Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Editing Rules from the New Yorker.

I'm always interested in writing advice (such as that offered by Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, William G. Tapply, and Carolyn Wheat). Here is a sample of 10 items by Wolcott Gibbs, a copy editor and drama critic for the New Yorker, from James Thurber's The Years with Ross (1957; rpt. 2001, 113-18). The full list runs to 31 items:

Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles
1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the word "said." "He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on." . . . Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.

2. Word "said" is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting "grunted," "snorted," etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.

3. Our writers are full of cliches, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliche undoubtedly is one and had better be removed.

5. Our employer, Mr. [Harold] Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences beginning with "and" or "but." He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.

7. The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer:

Marion gave me a pain in the neck.
"You give me a pain in the neck, Marion," I said.

This turns up more often than you'd expect.

11. The magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. ... When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no especial purpose, they come out.

13. Mr. [Hobey] Weekes [an editor at the New Yorker] said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn't believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. "A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel." Sometimes they're necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.

20. The more "As a matter of facts," "howevers," "for instances," etc., etc. you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.

25. On the whole, we are hostile to puns.

31. Try to preserve an author's style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.

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