credibility when they began line editing a novel of that stature. Most readers agree the novel has an essence that goes beyond such mechanical issues.”

He pretty much summed up my feelings on the matter. Do I think editors have an important job? Yes. Do I think there are a lot of rules and guidelines that are usually a good idea to follow? Yes. Do I think it’s necessary to have additional pairs of eyes examine your work? Yes.

I also think it’s a little misguided, arrogant, and overzealous to tell Robert De Niro that he could should have delivered a line a little differently in The Godfather Part II. I think it’s fine to break conventions If it serves the story better, and that people often lose objectivity and become tethered by the limitations of rules they deem as infallible.

Sorry for the beast of a post. Thoughts? Opinoins? 

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow August 1, 2014 - 3:17am

"This will be easy to answer. I mean, all you've raised are the issues of 'rules' in writing, and the use of adverbs. These never spur any debate amoing writers." He smiled. "They're not controversial at all."

Now, did you need 'He said, sarcastically' added to that sentence?

Right now, I'm reading a classic that's sold millions of copies and deservedly won prizes. But there are still places where the prose could be better. There are writers out there who can tell great stories but they can't write dialogue. Some write beautiful descriptions but weak stories. I don't believe in perfection.

I think you should know the 'rules' and be able to justify why you're breaking them at any time. And complaining about someone daring to edit Fitzgerald is missing the point. The book is for writers who want to improve their writing. It uses examples of stories that they might be familiar with. The average beginner will be much better off after reading the book.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 1, 2014 - 6:08am

I'm pretty sure the director probably did tell Robert De Niro to deliver lines differently. Some of the conventions of "strong writing" that you are talking about are modern ones. It's well and good that Fitzgerald doesn't do them, but Fitzgerald isn't writing in 2014. There are a lot of books that are great works of literature that would not be published today without serious revision. It doesn't mean they aren't great works of literature. It doesn't even mean that they didn't subscribe to the writing conventions of their own time. I'd be careful emulating certain things about classic books that were published when editors were looking for different things. If the goal is to get "into print" as the book title proclaims, then getting rid of adverbs, when you know that modern editors are looking specifically for overuse of adverbs, is probably a step towards getting into print. Making the book better, maybe or maybe not. Getting it published, it's probably a good idea.

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things August 1, 2014 - 7:05am

I think that anyone should be allowed to look critically at any work. It makes us better writers.

I was reading through Salem's Lot for the first time, and I had the audacity to laugh at one of Stephen's King's silly lines:

"In all small towns, scandal is always simmering on the back burner, like your Aunt Cindy's baked beans."

"like your Aunt Cindy's baked beans."

Stephen King is an undisputed master of the word, but he even admits in On Writing that he cringes when he sees some of his words in print, and I think any author worth his or her salt would say the same thing. Just because a work is overall considered a masterpiece doesn't mean that it can't be improved upon by an outside sources, especially if those improvements come in simple changes. For instance, if someone had said, "Stephen, nobody, and I mean nobody has an Aunt Cindy that's baked beans in such a way that can be compared to rumormongering," then I probably wouldn't have stopped in the middle of that page and looked up to see whether or not this line had achieved meme status.

I've read Self Editing and actually agree with the authors. In today's day and age, the word "confidentially" would be considered excessive. That doesn't mean that the work was badly written; it obviously was not. But that simple change would probably make it a little bit more accessible, at least to today's audiences (and you can't blame Fitzgerald for failing to meet future writing expectations).

Fitzgerald was a great writer, but that doesn't mean that absolutely every decision he made in Gatsby was the best decision that could have been made.

So write the way you want. Take their advice, or don't. But don't be put off just because they decided to use a high-profile novel as their example. Even Einstein made mistakes.

J.C. Wigriff's picture
J.C. Wigriff from Carbondale, IL is reading Playboy (for the articles) August 1, 2014 - 7:59am

Oh, I'm not suggesting in any way whatsoever that any author is infallible, I'm simply trying to say is that sometimes the rules don't really matter. I agree with most of what I've read in the book, but no rule is 100%. Sometimes you need the adverb. Sometimes you might write something that only sounds good to you a certain way, and that way might be seen as 'incorrect'. It's not as black and white as some people make it out to be.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck August 1, 2014 - 8:58am

I'm not that much of a stickler about writing "rules," so long as it works, which is more intangible, but I don't see too much value in boxing people in.  If every writer followed strict conventions, we'd all start sounding more and more the same over time.

