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Yes, Editors, Because Writers Aren’t That Good

Micah Mattix is right: [1]

Most writers think their ideas are always wonderful and their prose, beautiful. They aren’t, or at least not always.

Editors junk bad ideas and fix sloppy prose, and while this can be painful for writers, it is ultimately for their own good (as well as the good of readers and books themselves). After all, deep-down, who wants to spend two years on a book that is little more than a pet project or vanity publication? I’ve seen academics and writers pursue such projects in self-publishing and the results are not particularly flattering.

Of course, editors can be wrong, but the need to pitch and defend ideas to editors helps to make evident whether those ideas are interesting or valuable. It also helps to remind writers that a book is not ultimately about them, but about the ideas, the material, the prose.

I’ve said before in this space how much the editor of Little Way improved the book, even though there were times when I disagreed with his decisions. I would sometimes end up grudgingly conceding that he was probably right, and then after more time passed, being so very, very thankful that he had saved me from my worst impulses as a writer. Overall, though, I’m a pretty easy writer for editors to work with, because I take direction well. I think that my time working as an editor of other people’s prose made me more inclined to trust editors. Some writers are prima donnas who despise the hand of an editor. It’s true that some editors aren’t very good, but it’s more true that writers, even good writers, need more help than they probably think. Readers don’t see what editors do, but as someone who has been an editor, and who depends on editing, let me tell you, it’s significant — and, if the writer has more sense than ego, invaluable.

That said, would you want to be an editor at a major publishing house? Reading this account from Daniel Menaker [2], I don’t think you would. Good grief. Excerpt:

Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!”

To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-­seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Yes, Editors, Because Writers Aren’t That Good"

#1 Comment By Saint Andeol On November 20, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

Maybe your the type of writer who needs an editor but I’m don’t.

#2 Comment By Jamie O’Neill On November 20, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

“Most writers think their ideas are always wonderful and their prose, beautiful.”

I hope most editors would agree that the comma between “prose” and “beautiful” is so wonderful as to be weird.

#3 Comment By charles cosimano On November 20, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

Writing with an editor is going to be better than without one. Of course we all know that editors feel neither heat nor cold and have ice water instead of blood, but they are a necessary evil.

#4 Comment By Pat On November 20, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

I wonder if editors can break out of the publishing industry. I could imagine a group of editors and marketers forming a business aimed at self-publishing authors, providing the things those authors actually need without worrying about the expensive book production end of it.

#5 Comment By Charles Curtis On November 20, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

Honestly, Rod, I enjoy reading your blog far more than I did your latest book. The book is good, and the story a worthy one, but it is more or less straight narrative, which I suppose is what a general audience tends to like, but it seemed thin to me. I prefer you unedited, I am pretty sure..

Note for example, how John Kennedy Toole couldn’t get the Confederacy of Dunces past his editors, and how it drove him to suicide. They didn’t get it, and they were utterly wrong.

#6 Comment By Lancelot Lamar On November 20, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

I know that the critic Stanley Kaufmann was the editor of Walker Percy’s first and greatest novel, The Moviegoer. I believe he worked with Percy a great deal to get the book right, and I wonder if anyone knows of an account, scholarly or popular, of that work in more detail? Has Kaufmann himself ever given an account of it, or did Percy ever say in detail how Kaufmann helped him?

#7 Comment By Reinhold On November 20, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

I’ve read a few great writers saying that they think that most of what they write is terrible (I’m thinking of Mark Twain and Samuel Beckett, in particular). A friend of mine who reads Raymond Carver said that his stuff was originally more long-winded, but was edited down so heavily by his editor into a concise style that he adopted this method himself. So I don’t think writers really TEND to be arrogant.

#8 Comment By charles cosimano On November 20, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

St. Andeol, yes, you do need an editor.

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 20, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

Beautiful piece of sarcasm St. Andeol. I think my good neighbor Cosimano was being too smug to see how carefully thought out your grammatical transgressions were. Or maybe its something about the air in the smoggy suburbs.

In my very limited experience, all of the above is true. Editors improve prose, because they see through the eye of the reader who hasn’t been immersed in the subject for the past several years. They help the infatuated writer communicate effectively with an audience.

But in picking subject matter — they’re groping in the dark, and they know it. They can’t help making as many bad calls as good ones. The better ones admit as much in crafting rejection letters, for those worthy of even receiving an answer.

Occasionally, an editor completely misses the ball, and the author has to stand up and challenge them. Done right, that can have a good outcome also.

#10 Comment By charles cosimano On November 20, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

Having been on both sides of the fence, (you don’t know what a vision of Hell is until you have had to edit bad porn) I know editing is a thankless but necessary task.

#11 Comment By charles cosimano On November 20, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

And my neighbor has been breathing too much city air to see that I caught the joke.

#12 Comment By Another Matt On November 20, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

I’m currently writing my dissertation. I have helped out several friends as an editor for theirs, and now I’m receiving help from them on mine. It makes a huge difference. I edit my own writing a ton, but the most important thing is to have someone read it who doesn’t necessarily know what I’m trying to say before I say it. “This isn’t clear to me” or “this idea is abstract; include an example” are the best kinds of advice. “This is awkward” is very useful as well.

What’s interesting about this to me — most composers I know don’t really use editors for their music, except to fix mistakes in notation (e.g. you forgot to tell the flute player to switch to piccolo, or you forgot to cancel the F# in bar 32). But in general “the music itself” passes through the process without too much change from the outside.

#13 Comment By Tom On November 20, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

Re: Lancelot Lamar’s query about Stanley Kauffmann’s role in editing Walker Percy’s debut novel, “The Moviegoer”:
Jay Tolson’s excellent 1992 Percy biography, “Pilgrim in the Ruins,” describes in detail the writing and revising of “The Moviegoer” (see pgs. 281-291).
Kauffmann and other editors provided Percy with good advice for his novel, and Percy was quite willing to take it.
“I have no idea how this book will go,” Tolson quotes Percy writing to Kauffman, “but I know very well how little I could have dispensed with your help.”
Tolson’s account is based on his interview with Kauffmann, and Kauffmann’s article “Album of the Knopfs,” from The American Scholar (Summer 1987), as well as some of Kauffmann and Percy’s correspondence.

#14 Comment By Protestant Sean On November 20, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

I’ve done a fair amount of editing, mostly copy but occasionally general, paid and non-paid. It’s enjoyable work unless the writer is hopeless, in which case it is torment.

The blowback is that now I’m never satisfied with my own writing, and I constantly tweak sentences and restructure my work. I’m a much better writer than I was in college, but this obsession has slowed me to a snail’s pace. Rod, do you have any suggestions for reliably increasing output? I’d love to hear them.

[NFR: I really don’t. It sounds stupid, maybe, but I write as much as I do not because I’m forcing myself, but because … this is what I do. I’m actually not a disciplined writer at all. If I could figure out a way to channel all this writing energy in a focused way, I would write more books. — RD]

#15 Comment By Turmarion On November 20, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

Conversely, it’s often the case that when an author gets super popular, writes lots of bestsellers, and makes loads of bucks, the publishers lean on the editors to let him do what he/she wants (or the editors themselves buy into it and give him free reign). I’ve long thought that most of Stephen King’s novels from the late 80’s, early 90’s onward (with some exceptions) desperately needed editing.

Another example: After Silence of the Lambs established Hannibal Lecter as Thomas Harris’s permanent meal ticket, his material has gone drastically south. Hannibal was one of the most intricately researched, beautifully plotted novels I’ve ever read. The problem is it has retconned the s*** out of the character, gone as freakily lurid as possible for no reason that serves the plot (unlike the lurid elements of his earlier books), and ends in a way that can’t really be extrapolated from anything in the plot, characterization, etc. A friend of mine said that Hannibal was basically Harris’s “F*** you” to his audience.

I never even bothered with his installments after that, and I’ve noticed the reviews have become worse. However, he still sells, and they’ve made a TV series out of it. How an author once far above average has fallen because of fear of editing him.

#16 Comment By Public Defender On November 21, 2013 @ 5:52 am

One advantage of being a PD (as opposed to being a solo practitioner) is that I have editors for my briefs. Like Dreher, I sometimes but heads with them, but they do make my work better. Of course, law office editors are not as skilled as publishing house editors, just like most lawyers aren’t as skilled as published authors (and that puts it very gently).

Dreher often talks about advice to aspiring writers. One piece of advice might be to consider law school. Of course, no one should do this unless they think they can love practicing law, but we lawyers get paid to write. Sure, the economy for lawyers ain’t what it used to be, but it’s a lot less bad than the market for journalists. Aspiring lawyer-writers should also shop around for the best scholarship deal instead of trying to get into a higher ranked school.