When people talk about the classic age of editing, it brings to mind the kind of intimate connection that existed between Maxwell Perkins and the authors he nurtured, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The great editors like Perkins, Robert Gottlieb and Gordon Lish got their hands dirty with every detail of their authors' work, and sometimes of the authors' lives.
Legendary editor-author partnerships had a lot in common with marriage, both as a union of kindred souls and as a battleground. Take the association between Mr. Lish and the late short-story writer Raymond Carver. Their process is laid unusually bare in " 'Beginners,' Edited," which was published in the New Yorker in 2007 and shows the full text of one of Carver's signature stories as he submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, and as Mr. Lish edited it.
Initially, the edits are on the word and sentence level. Some seem capricious—a man named "Herb" becomes "Mel"—but you can see Mr. Lish shaping Carver's spare style as he prunes the back-story and emotional cues: "Laura, my sweet, big Laura, said evenly" is cut to "Laura said." As the story proceeds, the red pencil slashes. Mr. Lish deletes most of the latter half, including the final 1,500 words, and adds the story's ending.
For an author, the extent of the changes seems excruciating, and apparently Carver found it so. On the other hand, authors dream of having an editor who cares as passionately as Mr. Lish did about every word. And no one would pick Carver's title for the story, "Beginners," over Mr. Lish's: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
His brand of editing no longer exists—or so I believed when my novel, "The Tin Horse," sold to Random House in the fall of 2010. The novel tells the story of the search by the elderly Elaine for her vanished twin sister Barbara, and unveils secrets from their youth. Kendra Harpster, who would be my editor, assured me that she would be hands-on, and said she felt our partnership was bashert, a Yiddish word that means predestined. Still, my editing expectations stayed low.
Two months later, I received my first editorial letter from Ms. Harpster. Its 18 single-spaced pages were filled with questions about characters and motivations: "In what other instances did Barbara push Elaine's cautious nature? Where did that cautious nature lead her?" Ms. Harpster pushed me to refine dialogue and internal monologue around what she perceived as the book's theme: "the unavoidably subjective ways [we] shape the narratives of our destinies."
I sometimes fall in love with a phrase as language, even if it fudges the truth. I wasn't allowed to get away with that. I'd had Elaine, my protagonist, say, "My life of duplicity began in earnest that night." Ms. Harpster asked, "Is this a little hyperbolic?" I changed it to "my season of duplicity."
In what I think of as classic fashion, she and publisher/editor-in-chief Susan Kamil also gave me a two-year process of letting ideas develop and be refined. The editorial engagement never flagged. On perhaps her fourth time through, Ms. Harpster read the entire book aloud. On that read, she added a comment by Elaine that charmed me, "In those days I was an amateur at irony."
Even more important was "thinking away from the page" about what might be missing. Ms. Harpster wanted me to expand the present-day story that now takes up about one-quarter of the book. She refrained from being too directive as to how I should do that. She planted the seed, and it led me to bring Elaine's youngest sister, Harriet, into the present-day story in Chapter 4, rather than Chapter 17; now I could play the two sisters' family narratives against each other.
And that, perhaps, is where editing skill becomes editing magic, and an author-editor relationship might even be bashert: when an editor is so attuned to an author that she knows when to jump in and when to exercise restraint.—"The Tin Horse" by Ms. Steinberg, who is also an arts journalist, will be published on Tuesday.
A version of this article appeared January 26, 2013, on page C12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Scenes From an Editing 'Marriage'.