The Art of Editing

I don’t mean editing in the sense of editing my own stories. I mean professional editing, the kind of editing that results in books.

I learned to edit from two people. One was Delia Sherman, who taught me how to edit living writers. You know what I mean – writers send you their stories, and then you read through them, choose the ones you want to include in the anthology, contact the writers about problems, get those problems resolved. Then you decide on the order of the stories, write an introduction, that sort of thing. It’s a lot of work, but so worthwhile, because finally you have an anthology that you conceived, writers you wanted to promote, whose stories you loved.

The other person I learned from was John Paul Riquelme, a scholar specializing in the work of modernists such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. I was his research assistant when he edited the Bedford Books edition of Dracula. He taught me how to edit the work of dead writers. For example, he taught me that the text you want to use is the last one approved by the author. That’s why publishers usually reprint the final version of Frankenstein, the way Mary Shelley altered it, rather than the 1818 version. I think it was during my time as his research assistant that I learned how to locate the texts I wanted: what to look for, what was available to me.

From both types of editing, I learned a habit of precision. I think that’s carried over into my writing. I think I have a way of writing in which every word counts – am I right about that? I think so . . . And every punctuation mark, of course.

So how does all that translate into my own editing? Well, several nights ago I decided to add a section on William Allingham to Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre. I had been looking at a website with art and poetry on it, and some of the poetry was by Allingham, and I remembered that he was more interesting than I had originally thought when I read “Fairies.” That’s the poem he’s known for. You know, “Up the airy mountain, / Down the rushy glen . . .” I like it well enough, but he’s not exactly W.B. Yeats, is he? He doesn’t evoke the magic of fairies in the same way.

I thought it would be easy, because there was already quite a lot of Allingham online, and when a poem is already online, all I have to do is copy it and then edit. I don’t always copy a poem, but it does save me the trouble of typing, and I can focus on the important task, which is the editing. Because every single poem I have ever copied, rather than typing myself, has had mistakes – either in wording or punctuation. How do I edit? I compare the poem to at least one copy that was published during or close to the author’s lifetime. In this case, I looked at a book called Songs, Ballads, and Stories by Allingham, published in 1877. And I made sure that the poems on my site conformed to those. Honestly, where are other people getting their poems? Why do they have so many mistakes in them? And the mistakes are identical over various sites that include Allingham, so I think they’re all copying each other – but without editing.

One advantage to looking at original texts is that I always find poems that aren’t already online. In this case, I found a poem I’ve seen before, somewhere or other. I rather like it. Here it is:

The Witch-Bride

A fair witch crept to a young man’s side,
And he kiss’d her and took her for his bride.

But a Shape came in at the dead of night,
And fill’d the room with snowy light.

And he saw how in his arms there lay
A thing more frightful than mouth may say.

And he rose in haste, and follow’d the Shape
Till morning crown’d an eastern cape.

And he girded himself, and follow’d still,
When sunset sainted the western hill.

But, mocking and thwarting, clung to his side,
Weary day! – the foul Witch-Bride.

That’s macabre enough, right? And including it gives a very different picture of Allingham than you might get from just reading “Fairies.”

This post is called “The Art of Editing,” which if you think about it is simply the art of researching, reproducing, and being precise about it all. But I suppose a more important question is why edit at all? Why am I spending my time putting Allingham’s poetry online when I could instead be writing my own poetry?

Well, one answer is that I wouldn’t be spending that time writing my own poetry. Writing takes a different part of the brain than editing. When I’m too tired to write, I can still edit. Editing is something I do for fun, to relax. Although it can be frustrating as well. Another answer is that I need to take care of Allingham, and Dora Sigerson Shorter, and Alfred Noyes. If I don’t make sure their poetry is available, who will? Perhaps someday, someone will preserve my writing in the same way.

If you look on the internet now, you will find the art of the pre-Raphaelites everywhere. So many people love it and pay attention to it. But I’m sure you remember when it was difficult to find, when museums hid it away in back rooms. I think we’re going through a period like that with poetry. We’ve formed a poetic canon, and poetry outside that canon tends not to be available – except in obscure places online. But I think it’s time to reevaluate a particular kind of poetry, as we’ve reevaluated the art of the pre-Raphaelites – poetry that is lyrical and fantastical, much of it written right around the period when the pre-Raphaelites were painting. I think that process is underway. Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre is part of it, and I’m proud of that.

You see, when I decided to have a writing career, I decided to have a writing career. Not just to write books, but to be part of the ongoing dialog about literature. To let people know where I was drawing my influences, what I thought was worthwhile. In a sense, writers are always remaking the literary past. We say, “Joyce was important,” and our saying that, and writing out of it, makes Joyce important. Same with Wilde. The pre-Raphaelites are important, in retrospect, in part because they are influencing contemporary artists and writers. (I include illustrators in “artists.” I think the distinction between the two is artificial.) They certainly influence me.

And so, by editing dead writers, I’m remaking the literary past, saying Noyes is important, he is part of a tradition, that tradition has contemporary repercussions and implications.

To have a writing career is to be in dialog with both the past and the future. At least, that’s what I think.

(And I’m going to edit living writers too, you’ll see. As soon as I have time . . .)

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3 Responses to The Art of Editing

  1. Lauren says:

    Wow, I want to follow this blog or something; I’ll bookmark it! I noticed a typo, though, “anthrology” near the top. Other than that, great post, and thank God for people like you who are editing the past. 😉 I also hope someone does that for me in the future. If I can help…let me know.

  2. This is an insightful, thought provoking post and I thank you for writing it. The suggestion that we reevaluate a certain kind of poetry as we have reevaluated the art of the Pre-Raphaelites resonates with me and I certainly agree with you.
    I’ve seen editing described by some as a tedious task, so I think that it’s wonderful that you’ve shared it here as something refreshing — as an important and enjoyable exercise that you undertake, an exercise that helps you to further understand the author’s work and no doubt inform your own work as well.

  3. Thanks, Lauren! I corrected it, and much appreciate your pointing out the typo. And thanks for the offer of help! If you have any suggestions for what to include, that would definitely be helpful, and would let me know what people are interested in seeing. Feel free to email me ( or message me on facebook.

    Stephanie: My reference to the pre-Raphaelites was inspired by your website, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, which I absolutely love! Here’s the URL for anyone who wants to click over:

    Did you notice the similarities between our website designs? I saw that and thought, wow, great minds think alike. 🙂 But I feel the same way about your website, that you’re doing really important work! So thanks for the inspiration!

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