In Other Words Stop All That Damn Editing

By Jack Limpert


Critics say The Long Goodbye and The Lady in the Lake are two of Chandler’s best.

From a letter sent by writer Raymond Chandler to Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, on January 18, 1947:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinite, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.

The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

Kindest regards,
Raymond Chandler
The letter appears in Writers and Friends, a memoir by Edward Weeks published in 1981 by Atlantic-Little, Brown. Weeks, who edited the Atlantic Monthly from 1938 to 1966, had asked Chandler to write for his magazine.

Weeks writes: “A lecture trip took me to the Pacific Coast shortly before the banquet at which the Oscars are awarded, and the press was full of the usual ballyhoo and speculation. It occurred to me to invite Raymond Chandler, the very popular mystery story writer, to do an article for us on what the Oscars stood for, and I expected it would be irreverent. Four of his novels, including The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, had been made into successful films, and he was a member of the Motion Pictures Art and Sciences. His manuscript reached Boston as I was about to leave for England, and everyone rejoiced at his characterization of Hollywood….His manuscript was turned over to the copyeditor but I neglected to warn her, before I flew to London, not to tamper with Chandler’s prose. This was a mistake.”
At The Washingtonian, the closest we came to a Chandler moment was in 1989 when we attempted to edit Robert Hughes, the art critic and author. When I suggested a change in his copy, Howard Means, the editor handling the piece, pointed out that “Hughes was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments.” This 2012 post describes what happened:

Robert Hughes, 74, the art critic and author, died August 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. The New York Times described him as “eloquent and combative,” adding, “It was decidedly not Mr. Hughes’s method to take prisoners.”

He wrote one wonderful story for The Washingtonian. Published in October 1989 and titled “Art & Intimacy,” it was about the Phillips Collection. The lede: “Everyone who loves early modern art loves the Phillips Collection and envies Washington for having it.”

Howard Means, an editor at the magazine, dealt with Hughes and the story, which ran about 6,000 words. One of those words had never appeared in any book or magazine I’d ever read. Being a believer in clarity and in Harold Ross’s favorite question—”What the hell do you mean?”—I suggested we change it.

Here’s the sentence in question: “And yet the Phillips has never lost its aedicular quality, its gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art.”

Howard remembers it this way: “You almost fainted when I sent the manuscript your way without removing that word. You wanted to rewrite the front of that sentence as ‘And yet the Phillips has never lost its nicheyness’—or something like that. I countered that Hughes was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments.”

Howard also remembers, “We might have changed eight words in the entire piece he sent in and even those caused great rumblings and trepidation.”

Howard, as usual, was right about words. Can you imagine Robert Hughes getting an author’s galley where an editor had inserted nicheyness into his vocabulary?
In 50 years of editing, I almost always was able to sit down with the writer and work out disagreements. I took the position that the editing was trying to help the reader better understand and enjoy the writing, and we almost always were able to walk away satisfied with the edits. I think it helped that I was always reluctant to change a writer’s words, though pretty quick to cut what I thought slowed the piece down. I found most writers accepted that.

I recently wrote a piece for a magazine—I knew it was too long for the format but wanted to let the editor cut what he thought could go and I was comfortable with his edits. But he also added two short sentences in the interests of making things clearer. I went along with it—clarity is important—but now every time I read the piece those two sentences clink and clang: Those aren’t my words!

One fairly prominent college professor who wrote a piece for us complained that as an editor I had cut too much, saying “You’re taking away my style.” I resisted saying that overwriting is not a style and almost all the cuts stayed.


  1. I was pleased to see my publisher’s very attentive copy editor mostly let me have my way with my recent debut novel “The Constable’s Tale,” recognizing I guess the importance of narrative tone in fiction, even when it conflicts with proper grammar or style. We had a minimum of respectful tussles, one of which involved whether to capitalize “redcoat.” The latest trend is to capitalize it as a matter of respect; but this story being told in the voice of a pre-Revolutionary American who has little respect for his majesty’s soldiers, I won on that one. Nevertheless a few small changes did creep in, unnoticed by me, like switching my “whoever” to the more correct (in context of the sentence) “whomever.” A distinction that would have been considered prissy by my character. Maybe after having written a few dozen novels a writer can afford to take more of the “keep-your-effin’-hands-off-my-copy” approach.

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