The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

Editing is writing’s less-glamorous sister. It’s necessary, and can even be quietly rewarding. But the pleasure to be gained from reworking sentences pales in comparison to the fun of raw creation. How-to books try to help. Most of them show writers how to revise step-by-step, starting with the big picture of scene structure and ending by moving commas and deleting exclamation points. THE ARTFUL EDIT is different. It’s less how-to and more why-to. Once writers understand the philosophy behind the edits, they are more likely to break through resistance and do the work.

Bell concentrates on literary fiction, both in the examples she uses and the techniques she discusses (symbolism, motif, foreshadowing). Even when talking about big-picture edits, she’d rather deal with rhythm and tension than the overall story arc. Ideas familiar to genre writers like “plot point” and “climax” are not covered here. Bell’s emphasis is on beautiful language, imagery, and tone.

However, the opening section of the book is useful for all writers. It’s about the one thing every writer needs and few can get: distance. In order to be good self-editors, we have to remove ourselves from the white-hot mindset of creation. Of course, nobody has the luxury of putting a manuscript away for a year in order to gain perspective. We have to trick our brains into seeing the work with a cool eye, even if we only finished a draft an hour ago. Bell suggests ways to make that happen, from printing in a different font to reading aloud to working in a different environment.

The bulk of THE ARTFUL EDIT is a careful study of THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not a scholarly study of the finished text, but an examination of the rough draft. What did Fitzgerald change and why did he change it? Fitzgerald was a ruthless rewriter, often replacing perfectly good sentences with better ones. THE GREAT GATSBY also benefitted from the guidance of legendary editor Max Perkins. Bell quotes letters exchanged by the two men, giving us a fascinating look at how a classic novel was painstakingly rewritten.

Sprinkled throughout the book are short chapters written by famous literary writers like Ann Patchett and Tracy Kidder. Each author rambles for a few pages about how they revise (or don’t) but none of them have a clear or consistent method of self-editing. Even so, these interludes have two benefits for the reader. First, it’s helpful to understand that every writer edits differently. Second, it’s clear that every writer struggles with the process.

Whether writing flash fiction or epic novels, we can all benefit from editing. We will probably never edit our work the way F. Scott Fitzgerald and Max Perkins edited THE GREAT GATSBY, but having THE ARTFUL EDIT on the desk gets us one step closer to that ideal.


This book is best for: advanced writers


I recommend this book.


rating: 4 stars

7 thoughts on “The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

  1. I’ve had this book on my shelves for years and haven’t opened it. Now I will. It sounds like just what I’m looking for. Thanks!

  2. What I great idea, review books on how to write!! This is really useful site! The greatest benefit is that it your reviews will help writers spend their money more wisely.

    Your review of Bell’s book is informative; it makes me want to buy the book. I especially like the idea of understanding WHY certain changes should be made. I often find that when I’m talking to a writers group, the hardest thing to do is to explain exactly why a change should be made, know what I mean? I can feel it in my gut that something isn’t working in a piece, and I can tell the writer what needs to be changed, but explaining why is sometimes difficult. Bell’s ability to explain why is extremely useful.

    Thanks for this review!

  3. “First, it’s helpful to understand that every writer edits differently. Second, it’s clear that every writer struggles with the process.”

    Absolutely–this is a great observation to take from the book. I just recently read this book and actually wrote my own short blog post about it at As an aspiring editor, I was fascinated by the “testimonials” from various writers (the writers’ quotes in italics following each part). These short snippets really brought editing-as-an-art into perspective.

    Overall, great book and excellent review on your part. I will be visiting your blog often! Right up my alley

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