Around 1937, Wolcott Gibbs, editor for The New Yorker from 1927 till the day he died, received a request from Katherine White. She was trying out a new batch of writers and wanted a general set of guidelines from Gibbs. He provided 31.
Since The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest film and 10th collaboration with Bill Murray, is a love letter to writers, and most especially the sort of journalists at The New Yorker, most most especially
during its hey-day, the promotional material below seems appropriate. It features Bill Murray, as disengaged as ever, reciting a few highlights from Wolcott Gibbs’ infamous document. It is delightful, but also worth giving a second look as legitimate advice.
The Swiss-watch-precise quirk of Anderson’s film pairs nicely with the air of New Yorker practices, as the video accompanies Murray’s narration with clips. “Our writers are full of cliches, just as old barns are full of bats”, he recites, and Owen Wilson’s character from the second of the film’s six segments chimes in; “It’s supposed to be charming”.
These editing guidelines are useful in most mediums, not just for the short fiction writers they were intended to corral. “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems, except another writer” is in almost every case a salient piece of advice. Take these, not mentioned in the video:
“I almost forgot indirection, which probably maddens Mr. Ross (owner and founder of the magazine) more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects, or places or people, being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a Profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying “His Vermont house is full of valuable paintings.” Should say “He had a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.” Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.” It may be a rather weird point, but in relation to scriptwriting, it is gospel. Declare objects, people, etc. which appear on screen the moment they enter the scene, do not neglect to mention them until they speak, are picked up, or whatever else. Production should be able to gather what it is they are expected to provide, all together, right away.
“The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer”. That is, if you’ve already provided exposition that can be gathered from context, don’t repeat the point by having someone mention it out loud. Trust your audience to understand, or work to make the exposition in context clearer. Lines that rehash what we already know, just in case we missed it, are clunkers.
The French Dispatch itself is a great example of unconventional storytelling, done right. See it today. Read the full Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles.