The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

Susan BellDiscussing further the collaboration of F. Scott Fitzgerald with his editor Max Perkins on The Great Gatsby

Gaining Perspective

Slowly accept that this story needed to be told on its own terms. "I stopped writing the book that I wanted to write, and wrote the one the book wanted to write." The wise editor never tries to turn a manuscript into something it is not meant to be. The wise writer, likewise, remains open to his work, and refrains from imposing an inorganic idea on it. It can take time to hear the power of your own voice. An editor reads to discover a new voice: a fresh sound in the ear, an as yet unmapped route to a particular emotion or thought. Surprise is the editor's drug of choice. Your writing may sound strange to you because it is truly yours and no one else's. The possibility of confidence: the veteran might remember from previous experience that whatever is flawed can be fixed. Distance allows you to see your work. She learned that if she didn't watch it, she would edit her work into a lifeless specimen of overworked sentences, foreshortened story, and stunted characters.

Fitzgerald relied on Perkins not for a line-to-line edit, as did Thomas Wolfe, but for counsel on structure and character - for a macro edit.

Writers draft edit. Your best editing is done when you stay pragmatic and cool. You are possessed by the need to make your writing function. You consider yourself neither genius nor idiot. You edit as the French recommend exacting revenge: coldly.

Reading must remain as free as the imagination itself. If you control your reading too much, you cease to be involved in it. To organize the reading and analyzing a text, two checklists:


  1. Language
  2. Repetition
  3. Redundancy
  4. Clarity
  5. Authenticity: image, dialogue
  6. Continuity: visuals, character
  7. Show and Tell
  8. Beginnings, endings, transitions


  1. Intention
  2. Character: palpability, Credibility, motive
  3. Structure: rhythm, tension

    You may also need to reorder the scenes. Tell a lot up front, you may ruin the story’s mystery and the reader’s pleasure in discovery; tell too little, the reader may not care about the people in your story enough to want to find out what happens to them.

  4. Foreshadowing
  5. Theme: leitmotiv
  6. Continuity of tone

It’s often best not to tell your reader what you are doing but to just do it. Stating it up front will not let you off clarity’s hook during the rest of your piece. And when you front-load meaning, you destroy the reader’s fun in discovering it over time.

Gatsby’s character:

“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.”

Even as Fitzgerald worked to better define Gatsby, he took pains to preserve his mysteriousness by tinkering with his voice. The effect of the third-person biographical form is to strengthen Nick as a narrator and to obscure Gatsby’s voice. Daisy “her voice is full of money,” Gatsby would later tell Nick.

The mere facts an audience must know to understand a story—they call them the plumbing. The plumbing of a novel must not stick out. At its best, a book’s pipes are laid into the work so suavely that the reader will not notice them function. Come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative. We lose interest in the rhythm of a history recounted in one unchanging voice.


A staple of the so-called page-turner, foreshadowing plants your text with signals of what’s ahead and heightens your reader’s curiosity.

There was something gorgeous about Gatsby . . . it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

It is said in feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of making space accommodate the spirit, that you should hang a picture or other tantalizing object on a wall at the end of a corridor that takes a turn. This is true because the person walking down it should not face a blank space, but be pulled forth by an intriguing image; this way, she will make it to the end and turn. So it is in writing. Editing is the opportune time to get an overview of your story’s proportions, rhythm and tension. When you reread your draft, look for the walls still left blank at the end of turning corridors, where you may place an arrow, as it were, to get your reader to make the turn.

Theme: Leitmotiv: “a recurrent idea or image in a literary work”.

In the last stages of editing, Fitzgerald went back to the first chapter to add the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He linked that green light to the two on the last page: “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” And, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” The green light is more than the color of money and the light of love. It is the universal symbol to go that symbolizes Gatsby’s having gone forward toward his dream. In a supreme act of patterning, accomplished through editing, Fitzgerald’s green lights are dream poles that hold up the span of sad reality that is the book.

When you use leitmotiv, remember Raymond Chandler’s advice on creating an afterglow: “From the beginning . . . it was always a question of putting into the stuff something the public would not shy off from, perhaps even not know was there as a conscious realization, but which would somehow distill through their minds and leave an afterglow.”

Leitmotiv grows out of a theme, or it is gratuitous. A theme is not a message. It is an idea written in invisible ink on the back of your text. Metaphorical symbols, such as color, texture, fragrance, or sound, may work better. A leitmotiv should not speak so much as resonate. Feeding a bird: any of these can evoke specific emotions.

Stay tuned. My next blog post, two or three days from now, will explore Susan Bell’s master-class on editing, and her ideas about transitions.

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