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A black and white photo of a statue of a person's head and torso, cut off at just above the mouth. It stands before an ornate building. In the statues chest is a caring of head looking left.

Image: Unsplash.

At NOON, the New York-based literary journal where I have been on staff since 2015, we read all submissions that are under serious consideration together aloud. Compiling each edition is an intimate process—the core team consists of four senior editors helmed by American writer Diane Williams, who founded the journal in 2000. Until the pandemic, our meetings were held around the kitchen table of her Manhattan apartment. Now, we gather on Friday afternoons in our separate digital squares, and on days when there are fewer administrative tasks to attend to, we spend our time reading stories. Our editorial ears are attuned to familiar phrases, awkward transitions, unnecessary repetitions, accidental rhymes, passages where the language falls flat. Along the way, we pause to make suggestions for clarity or concision.

When you read a piece out loud, the words on the page come alive—or you realise quickly that they don’t, your mind beginning to wander as if you were listening to the drone of a dull conversation. Variation, emotion, musicality, voice—the question is always how to make the sentences sing.

When you read a piece out loud, the words on the page come alive.

NOON publishes one edition each March, and the prose featured is largely short, taut and enigmatic, with a brevity that allows us to spend the time discussing stories at the level of each individual word. (From a recent meeting: ‘Are we okay with blood pooling?’) Williams studied with Gordon Lish earlier in her writing career and has described her own editing style as both collaborative and ‘invasive’. In the seven years I’ve worked with her, I’ve seen the essence of a story distilled into a few potent, powerful pages or paragraphs—and, on a few occasions, a single sentence—as a result of her particular alchemy. ‘Apparently, invasive editing is a dirty secret,’ Williams said in an interview with Merve Emre in the New Yorker last year. ‘I think that’s sad. It should be celebrated as a serendipitous collaboration between the writer and the editor. If it were not seen as one ego subjecting another, but as one elevating another, it would be applauded.’

In our meetings, reading stories out loud word by word, I am sometimes reminded of Simone Weil’s assertion that ‘attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer’. Other times, I think of H.G. Wells: ‘No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.’


When I started working on my debut novel, Thirst for Salt, I attempted to apply this same quality of attention to my own work in progress, reading the drafts of early scenes out loud to sense their rhythm. The novel is set in an isolated NSW coastal town, and I wanted the feel of the book to mimic the tidal movements of the ocean that is always in the background. Sometimes placid and gentle, other times rough, visceral, urgent—a variation I hoped would reflect the ebb and flow of desire between the two lovers at the centre of the book.

This is a version of what Lydia Davis describes in short stories of Lucia Berlin—a highly musical writer—as ‘the perfect coincidence of sound and sense’. Prose has movement like a piece of music and, similarly, the choices made in a composition direct us to what to pay attention to and how to feel. Short sentences make sharp, staccato sounds, long run-on phrases conjure a sense of breathlessness, and a variety of sentence lengths creates a pleasing rhythm, lulling the reader into a dream-like state. When you read a text aloud, you feel all this in the body, and I feel I can better tell by ear when a sentence is sticking.

Although working at NOON has sharpened my awareness of acoustics, my understanding of language as an inherently musical thing predates my work as an editor, partly shaped by growing up around musicians and spending my teens and early twenties telling stories primarily through song. Perhaps it goes back further—storytelling was first an oral form, its origins across time and cultures the same as our own first encounters with literature as children: a voice, telling us a tale, commanding us to listen.

Prose has movement like a piece of music and, similarly, the choices made in a composition direct us.

Coming to the novel from a background in short fiction made me believe that I could make a book as perfectly polished as a short story if I approached the process the same way, whittling each sentence into an exquisite object. However, as I continued to revise my manuscript, the issue became not whether I was able to apply an editor’s scrutiny to my own work in progress but whether I could permit myself to stop. The late Robert Gottlieb, who before moving to the New Yorker had edited over three decades at Simon & Schuster and Knopf the novels of Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing and John Cheever, among others, described the compulsion of his occupation this way: ‘My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable.’

