September 20, 2019

‘I Think You Need to Rewrite It’: Ruth Reichl on What Makes an Editor Great

‘I Think You Need to Rewrite It’: Ruth Reichl on What Makes an Editor Great


How had she known that? I’d discarded the idea; it was too much, too intimate.

“Write that chapter!” she said. “There’s time. The book needs it.”

And of course I did.

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The process never changed: Memoir or novel, it was exactly the same. Even fictional characters were so real to Susan that she wanted to know what they were feeling, doing, wearing, even when they stepped off the page.

A few years ago, as we were working on the final draft of my novel, Susan stopped at a crucial moment and asked what a minor character was thinking. I said I didn’t know.

“Of course you do,” she replied. And just like that I saw the scene, heard the dialogue. It was so vivid that I picked up my computer, found an empty desk and spent the next half-hour putting it all down. When I went back to Susan’s office, she read the pages and said triumphantly, “I knew you knew.” But the truth is that I don’t think it would have come to me had Susan not pushed so hard, been so relentless.

These marathon sessions lasted several hours and often sent me straight back to zero. But no matter how brutal the process, I always left in a state of euphoria, itching to get back to work. Susan’s greatest gift was her ability to make you believe in yourself. “It’s going to be a wonderful book,” she’d say as you walked out the door. “I can’t wait to read it.”

I’ve saved piles of Susan’s manuscript notes, because they’re such a fascinating example of how an editor shapes a book. “It’s like a master class in writing,” I told her. She shot me a derisive look: “Please. I’m just doing my job. You’re the writer.”



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