That being said, I haven't gotten past page 40 or so in The Great Gatsby.  I just can't.  I've tried, but everytime I pick it up, I get a few pages in and I'm like, *tosses book to other couch*.  I hate it, and a lot of that has to do with Fitzgerald's writing.

You know what an awesome book would be?  The Great Gatsby by Ernest Hemingway.  I don't like Hemingway much either, but that doesn't have to do with his writing so much as it does his insufferable characters.  I like the Gatsby story itself (so far, anyway).

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 1, 2014 - 6:37pm

I was reading Mary Poppins that does things in a similar fashion. The biggest thing is more detail generally slows down the scene, and less tends to speed it up. Who knows what his intentions are, I haven't personally read it yet. But my question is are there analysing a fast or slow scene? That would make the difference.

Children's books seem to have more adverbs in the ones I've read. Just something I've noticed. "So it's not an exact comparison." I said diplomatically. Oop, there it went.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 3, 2014 - 4:31am

The only rule I've found to be absolute is that if people * notice broken rules, what you think is a good exception isn't.

*People is plural and does not mean one person who happens to be a jerk looking to say something mean.

Skyler Nova's picture
Skyler Nova from Ukraine is reading The Gun Seller August 2, 2014 - 5:27am

It's funny how we tend to call these guidelines "rules" as though they're written in stone. The use of adverbs, the verb "be", or any other "crime" doesn't disqualify the work of literature in and of itself. It's all good so long as it has a purpose.

On a similar note, I reckon it's a great exercise, trying to critique famous novels. Not out of vanity (well, sorta), but because it urges to delves into nuances. Nothing's difficult about seeking out faulty style in "Fifty Shade of Grey".

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 3, 2014 - 4:32am

Try to give it a good review.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 7, 2014 - 6:16am

Are we giving 50 shades a good review?

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 7, 2014 - 2:10pm

Wouldn't using Stephen King as an example be more relateable to a contempoary audience? That's not sarcasm, I'm honestly curious.

Now I read (some) classics, but not everyone does. I'm not sure how old the author is for the example, but it seems using King would be more inclusive.

King isn't even a bad writer, I just mean because he's more current.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 8, 2014 - 7:49am

@Thuggish - Yeah, try to give 50 Shades a good review.  Sounds hard to do right?

Lots of folks on the site like it, and we talked about it a fair amount after the movie came out so it isn't that big a stretch.

Aud Fontaine's picture
Aud Fontaine from the mountains is reading Catch-22. Since like, always. August 8, 2014 - 7:49am

Isn't Fifty Shades just a porny fan fiction? How did it become a book? Does this mean I can publish my Fox Mulder/Dale Cooper crossover fan fiction if I just change their names?

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 8, 2014 - 7:51am

I've heard that but I don't know, I have no idea, and maybe.  I was suggesting that it might be a good idea to try to find something good in it, just as a thought exercise.  

Aud Fontaine's picture
Aud Fontaine from the mountains is reading Catch-22. Since like, always. August 8, 2014 - 8:02am

That actually sounds like a pretty cool experiment. If you succeed, it'd be an exciting learning experience and if you fail then you get to laugh at a ridiculous book and feel superior. There's no way in hell I'd ever do it but for braver souls that seems pretty solid. I recently survived Justine. I'm not ready to go back into the BDSM world, even if it is the candy coated Disney version.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 8, 2014 - 9:52am

Not really my style, but yeah could be neat.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 8, 2014 - 6:40pm

I'll give 50 shades a good review easy. Watch this.

Join the sensation that's sweeping America. Soon to be a major Hollywood motion Picture! Don't be left out, join the millions who have already read and love this book!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 9, 2014 - 6:14am

That is a review of the fan reaction, not the book.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 14, 2014 - 6:04pm

i asked marketing, they didn't care.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 15, 2014 - 2:55pm

Hey, if it scares you that is cool.