‘Making good things better’ is one of the undeniable pleasures of an editor’s work, and I find a particular satisfaction in identifying what is extraneous and cutting it away, allowing a scene or sentence to emerge more powerfully. But when it came to my own work, I realised it was possible to take these impulses too far. My work at NOON and two years of close reading in an MFA program has taught me to keep a sharp eye and keen ear out for any potential flaw, and when does a flaw ever seem so obvious and ever-present and magnified as when it’s one of your own?

The last pass before I planned to send my draft to my agent was particularly severe. In seeking to erase any sentence I deemed ugly or dull or unnecessary, I had also taken away some of the novel’s mystery—the spontaneity and vulnerability that is part of the magic of encountering a particular human mind on the page. The prose became brittle and overworked. The energy of the story flatlined.

What I had forgotten is that good editing requires not only rigour but generosity—that fundamental faith in a writer’s singular voice and vision—and that this grace was so much harder to extend to my own work. Instead of an aesthetic choice, my obsession with brevity and minutiae had become a form of armour, an attempt to anticipate potential critique and therefore protect myself from it. It wasn’t an editor’s voice in my head I was hearing but the voice of my own self-doubt.

When does a flaw ever seem so obvious and ever-present and magnified as when it’s one of your own?

Eventually, I let go of the conviction that it was possible for me to sustain the heightened attention to language that I admire in short fiction over the course of a novel. After all, this intensity is difficult enough to achieve when working on a small scale. In a longer work, it may also not always be desirable, as this style of writing requires a certain stamina from the reader as well as the writer. Maybe not every sentence needed to be a perfect, chiselled object. Maybe it was enough for a paragraph to sometimes simply be a resting place.

Recently, in the long pedagogical tradition of teaching what you need to learn, I found myself talking to a student about balancing lyricism and clarity, and reached again for musical terms. Think of lyricism like a crescendo in a piece of music, I said. If you play an instrument at the same volume the whole way through a composition, a crescendo will have no special impact because it will be indistinguishable from the rest of the sound.


After seven years at NOON, studying in an MFA program and now teaching in one, I can’t always silence the editorial voice in my head, although I’ve tried at times to ignore it. While I was working towards the first complete draft of Thirst for Salt, I had a post-it note above my desk that read: It can be shit for now. I was trying to give myself permission to put words on the page, but every morning when I sat down to work, I felt the compulsion to go back to what I’d done the day before and comb through it again. This often took the form of retyping the previous passages which, like reading aloud, became a way for me to find my way back into the rhythm of the text—to, in a way, warm up my voice—and in the process, other small refinements were made along the way.

Helen Garner describes a similar method in a diary entry in Yellow Notebook from the period when she was working on The Children’s Bach: ‘I rewrote Vicky and Elizabeth, the very beginning of the book. I worry that I ought to pour out a whole draft and then go back and rewrite. What I do is write a page, then fix it up straight away and go back to the beginning to see if everything fits. So my progress is slow. But the work is solid.’

Although I often felt ashamed and frustrated at my slow pace, writing sentences I knew were bad didn’t feel like progress either.

It wasn’t until I came across this passage that I felt validated in my own approach, which diverges from the well-meaning conventional writing advice to hit a target word count every day or ‘vomit’ out a rough draft and clean it up later. Although I often felt ashamed and frustrated at my slow pace, writing sentences I knew were bad didn’t feel like progress either.

I also can’t deny that when it comes to my own work, the rewriting, the slow tinkering and fine-tuning is the most pleasurable part of the process for me. It’s in revision that the page becomes a space of play and possibility, the text an object you can shape, like clay. As James Salter said in a Paris Review interview: ‘I need the opportunity to write this sentence again, to say it to myself again, to look at the paragraph once more, and actually to go through the whole text, line by line, very carefully […] The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another.’

In Salter’s framing, revision and editing is not a punishing process but a hopeful one. After all, how many other opportunities are there in life to get a do-over, the chance to go back and try again to say what we really mean, to make ourselves understood, to make it good?

These days, I am learning to make peace with my inner editor. It’s not a matter of silencing that voice in my head, but choosing the right moments to let it in.