I sat down to talk editing and writing the other day with Sadie Stein, former Deputy Editor of the Paris Review (now Contributing Editor). She welcomed me into her apartment on the Upper West Side where, with the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis playing in the background; we talked online editing, her changing role at the Paris Review and parabolas.
– Geoff Bendeck, Nonfiction editor
LUMINA: How did you get into editing?
Sadie Stein: Well it started when I was writing for Jezebel. Because no one really line-edits your work you learn how to do it on your feet very quickly. You learn how to shape a piece. I also did quite a bit of freelancing and magazine work. That imposed certain strictures that are, often times, very binding but which are still useful in terms of structure. It imposes formula which is not good but rigid structure which can be, which can be freeing. So I just learned to think in terms of thesis, in terms of argument development, etc. That was very useful for me and because I had to do it myself, you do. Although I think I was always someone who thought in terms of structure. Papers were easy for me. Just certain basic tenets I learned in middle school. I remember when they taught us the basic structure of an essay should be an hourglass—general, specific, general. It holds true…in almost any essay. Of course then you can break out of that structure but only when you know how to do it.
LUMINA: How do you view editors’ roles with publishing online these days? Everything seems so rushed.
SS: Well the Paris Review is a unique case in that each piece gets much more individual attention than most. I’ve done quite a bit of writing for online and print publications and while they tend to edit for length its rare I think that you get a really professional caliber edit. When a piece is already in good shape, it’s a combination of queries and line edits. If it requires more of a structural overhaul it’s a slightly longer process, of course. Very often small changes make a big difference. Universalizing a concept, adding a little more specificity, etc. Things that you just need another pair of eyes to see. Some of that is just from reading a tremendous amount—knowing what works. I know approaches are idiosyncratic. I’ve been edited by so many different editors and so many of them are very different. Some will send you a track changes document. I don’t like that, personally. First of all, whatever they’ve done it makes it look much more daunting than it is. Even if its fairly cosmetic it looks like they hated it and are rejecting every line. That’s just a psychological thing and I’ve noticed that. I started out sending people every change, querying every change and they found it much more demoralizing. I find if you do the line edit, which is pretty standard and just query the slightly larger things—there are always kinda crazy people who will question every word change. But it’s never good writers and it’s never professional writers. It’s people for whom it doesn’t come easy so they’ve slaved over it and it looks like they’ve slaved over it and that’s the problem. But anyone who has done it professionally and is used to being edited is happy for a sympathetic edit. Because we’ve all just had things hacked down for space in ways that make no sense what so ever.
LUMINA: We used to do a thing in Jo Ann Beard’s workshop. She made us examine each sentence in a piece and ask: Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is it true? Is it new information? Is there a surprise? What’s your process like?
SS: It’s more intuitive with me. I’m sure on some level one is asking all those questions. I’m sure that’s exactly how it’s broken down. You can tell that it’s off. But that’s probably me thinking more like a writer. Essentially you can tell very quickly whether a writer is in control of his sentence or not. And that informs the entire process. If the material is not there you aren’t going to create a masterpiece. Although of course you can shape it tremendously. Some writers I think really want that. But that was one of the first things my dad, a writer, told me. “Good writers will not mind being edited. And good editors won’t over edit you,” he said.
LUMINA: You’ve mentioned Lorin Stein, Editor of the Paris Review. Can you tell me about his editorial mentoring?
SS: It’s such a luxury to get to work with him. First I worked with Vanessa Mobley at Henry Holt and I always thought she had a great rapport with her authors. She gave them a tremendous amount of time, attention, respect; they all felt very well taken care of. That’s something I’ve noticed with all the good editors. You really have to bolster writers’ egos.
Lorin, the way he handles people is very deft. He’s edited a lot of my work. I think he doesn’t over edit. He’s always been right about the general. He said to me recently, “You’re not giving the character of you, as a younger person, enough credit here. She’s more likeable than you are giving her credit for. Step away from it.” The way he reads is very different. It also hasn’t ruined his pleasure in reading. It’s a balance to strike. He has no ambitions to write, although he is a very good writer. He doesn’t find it pleasurable. I think not having that creative conflict at all is freeing and I think it’s a big part of it.
LUMINA: Do you think most editors just want to write?
