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Photo: Pink Moose

THERE’S AN old phrase Brian Eno supposedly said about the Velvet Underground. It goes something like “when the first Velvet Underground album came out, only about 1,000 people bought it, but every one of them formed a rock and roll band.”

I’m not sure what the sales of Raymond Carver‘s first books were, but on a level of artistic influence you could apply a similar statement. People read him and want to become writers. Or they read him and it totally influences their style.

The way we internalize an artist’s work is what ultimately matters. It’s more important than the “truth” about a writer’s life. How can learning about Lou Reed’s adolescence possibly compare with hearing “Candy Says” for the first time during your own?

This is why when I found out that editor Gordon Lish is responsible for much of what I love about Carver’s short stories, it didn’t affect how I felt about him as a writer. If anything it makes him seem more real.

In December 2007, the New Yorker published the original version of Carver’s story “Beginners” overlaid with Gordon Lish’s edits so you can compare the draft with the final version of the story published as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The story is about a group of friends in their late 30s sitting around drinking and recounting different relationships, accidents, and people who committed suicide. Like most of Carver’s work, there is minimal plot / action, but instead a kind of tension (and weirdly powerful sense of compassion) that seems to drive everything forward.

Here are several notes about the way the story was edited (and in some cases, rewritten, by Gordon Lish). In the quoted examples, I’ve preserved the formatting as it was printed in the New Yorker, with Gordon Lish’s strikeouts + edits / writing in bold.  

1. Temporal references or references to backstory are cut or significantly reduced.

Ex: The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink.

Ex: He said When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

Throughout the story, Lish cut references to specific moments in time and specific backstory. This has the effect of making the story seem “truer,” as when we look back in time we rarely remember the exact day (or if we do it doesn’t really matter), but instead tend to organize our memories by “periods.”

If you imagine the story as a film, removing the backstory (where you’d have to cut to a different scene or flashback) and references to time also make the whole narrative move faster,  with more tension. It gives you the feeling that you’re speeding towards something (probably bad) happening.

2. Each sentence containing two simple clauses connected with the conjunction “but” is broken into two separate sentences.

Ex: We lived in Albuquerque, then. But but we were all from somewhere else.

This, one of the most characteristic elements of Carver’s style, wasn’t actually the way he wrote the drafts; it was the way Lish remixed it. Although this is a very subtle linguistic element, it’s notable (especially considering the time in which it was published) because (a) it “violated” the rule that you don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, (b) it went against the decades-old prose style pioneered by Hemingway of created long compound sentences with clauses often having little to do with one another but joined anyway by a conjunction, and most importantly, (c) it gave the text this fragmented and on-edge feel as if the narrator was incapable of just letting go (or something) but had to keep backing up everything he said with some other thought or emotion.

3. Any dialogue that doesn’t sound like how people actually talk is changed to vernacular.

Ex: That old couple who had this car wreck got into an accident out on the interstate? A kid hit them and they were all torn to shit battered up.

Ex: I’d like to just knock on the door and let loose release a hive of bees in the house.

There are other effects that Lish added or emphasized such as parallel construction, repetition of certain phrases (“what we’re talking about”), and also changing the ending, however, the notes above are the easiest ones to pull from the story and explain.

Overall, I feel that Lish didn’t so much apply his own vision of what he thought the story should be, but more identified certain aspects of Carver’s style that could be condensed and magnified so that it was even more “Carver” than the original. I think this represents the ultimate work of an editor.

For writers (even travel or nonfiction writers), the obvious lesson here is that whether you work with others or just continually self-edit, there are infinite ways to remix the phrasing, sentence construction, amount of background info / temporal references, and dozens of other elements to achieve specific effects with your story.

*MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.

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About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • Sophie

    Is it my browser, or did the strikeout get stuck? I’ll come back and read it later.

  • David Miller

    sophie, any way you can send me as screenshot?

    david at

    it looks fine in firefox.

    sorry for any frustrations.

  • Candice

    Interesting stuff…I remember in one of my writing classes we had an editor guest speaker who talked about how he often totally reworked authors’ stories.

    If I read something that is particularly striking, I find myself picking up certain elements of the style in my writing. Sometimes it lingers for weeks, other times it disappears. Makes me question originality.

    • David Miller


      look forward to hearing what you think of carver.

      i feel like there’s nothing totally original (maybe except like the atomic bomb or something–somebody thinking ‘hey, let’s split the atom’, or perhaps the first people who figured out you could surf) but instead all forms of art, design, and communication are just endless remixes of each other.

