Every Writer Needs An Editor

Colin Firth playing Max Perkins in the 2016 film GENIUS.

And when I say every writer, I mean every writer. Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald had Max Perkins at Scribners. Harper Lee had Truman Capote. Once, long ago, a dozen or so Doubleday authors had Jackie Kennedy. (Quick anecdote: In distant days, I was courted for a position at Bantam Double Dell, with part of the allure supposedly being an office “down the hall” from Jackie. But I was reasonably happy where I was [Macmillan], and the folks there matched Doubleday’s offer [all except for the Jackie incentive] to entice me to stay. This I did.)

Perkins, who died in 1947, was old-school. He paid attention to small press publications, did personal outreach, cultivated new talent, and developed and worked with authors over the long-term. Jackie, like nearly every in-house editor of her and later generations, limited her talent searches to proposals and manuscripts represented by agents, leaving it to the latter to pick the wheat from the chaff, and to present only the most marketable work from which she might choose and for which she might bid. (But Jackie picked well, edited diligently, and did some very excellent publishing, including one of my all-time favorite books, Edward Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar. Haven’t read it? Do.)

Although all writers need editors, no-one needs an editor more than the author who is starting out — and by this I mean an editor is necessary well before an author gets his or her feet into the door of a literary agency, let alone a publishing house. (To be clear: The same rule also applies to those who would self-publish. Perhaps even more so, since the self-publisher has no built-in second line of editing defense such as does the author whose work is acquired by an imprint employing its own editing staff.)

Capote was the type of editor most novice writers need. Although he did it gratis for his friend Harper Lee rather than for a fee, Capote took a blisteringly bad manuscript (published, quite unconscionably, as Go Set A Watchman in 2015, once the elderly Lee had lost the power to object), and helped “Nell” turn it into her masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird. It was only after this metamorphosis that Lee was able to sell her book. Capote had not written or rewritten, but simply edited and critiqued and coached better work out of his friend, helping her bring to the surface the book she intended to write and was capable of writing.

This is what an editor (aka book-doctor) is for. Some projects call for simple procedures from the good doctor; others call for heart-transplants. It depends on the manuscript. But trust me — all manuscripts need something.

And it is not just manuscripts that need the attention of a reliable literary physician — so too do proposals, cover letters, and synopses. Fees paid for quality work equal money well spent.

BTW, a true professional with credentials and extensive experience will usually expect about $100 per hour. Not cheap. So protect yourself:

When recruiting an editor to help you along your way, always look for references, and for citations of particular projects on which that editor has worked. As well, never trust an editor who asks for an up-front fee before reviewing your work. The best providers will want to see your work before discussing with you what needs to be done and providing you with an estimate of the hours he or she believes your project will take up. Only then, should you decide to proceed, will he or she look for a down-payment (usually half the estimate).

The editing of a cover-letter might take an hour or two of a provider’s time; the editing of a proposal might take several days; the editing of a complete manuscript can take variable amounts of time, depending on whether one is talking band-aids or surgery.

Note that an editor is not a ghostwriter, although some do ghostwriting as well. An editor is there to critique and give detailed advice on how to take any piece of writing and make it better. That’s why editors are sometimes also referred to as book-coaches as well as book-doctors. When I was a kid I knew how to throw a football; my coaches taught me how to throw a football faster and farther.

Thus endeth this lesson.

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