To All Who Plan to Read or Have Read “Go Set a Watchman”:

Cynthia and Howie comparing copies of

Cynthia and Howie compare “Go Set a Watchman” with “To Kill a Mockingbird”
photo by Lynn Christoffers

“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first book, and first books are usually unpublishable, as was “Watchman.”  While it has brilliant writing in patches, it has inconsistencies, improbable passages, repetitions, unnecessary divergences, too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting, and almost every error a new writer can make.

Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw promise in the work, saying the “spark of the true writer flashed in every line.”  She urged Harper Lee to scrap “Watchman” and start all over, write a new book with an entirely different story.  Hohoff saw Scout’s young voice, one of several back stories in “Watchman,” as the potential for a great book once it was rewritten, and, of course, the new book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a classic, with good reason.

Harper Lee spent two years writing the new book, a frustrating experience for her.  At one point she tossed the entire manuscript of “Mockingbird” out the window, and Hohoff had to rescue it.

Many readers of “Watchman” are surprised, shocked, and disappointed at the change in Atticus from a lawyer with great tolerance and understanding for the problems of southern blacks, and one who inspired many young people to go into law after reading “Mockingbird,” to a downright bigot in “Watchman.”  They forget that Atticus is a made-up character. The bigoted Atticus in “Watchman” was considered unacceptable to the reading public. Once the book was rewritten, the bigoted Atticus was “killed off” and replaced by the Atticus we admire so much in “Mockingbird.”

All in the editing.

Think of what came out of the 294,000 word manuscript of “Look Homeward Angel” Thomas Wolfe submitted, once it was edited down to its present form by Maxwell Perkins, who cut out some 60,000 words.

Reading “Watchman” and what emerged by skillful editing from the corpse of “Watchman,” namely “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a good lesson for all aspiring writers.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend.


About Cynthia Riggs

CYNTHIA RIGGS, author of eleven books in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series, has a geology degree from Antioch College, an MFA from Vermont College, and a Coast Guard Masters License (100-ton vessels). She recently married Dr. Howard Attebery, who came back into her life after 62 years.
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13 Responses to GO SET A WATCHMAN

  1. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:
    Plenty of people have reviewed or written about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but my friend and mystery writer Cynthia Riggs pinpoints what I think is the most important issue: the importance of editing. Not just copy and line editing, but the editing that sees the potential in a manuscript that isn’t “there” yet and then coaxes, browbeats, and otherwise persuades the writer to make it real.

    • Kay Reynolds says:

      Enjoyed reading both blogs from Cynthia Riggs and Susanna J. Sturgis. It certainly makes me sit up and take notice of the importance of editing! I see my own writing as “too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting” as mentioned by Cynthia Riggs regarding Harper Lee’s writing style in Go Set a Watchman.

      • Sounds like an early draft to me! 🙂 Once you can recognize what’s boring and what’s overwritten, you’re well on the way to an improved next draft. And once you know what the backstory is, you can start shaping it to suit your story.

      • Kay Reynolds says:

        Thanks for your input Susanna. It confirms the importance of a great editor, like yourself! You have inspired me!

  3. Thomas Wolfe’s book was never “100,000 pages”. Even the unedited version is less than 700 pages.

    • Jenny:

      I stand corrected about the 100,000 pages — a great exaggeration on my part!

      An article in the N.Y.Times dated October 2, 2000, quotes Matthew Brucolli, who, with his wife Arlyn, in 2000 published “O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life,” the original version of “Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe.

      “Finally the manuscript was sent to Perkins,” says the Times. “Contrary to publishing myth, it did not have to be delivered in a truck, Mr. Bruccoli said. It was 1,100 double-spaced pages and 294,000 words, not 330,000 words. It was not five feet high but about six inches high, he added. Perkins himself said, ‘The extent of cutting in that book has somehow come to be greatly exaggerated.’ But the legends grew anyway, perhaps partly because of the novel’s length and Wolfe’s dramatic personality.”

      I guess I got swept up by the legends. Many thanks for correcting me.

  4. Reblogged this on Silver Threading and commented:
    The writing process is a journey within a writing journey. Excellent points here about To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman!

  5. backtowhatever says:

    It’s just that it’s really tough to find a decent editor and publisher when you’re still nobody.
    This made me wonder what a good editor could have done with my first novel, and now that it’s coming out I should have better skipoed this post haha 😄

  6. jan says:

    I haven’t yet read the book but other reviewers seem to agree with you. We all need a good editor!

  7. Susan says:

    After five drafts and an “almost, but not the best fit” comment from an agent, I am taking advise and changing the POV in my story from first to third person ( also killed off a character). It took me six months to accept this advise and follow through. As I read through it for what feels like the hundredth time, I get it, it does sound better. The reader gets to make up their own mind instead of feeling like my protagonist is manipulating the story!

  8. williamwaterway says:

    Thank you, Cynthia – a good lesson in editorial recognition of a book’s potential and the perseverance of a writer who respects the editor’s vision…

  9. Summer Songs says:

    Oh dear. So glad I haven’t pursued a writing career. My oh my. The very thought that an editor could have such power makes me fume and fuss. It seems (to me) like the writer is then doing all the “legwork” for the editor. As a non-writer, I stand in awe of the yolk creative writers willingly bear in order to finally reap the harvest of satisfaction that must come at publication!

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