Anna Pitoniak ‘06
Author & Editor
From Reader to Writer to Editor
Five Things I Learned Along the Way
I was always reading as a kid.
There was nothing in life that couldn’t be improved by the presence of a book. A long car ride, a wait at the orthodontist—even family dinners.
I would sometimes ask my mom if we could have a “reading dinner,” which meant we all brought our books to the table instead of talking. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t want to do this.
When I was young, I read books in the way that most children do: feverishly, obsessively, devouring them like candy. A child’s only real source of autonomy is her imagination, and reading was a way of entering a different world: siblings living in boxcars, wizards living in castles. It wasn’t until I was older that I took the time to pause, to consider the choices a writer was making. The action of the story revealed itself right away, but what about the subtler meanings?
I still remember sitting in Mr. Collis’s classroom in the old academic building at Brentwood, the day we read John Updike’s classic story “A&P” from the Norton Anthology, the book as thick as a Bible and with tissue-thin paper to match. I remember Mr. Collis pointing out the details in the story: the way the narrator so carefully describes the straps of a girl’s bathing suit, and how the straps have slipped loose from her shoulders.
This was a change for me, as a reader: learning to pay attention not just to the thing itself, but to the way the thing is presented. To think about why an observation like that might be included, in the first place. To consider, more thoughtfully, the messages that a book might contain.
After graduating from college, I moved to New York City and began working as an editor at Random House. This job taught me to consider and evaluate books on yet another level. Does the book work? Is the story interesting? Is it effective, it is affecting? And if not, how might it be improved? At this point in my life as a reader, it was like I had been burrowing through the layers of the Earth, going deeper into my understanding of how literature works, and now I was finally approaching the hot magma core. But I wasn’t quite there yet.
The best way to learn to write is to spend one’s life reading good writing—and then thinking about what makes it so good. For some people, this might mean enrolling in an MFA program. For me, I was lucky enough to learn by observing the other editors around me, and working on manuscripts as they went from rough drafts to finished books. It was this that gave me the courage, and the tools, to finally tackle my own writing. And so, several years ago, I began writing a novel of my own. I found spare time around the edges of my job: mornings, nights, weekends. That novel was published earlier this year, and I’m now at work on the second one.
Mr. Collis was the one who taught me about the five paragraph essay: thesis paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and closing paragraph. He also taught me that basically every essay is about the same thing: “What I Learned.” So, in a mashed-up homage, here is a version of that essay: five things that I learned along the way, from reader to editor to writer.
Writing is Revision
I can’t stress it enough. The first draft is important, because you are working out the ideas and the plot on the page, and getting that first draft finished is an accomplishment, but what really matters is how many times you are willing to revise that draft. In my mind, this is where the role of hard work—as opposed to God-given talent—comes in. Some people are preternaturally gifted and can dash off a beautiful paragraph with no effort, but they aren’t necessarily the ones who are willing to revise, and revise again, and revise again.
When you are writing, you are attempting to communicate an idea to the world. In the first draft, the idea is still expressed in your own private language. It takes many revisions to clarify what you are really trying to say. As an editor, these are the notes I find myself scribbling in the margins of so many manuscripts: Clarify. Don’t get this. What does this mean? The language must be put through the wringer, over and over and over, so that when a reader finally picks up the book, they can say: I know exactly what she means.
The Beginning is the Most Important
Editors read submissions quickly, and form judgments about them from a small number of pages. The beginning matters; it matters more than any other part of the book. As a writer, you only have so long to hook the reader. And editors aren’t the only ones who form snap judgments about a book—someone browsing in a bookstore or using the “look inside” feature online is doing exactly the same thing. If the beginning isn’t strong enough, down the book goes. It pays to think carefully about the beginning, and spend an outsized amount working on it.
The beginning doesn’t have to contain fireworks in order to captivate. But it does have to captivate. It might not be clear what the beginning ought to be until the book is nearly finished, so don’t worry about it right away. Get the thing written, then go back to figure out where it should begin.
Skip the Stage Directions
One thing I always notice when I’m editing—and which I notice abundantly in my own writing—is excessive staging. When I’m working out a scene in my mind, I tend to think about a character moving around a physical space, and I’ll write the scene accordingly: she walks across the room, she opens the door, she sits down, she stands up, etc. To get my character from point A to point B, it’s necessary for me to visualize every part of it. But when I’m editing others’ work, I always cut that sort of stage direction (and I’m trying to get better at editing it from my own work). It’s weight that drags on the story. We don’t need to know how a character got across the room in order to believe that the character crossed the room. Of course, every rule is made to be broken, and sometimes you do need to know how a character got across the room. But if you are going to tell us what it looked like, it ought to be for a good reason. Which brings me to my next point.
Stop Clearing your Throat
Visual staging, like the above, is just one of many forms of writerly throat-clearing. Sometimes it is long and intricate sensory description. Sometimes it is dialogue that just keeps ping-ponging back and forth. Sometimes it is dwelling on an insignificant moment. These are the kinds of things that I tend to flag, as an editor. If its existence isn’t justified, then why is it there? Often it feels like preparation before we arrive at the real point—and if you’re asking a reader to stick with you for several hundred pages, it’s better to arrive at the point with expedience. Every sentence or passage ought to perform a function, whether it is moving the action forward, or developing a character, or deepening an emotion, or something else that truly enhances the story. I am wary of writing that is merely beautiful. And if you’ve convinced me that a character is a certain way, you don’t need to keep convincing me of that again and again.
What’s on the Page is What Matte
If you are a writer who has found a publisher for your work, that is a wonderful thing, but it’s important to remember that the work will shortly be out of your hands. You won’t be able to completely control how the work is put into the world. You certainly won’t be able to control how it is received. What you can control is what’s on the page. As an editor, I’ve watched manuscripts ignite like wildfire across the publishing house—people read it, they fall in love with it, they can’t wait to talk about it with their colleagues. This is the magic that everyone hopes for. But the writer isn’t able to engineer any of this. The only thing a writer can do is write the very best book they can. Even when you are tired and bleary-eyed and sick of your own writing, when you can’t stand another round of revision, it is worth it to ask yourself whether you have pushed the story as far as you possibly can. Is it the best it can be? Are you happy with it? Are you proud of it? That is what you ought to strive for, because that will always belong to you—that satisfaction and pride—no matter what happens once the writing is out in the world.
Anna Pitoniak’s debut novel, The Futures, was published earlier this year by Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown. Parts of this essay were adapted from “What Being an Editor Taught Me About Writing,” originally published by Literary Hub.