Wolcott Gibbs on How an Editor Can Improve an Author’s Style—If He Has One

Wolcott Gibbs was an editor and critic at the New Yorker and in a book, A Life of Privilege, Mostly, author Gardner Botsford included these Gibbs observations about writers:

The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate; that is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied upon to use three sentences when a word would do. It is impossible to lay down any exact and complete formula for bringing order out of this underbrush, but there are a few general rules.

Writers always use too damn many adverbs. I found five modifying the word “said’—”he said morosely…violently…eloquently,” and so on. Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work.

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

The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer. [It may have gone out with the Stanley Steamer, but it came back with the Ford Thunderbird. Here is a passage from Philip Roth’s Great American Novel of 1975. “When he [Hemingway] was having a good day, they didn’t make them more generous or sweet-tempered, but when he was having a bad day, well, he could be the biggest prick in all literature. ‘You’re in the biggest prick in all literature,’ I remember telling him one morning.”]

I suffer very seriously from writers who divide quotes for some kind of ladies-club rhythm. “I am going,” he said, “downtown.” This is a horror, and unless a quote is pretty long it should all stay on one side of the verb.

Our employer, Mr. Ross, has a prejudice against the use of such words and phrases as “little,” “vague,” “confused,” “faintly,” all mixed up, etc. The point is that the average New Yorker writer, unfortunately influenced by Mr. Thurber, now believes that the ideal New Yorker piece is about a vague little man helplessly confused by a menacing and complicated civilization.

Try to reserve the author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.

 

Comments

  1. D M Morrison says:

    Having read a lot of Gibbs, plus F.P. Adams’ charming and long-forgotten bio of him, and having read Gardner Botsford’s book (and known him for 30-odd years), I’d submit that Gardner was both the better editor and the better man.

  2. One fairly prominent college professor who wrote a piece for the Washingtonian complained that as an editor I had cut too much, saying “You’re taking away my style.” I resisted telling him that overwriting is not a style.

  3. Richard Mattersdorff says:

    Can’t an author’s style be termed, instead, as luxurious, to enjoy immersing oneself in? I think of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN. I also think of Henry Kissinger’s WHITE HOUSE YEARS and YEARS OF UPHEAVAL (if he wrote a third memoir, about the Ford administration, I haven’t read it, yet). (And Kissinger wrote that reading Abba Eban reminded him that English was his second language.)

    What might not work in a magazine piece might be great for 500 or 800 or 1000 pages.

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