But Isn’t That What Editors Are For?

By Jack Limpert

From an interview with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the book Valiant Ambition, described as a fascinating narrative about the American Revolution, in the May 29 New York Times Book Review:

What are your favorite books of narrative nonfiction?

Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” and Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember.” Those two books set the standard when it comes to dramatic, impeccably researched storytelling. Both authors had the discipline to use only the material that added to the impact of the story. Instead of being comprehensive, good narrative nonfiction must be rigorously selective.
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Being rigorously selective is in short supply in the digital age and one of the most valuable roles an editor can play is helping a writer decide what’s really necessary to a story. The editor can bring fresh eyes to a story and, working with the writer, keep the narrative—or any story—moving.

But during the reporting of a story, I always told writers, “When in doubt, put it in.” Then let the writer and editor work together to decide what stays.

I took this approach after discovering that writers sometimes edited themselves too much. When a writer turned in a story, I liked to talk about it for 15 minutes. Enjoy doing it? Any problems? Any surprises? In those conversations, the writer sometimes said something interesting and I’d ask, “Is that in the story?” In a surprising number of instances, it wasn’t. Too much self-editing.

When the writer includes most everything, the writer and editor partnership then can make it the best story possible, with the editor taking the side of the reader.

It’s not always easy. When a writer spends a day reporting out a good anecdote, it’s painful to see it cut. “I worked hard to get that.”

But the winning argument always is, Do you want the reader to stay with us to the end?

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