  • Julie


    You know I share a love of Carver with you, and I found this particularly resonant:”Like most of Carver’s work, there is minimal plot / action, but instead a kind of tension (and weirdly powerful sense of compassion) that seems to drive everything forward.”

    It’s just such a perfect description of Carver’s work, all of it, including his poetry. I’m not sure I’d ever thought of his work in quite that way, but it fits. Loved this piece.

    • David Miller

      thanks julie.

      i think i could study these edits for days and keep learning.

      interesting to note in the letters between lish and carver that towards the end of his career, r.c. finally started ‘standing up’ for his new stories as they came out in their original form.

      i have no idea, but part of me thinks this is why he shifted to all poetry towards the end…it was finally just all his own voice and vision.

  • Nick

    Really interesting stuff. Dunno if this will make sense, but removing all the temporal references seems to make the story “hang” in the air; frees it up rather than locking it down.

    Breaking sentences up into shorter ones is something I’m trying to experiment with myself at the moment (my natural tendency is otherwise).

    Definitely gonna go find me some Carver to read, now.

    And btw, strike-through displaying fine in chrome ; )

  • Scott

    First of all, thank you for the New Yorker link . . . always interesting to see editing at work. It would have been ultimately interesting for me to be able to see inside, to hear inside Carver’s head when he saw what Lish had to say about his work: to know where he deferred completely to Lish, and where he said, “No.”

    As someone who has had two books edited by different editors, it’s always interesting for me to see what they’ve done to my draft. Carver was, from the outset, always a minimalist, and in that I agree with you that Lish “made Carver more Carver.” Lish saw in Carver that tension was what was going on in his writing, and by emission, made that clearer.

    I am, in general, a maximalist, and have always been. While it is, I think, important to vary sentence length, so as not to lull readers to sleep, or, bore them to death, I think it is important to recognize in ourselves, our own particular style or voice.

    Until we do recognize our own voice, it is a good thing to test the waters. But once we do, I believe it is important to stick with that voice. Carver “made it.” So did David Foster Wallace. To a large degree, Lish was a Svengali, to some, a Rasputin; ultimately he influenced a generation of fiction.

    The greatest thing that any writer teacher/coach said to me when he read something I wrote was this: “Now here is someone who is playing with language.” Language is not stone, it’s clay. Play with it. Make something. Keep it. Roll it back into a ball; until you find something that is you. Then let no one else tell you who you are.

    • David Miller


      thanks for stopping by and for the insights and ideas.

      i’m not sure how i feel about the notion of ‘sticking’ to a particular style.

      i tend to think of things in terms of surfing.

      in that way i think it’s all like you’re working on a single ‘progression’ .

      any links to blogs? books?

  • David Page

    Ah, those were the days! Need more Gordon Lishes in our trade, that’s for damn sure.

    There are few pleasures as fine as working with a good editor—someone who keeps you on your game, pushes you and your stuff to hit the way it ought to hit. But man, there sure seems to be a lot of pressure these days to run the other way… to add exposition at every corner, to crack the reader over the head with a sledgehammer instead of trusting his or her intelligence and imagination… makes for some tedious prose in my opinion.

    Not sure where the pressure comes from, but for the sake of conversation, here are some examples from that MJ Death Valley thing:

    Author’s sentence: By 6 AM the light’s coming up fast.

    Edited sentence: By 6 AM the light’s coming up fast on what has to be the unlikeliest backcountry skiing line in North America.

    Author’s sentence: There are good glades off the top, a pair of wide-open bowls with all manner of interesting features, a series of north-facing chutes reminiscent of Taos or Alta or Ajax, but bigger.

    Edited sentence: Its hidden lines are catching just the right light—there are good glades off the top, a pair of wide-open bowls with all manner of interesting features, a series of north-facing chutes reminiscent of Taos or Alta or Ajax, but bigger.

    And of course there are sentences added (for clarification’s sake?), where before there were none:

    Each of us had recognized the absurdity of searching for skiable snow in the Mojave Desert—it was part of the appeal—but now it was all starting to make perfect sense.


    If only we were able to attach skins to the bottom of our skis, freeheeling up the mountain would be twice as fast as walking.

    hmm? necessary? I don’t know. Not by the standards of Gordon Lish, anyway. Of course, MJ ain’t The New Yorker (and I ain’t no Ray Carver), but still… right?


    • David Miller

      thanks for sharing these drafts / edits with us d.

      really edifying and cool to be able to see inside your work / ‘mind’ :)

      i’m with you on wishing for relationship with a ‘great’ editor.

      a big part of the way i work with writers at matador is, i feel, trying to ‘be the editor i never had’, or something like that.

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