There is someone else in the writer-text-reader relationship that is not spoken of much anymore. And it’s sad, because a good editor (I’m using the old sense of the word here) really can make a good book excellent. They can, of course, also make a poor book readable. But when an editor works with a talented writer, wonderful things can happen.
These days, there are very few editors in the old mode left. As publishers began to sell books solely on the writer’s name, not the quality of the work, and as authors have had to take on more and more of a role in marketing their own books, the role of a literary editor has been eclipsed by expedience.
But other forces have also been at work in the demise of the editor. It takes just as much talent and even more skill to be a good editor. A good editor tells you when you have over-written parts of your story. They tell you when you have done something with the protagonist that kicks them out of character and makes them harder to believe. They tell you when what you consider to be the best sentence you have ever written needs to go, because the power of it is killing the rest of the paragraph. Editors see the landscape of literature and smooth out the rough bits. They ‘hear’ the writer’s voice. And the best of them have the rarest talent of all: they can clearly identify the writer’s style and edit a story without eclipsing that unique voice.
Good editors are often not good writers in their own right. If they are, then they tend to push the drafts of a story towards their own voice. It takes someone with an almost blessed ear to make necessary changes to the text without diluting the power of the writer’s style.
Even harder is when a writer and an editor work together on a character’s dialogue to ensure it works, within the context of the character’s voice, and then in the context of the writer’s style. To be able to do that is beyond craft, it’s art.
In a perfect world, editors are not proof-readers. Either because the writer is fully capable of proof-reading themselves (lord knows, I’m not) or because a proof-reader has gone through the work already and cleaned up the spelling and grammar mistakes. But both editors and proof-readers are expensive, and publishers are not willing to pick up the tab, even when they do get to take the cost out of the profits later.
Traditionally, the writer-editor relationship was often a confrontational one. I think that, by necessity, this is as it should be. There is a natural conflict between a writer staying true to his or her vision and an editor whose job is to make the work as perfect as it can be. As one of the commenters on my earlier post said, every editor is going to edit a book differently; as with all art, there are no absolutely right answers. It is the symbiosis between the writer and editor that takes the work from good to fully polished. The trick to surviving the relationship is for both parties to park their egos and dedicate themselves to the text at hand.
I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. This is a genre sorely in need of good editors. Books that stretch to 800 pages could have, or should have, been 400. Every writer in the world could benefit from being forced to explain why a 10,000 word side journey away from the central plot is necessary to the story. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But it is a blessing and not a curse that someone knowledgeable compels a writer to defend their rationale. If they can’t, it needs to go. Not because the writer is bad, but because the work is not benefiting from its continued presence.
In a world that is producing more and more written content than ever before in our history, we seem to have killed off a species we desperately need.
If you’d like to know more about the inimitable Maxwell Perkins, pictured above, there is a very nice article about him in The Independent: The Return of a Man Called Perkins