“All first drafts are sh*t” — why editing matters

Ernest Hemingway allegedly said, “All first drafts are sh*t.” Of course, if he did say it he said it without the asterisk. But it’s the most concise explanation I’ve found for why editing matters.

I’ve written before about my friend who proudly announced that he’s never edited anything he’s written. He’s also never sold anything he’s written, and I think the two things are related. But Fran Lebowitz has published—and in The Paris Review interview I’ve been writing about all week, she claims:

I’ve never once been edited. I’ve never let anyone edit me, even when I was a kid. When I started publishing, I was writing for this small magazine, deservedly small, called Changes, which was what was then called an underground magazine. I wouldn’t let that editor edit me; it didn’t matter because they paid me ten dollars and no one read it. Then a few real magazines began calling me and asked, Would you be interested in writing for us?

I’d say, Well, yes, but you can’t edit me.

Click.

Then I started writing for Interview, where I made a deal (no editing), which also didn’t matter since no one read that magazine either. More people would call me, from real maga­zines now, like Esquire and New York magazine . . . and I said no editing.

Click.

My first book was not edited. Henry Robbins was my editor and before that Laurie Colwin. Neither one of them edited me. Joe Fox, who is now my editor at Random House, never edited me. So I’ve never had the experience of being edited and never will.

Fran Lebowitz goes it alone

The Paris Review published that interview in 1993. One year later, Lebowitz released a children’s book and her publisher released an anthology of the two books of essays she’d written. That was 1994. Since then…crickets.

I can’t say whether Lebowitz’s nearly three-decade-long drought has anything to do with her aversion to editing. But you’d have to think that having someone to bat ideas around with would help. Someone to say, “This is brilliant. This…maybe you want to rethink.” Actually, Lebowitz does have that someone—Joe Fox, her editor at Random House. She just refuses to accept any of his comments:

Lebowitz: In the novel I’m writing now, there is something that Joe doesn’t like, quite a big thing. He said, I’m just telling you what I think. I said, Fine. I don’t agree with you.

Interviewer: Even before he had said it?

No, I let him say it. I may be tough, but I am polite. He disagrees with the way I have the narrator narrating the book. What he would have me do would be an easy thing to change. But it’s just out of the question; it’s not something I would seriously entertain.

Why editing matters

That “novel I’m writing now”—that would be Exterior Signs of Wealth, a book that remains unfinished 24 years after Lebowitz gave that interview, and some 34 years after she signed the contract to write it.

Would making that narrative change solve a structural problem and make the novel easier to write? We can’t know that. But I do know that often when I feel I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ll ask someone whose opinion I trust to read it and comment.

Clients, though sometimes maddeningly conservative, can also offer fresh perspectives that can improve my work. And since it’s their work in the end, not mine, I have to listen to them. Some might find that constricting but I like it. It forces me to be accountable, and to ship. That’s why editing matters.

Fran Lebowitz has a distinctive way of looking at the world and a unique writer’s voice. It’s  a shame she can’t (or won’t) let us hear it.


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