A rule I learned as an editor: when you look at a book’s acknowledgments, the effusiveness of praise for an editor is inversely proportional to the effort he or she put into the book. If a writer goes on and on about her editor, that editor did almost nothing. However, editors who wrote whole sections of the finished book are likely listed there as one name among many.
I’ve had my name in all kinds of acknowledgments. I’ve had books I barely edited and books I waded into with a machete, a pair of hip boots, and a warning to my wife I might not make it back in one piece. I’ve also had plenty of people tell me I was an old-fashioned editor, since I still edited. That always made me wonder: Was I really alone? Was I the only one who edited?
What’s Gone Down
The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was an article for The New Yorker’s website by Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper, arguing that yes, editors do edit:
I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.
Harbough’s article took on a new book of essays called MFA vs NYC, which I’ve already written about here. For the most part, his piece is a testimonial: he and his colleagues edit. But it’s also an argument against the nonsensical nature of the claim. “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is,” writes Harbough, “the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”
The article takes a useful stab at figuring out where the idea that editors don’t edit came from, and why it persists; Harbough does a great job of showing how publishing really works. But I would take his analysis one step further, and divide editors into four different categories: therapists, writing teachers, producers, and visionaries. (There are also some editors who are just terrible at everything, but they eventually leave publishing.)
These editors and agents specialize in the “good enough” book. They know their writers have a built-in audience—that’s the only kind of book they sign. Their goal is to make sure their books’ contents fulfill the main requirements for that audience. After that, the rest of their work is coordinating the marketing and sales efforts that expanding that readership requires.
They frequently: move up into management.
They are beloved by: authors who needed an editor to stay out of the way and crack the whip on the publicity team.
They are hated by: authors hoping for a legendary tête-à-tête.
Therapists help authors improve their books without doing much “conventional” editing. They don’t tell authors what to write or how to structure it; they’re less interested in “fixing” manuscripts than helping authors make overall breakthroughs. They tend to look for authors with a good prose style and platform, who could nonetheless level up with a better structure or book idea.
These editors and agents frequently: discover a couple of bestselling authors and ride those ponies to the winner’s circle, or get tired of failures and become Visionaries, or end up working as developmental editors for a Producer.
They are beloved by: authors who want to be better.
They are hated by: the sales and marketing teams, who never know what the hell the editors are buying and if those books will actually be good by pub date.
These editors and agents look for authors with a great idea who need help making the book better on a granular level; the characters and plot are all on track—or the research and arguments in nonfiction—but the book doesn’t read as well as you’d like. Writing Teachers rewrite sentences and chapter titles and ask lots of little questions, and hope that as time goes by their authors stop making mistakes and get better.
These editors and agents frequently: work with academics and genre fiction authors.
They are beloved by: other editors, who watch them polish books forever and then see those books win prizes.
They are hated by: book reviewers, who have a read a lot of well-written books that are too long and don’t go anywhere.
Visionaries have a very strong sense of what is going to work and what that will require. Sometimes the author has already nailed it, and sometimes the author has to be melted down and poured into the required mold. Visionaries can be accused of not editing by one author, and of being a maniacal tyrant by another. They often make books work that no one else would even have tried.
These editors and agents frequently: work at imprints or agencies they named after themselves, and can be seen having fancy lunches celebrating another bestseller.
They are beloved by: the agents and editors they work with, who can stand aside and watch.
They are hated by: editors who take on that author’s next project for a big advance only to watch it sell one tenth of what the last book did.
Editing Is What You Do With It
If you find yourself with any of these editors, remember, they’re just readers with a little extra power. If they tell you something isn’t right, you might not like their solution—but they’re probably right that something needs fixing. It’s a myth that editors don’t edit, but it’s not a myth that some writers simply won’t take edits.