Wolcott Gibbs’ Rules for Editing

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Last night I was talking to a friend about how I would run a magazine, assuming I ever happened to do such a thing. I told her I’d probably run it according to Wolcott Gibbs’ “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and my friend said she hadn’t read it. I forget, sometimes, even often, that others do not share my New Yorker nerdery.

The memorandum is not online; as far as I know, the easiest place to read it is in James Thurber’s book, My Years With Ross, a sort of memoir of the magazine under its first editor, Harold Ross, inflected with classic Thurberian flourishes. Anyway he quotes the entire thing. 

Here are a few of my favourite rules:

6. See our Mr. Weekes on the use of such words as “little,” “vague,” “confused,” “faintly,” “all mixed up,” etc., etc. The point is that the average New Yorker writer, unfortunately influenced by Mr. Thurber, has come to believe that the ideal New Yorker piece is about a vague, little man helplessly confused by a menacing and complicated civilization. Whenever this not is not the whole pint of the piece (and it far too often is) it should be regarded with suspicion.

10. To quote Mr. Ross again, “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.” Pieces about authors, reporters, poets, etc., are to be discouraged in principle. Whenever possible the protagonist should be arbitrarily transplanted to another line of business. When the reference is incidental and unnecessary, it should come out.

16. I would be delighted to go over the list of writers, explaining the peculiarities of each as they have appeared to me in more than ten years of exasperation on both sides.

23. For some reason our writers (especially Mr. Leonard Q. Ross) have a tendency to distrust even moderately long quotes and break them up arbitrarily and on the whole idiotically with editorial interpolations. “Mr. Kaplan felt that he and the cosmos were coterminus” or some such will frequently appear in the middle of a conversation for no other reason than that the author is afraid the reader’s mind is wandering. Sometimes this is necessary, most often it isn’t.

28. It has been one of Mr. Ross’s long struggles to raise the tone of our contributors’ surroundings, at least on paper. References to the gay Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and other low surroundings should be cut whenever possible. Nor should writers be permitted to boast about having their telephones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills, or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.

Of late it’s felt like no one is in any mood to be funny about writing. I don’t mean funny in their writing, of course, just that when we talk about it we turn it into a deadly serious enterprise. It’s surely  the whole “death of publishing” thing that’s at the root of that problem. In a culture that doesn’t value writing it would be wrong for the writing-for-a-living swath of the population to model that themselves.

But joking about the vicissitudes of this life doesn’t have to be an exercise in denigrating it. See the above. It doesn’t sound to me like Gibbs is ridiculing the printed word, there. He is poking fun at writers, not quite the same thing as poking fun at writing, though lately I wonder if we’ve lost track of the difference.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →