Who edited Hemingway and Steinbeck? Sadly, I didn’t know until I looked it up even though their editors played a key role in making their works the classics that they are.
People often ask me what I think about self-publishing, marketing, and finding an audience for genre writing. If there is one comment/piece of advice I have for people who are looking to publish whether through the traditional or the Indie route, it’s to find a great editor. Not a good editor. A great one. Obviously, the most important thing for your book is to write it in the first place and make it the best work possible (which in itself is a huge undertaking). The second is finding a great editor.
Why? Because finding a great editor is like finding a best friend for your book. People think editing is about finding spelling and grammar errors. While that’s part of it (though most of that falls with the copywriter), the most important is that not only does an editor champion you and encourage you through your tough times; they will help make your work so much better from a narrative and structural perspective. That, of course, depends on finding the right editor, not just anyone. Does that take time? Yes, and I’ll get back to that later.
A fantastic writing group and close knit readers are incredible to have, but I’ve found in my experience that even those have their limits (sometimes, it’s just because people don’t want to offend and hold back on the punches, and other times, it’s because your friends and your group have lives that, understandably, make it difficult to devote that much time to your work). A great editor takes your work to another level, in part, because they’re passionate enough about the writing to have taken it on in the first place. They will challenge you, point out weaknesses and areas that don’t add up. Even the best writers have inconsistencies, whether on the plot, or the characters involved. There are times where I naively and delusionally enough think I’ve written something that is as close to being ready to publish as I think. An editor will then point out the areas that work and don’t work. A big part of separating the great books from the good ones, I personally believe, comes down to how they respond to feedback and criticism from an editor/s that they trust. Not only does your response and revision make the piece stronger, but you can also know/ask where you’ve succeeded and amplify that effect. Try to write a poignant character interaction and you feel it’s falling flat? Ask your editor what they really thought. Is this dialogue exchange too forced? Again, ask your editor.
Often times, editors are talented writers themselves. They’re almost always excellent story tellers and have a gift for working with writers. I can honestly say my collaborations with various editors have been some of the highlights of my career.
In nonfiction, this is an absolute necessity. At Entropy, where I’m a co-founding editor, I still ask either the book reviews editor, Alex, or co-founder, Janice, to take a look before publishing anything. And as for articles I’ve written, editors play a key role from simple things like pointing out weak arguments to changing the title to be more effective. I’m always fiddling with titles, and I have this bad tendency to fall in love with certain phrases and wording. A great editor can cut away the dross and make it shine. I can’t tell you how grateful I am and how much I’ve learned about writing from the various editors I’ve had the privilege to work with the past couple of years.
In fiction, I’ve also been lucky to work with some amazing editors. Each of them has their own distinctive tastes, styles, and preferences. Each of them not only helped me to become a much better writer, but to better understand my own writing proclivities and idiosyncrasies. If you’re like any writer, you’ll have quirks in your style you might not even notice, whether overusing a certain word, or patterns you annoyingly repeat without even knowing it. It’s their job to point it out, and they can give their opinion on how they think it works (cut it, or, maybe you can try using a different word every once in a while). Often, the process is iteration after iteration of polish. I’ve found some of my favorite moments were when they asked questions about my work I couldn’t answer and that I needed to. Like, why did this character do this instead of that when clearly, her arc seems to be taking her in a completely different direction?
At the same time, you also have to be careful about bad editing. Sometimes, an editor will impose their own vision which might not be consistent with your own. A good editor should bring out the best of what’s there, and will often point out things and give you the choice of how to tackle the problems. Finding that balance is tricky, and I’ve been fortunate that almost all of my editors have been superb. But in cases where it’s not working, it’s not a bad thing if you mutually and respectfully decide to part ways.
So how do you find the right editor? This is an area where honestly, it just takes lots of time and research. There are no shortcuts (at least that I know of). Some suggestions? Read the magazines and sites you love. Find out who edited them. Send them your work. Those books by your favorite authors? Who edited those? Now, you may love Harry Potter, but chances are it’s going to be hard to get the editor of Harry Potter to edit your work. Rather than that, try to find editors who share similar tastes; read their interviews, or search various forms of social media. Then, submit. There will be lots of rejection, but that’s part of it. Again, the right editor will be your champion, but they also need to make a determination if it’s a good fit for them because they’re dedicating a part of their life to it.
People always bemoan how impatient everyone is, and I’m as guilty as the next writer. At the same time, if there’s something worth waiting for, it’s your writing which you’ve devoted so much of yourself to. Don’t sell yourself short on this.
In a nutshell, it takes time to find the right editor, no different from a great friendship. If it takes a little longer than you had hoped to find the right pairing, it’s okay. Everything special takes time. Once you find that perfect editor though, make sure to shower her/him with lots of appreciation and love.
And in case you’re curious, Ernest Hemingway was edited by Maxwell Perkins and John Steinbeck (at least his latter books) by Pat Covici.