SS: No, I don’t think by the time they get to his (Lorin Stein’s) level most of them do. One meets a lot of people, when I was at the Columbia publishing course, for instance, or an editorial assistant, everyone just kind of had writing ambitions and they thought this was the closest thing to writing. They aren’t the ones that end up staying in the business. It isn’t the same skill set and it’s demoralizing. The Internet has blurred that line a little bit. Of course I do both and naturally there are exceptions to that.
Some good advice I once heard at the Columbia publishing course, it was Jordan Pavlin, I think, who said, “The best thing I can tell you is if you want to be a writer don’t become an editor.” It’s a full time career and it’s a very different vocation.
LUMINA: Do you remember editing your first established writer?
SS: The established writers were really good about being edited. They handed in pretty clean copy. If I would say, “Could you expand this or turn it around quickly?” They would say yeah of course and turn it around instantly. They are pros. They are easier to work with. You get over that (fear) once you realize they accept you as their editor. They are used to being edited. Inexperienced and bad writers are much harder to deal with. They can’t kill their darlings at all.
LUMINA: As a writer is it hard to let yourself be edited?
SS: I love it. I love getting it out of my hands. You so quickly learn not to get attached to anything and not to slave over things. What has been harder for me is learning how to slow down and revisit. My instinct is always just to knock it out and get it done. I will say I’m pretty good at that. But, often it’s good to come back to something to polish and revisit.
It’s frustrating to be edited by a poor editor. Like I said for me that’s mostly been having a clumsy cutting down where it just didn’t make sense the way the editor cut it down. I’m very rarely one to go back and complain or ask them to change something unless it’s a factual thing. I think some pushback is good. I think a lot of young writers think a lot of pushback means they will be taken more seriously. It just makes them look like amateurs.
LUMINA: What still excites you about editing? Or are you not excited by it?
SS: I think it’s tremendous fun to improve a piece. To see the potential and take it where it could go. It’s fun when it’s just a few tweaks and it’s improved. It’s extra fun when someone is too close to it and they just need someone to tell them how to structure it and they are game for that and you can carve something good out of that. In some ways it’s both frustrating and fun when you get something really bad and you make something readable out of it. It’s never going to be something great but those are the ones that take so much work that almost everything needs to be translated or improved or shifted slightly. I feel tremendous satisfaction when those go up. It’s like you know what it’s not good but it was terrible! (laughs).
LUMINA: I think it’s really fun to make those small structural edits and help a writer see your editorial vision for something.
SS: A lot of time people get very MFAish about structure. Sometimes you just need to simplify it.
LUMINA: What do you mean by MFAish?
SS: Well, experimentation for it’s own sake—confusing the reader without challenging him, is a very important distinction. Like, what function does this serve beyond making it confusing? Why do you need to jump around? Could it be chronological? Why don’t we see what’s like if its chronological? Because sometimes even if you end up rescrambling it, it’s useful to go back and make it chronological and then say wait this makes no sense we are missing all kinds of stuff. And then you can play with it.
LUMINA: What training do writers need that they don’t know they need?
SS: I think it would be great for both MFA folks and bloggers, and I’m not someone who did this myself, but if everyone could do a stint writing straight news as a stringer, just having to be fact based on one hand and having to take the “I” out of it on the other and having to be concise and meet a deadline. I think that is a training program I would add to any MFA writing program. There should be more overlap between creative nonfiction and fiction. I think creative nonfiction should have a lot more overlap with reporting. That’s my two cents, but what do I know, I don’t even have a graduate degree.
LUMINA: Tell me about stepping away from editing the Paris Review Daily. I really enjoyed your recent first person piece, Almanac, about driving in the car with your family. Can we expect more of these on a regular basis?
SS: Yeah you will be seeing things from me every day. I’m going to be kind of the writer in residence at the Daily. Think of it as Mavis Gallant in early New Yorker, like Our Gal About Town. I’ll go places, I’ll write stuff—more of the first person family stuff. My family is highly eccentric so they’re good material. That was dialogue I wrote down as it was happening and I never did anything with it. Thank you—because that’s one of my favorite things I did this year.
LUMINA: To wrap things up I thought we could do a little word association.
SS: Nothing comes to mind.
SS: I don’t want to answer that one.