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What makes a great editor?

With the pass­ing of edi­tor Richard Jack­son, and amidst the talk about him, the ques­tion quite nat­u­ral­ly came up: What makes for a great editor?

My own response is high­ly sub­jec­tive. I think every writer would say so. The per­son who is a good edi­tor for writer X is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a good edi­tor for writer Y. And writer X’s good edi­tor does not nec­es­sar­i­ly work well for writer Y. In say­ing that, we answer part of the orig­i­nal ques­tion: a good edi­tor-writer work­ing rela­tion­ship has mul­ti­ple emo­tion­al fac­tors. Thus, can author and edi­tor com­mu­ni­cate well with each oth­er? Do they share the same sense of humor, tragedy, and so forth? Do they share atti­tudes about gen­der, race? These things (and there are many more) tru­ly mat­ter, and they are, as I began this essay, high­ly sub­jec­tive. The writer/editor writ­ing rela­tion­ship is a high­ly per­son­al one, but it is also a busi­ness rela­tion­ship. Prof­it and loss is a real fac­tor. Does that seem com­pli­cat­ed? It is.

But there are—in my experience—other fac­tors. One of the key skills of a good edi­tor is the abil­i­ty to dis­cern the poten­tial qual­i­ties in what has to be an unfin­ished man­u­script. That potential—as seen by the editor—needs to match what the writer hopes (wants) to achieve.

Remem­ber, it is a roman­tic myth that writ­ers cre­ate books alone.

In my expe­ri­ence, good edi­tors nev­er just say, “We can pub­lish that.” They will say, “I can see you doing this, that, and the oth­er thing to make this a suc­cess­ful book,” what­ev­er the genre.

If you agree, fine. If you don’t, say “Thank you, no.” Not long ago I pitched a nov­el to edi­tor 1. The idea was liked, but the response was “you should need to tell the sto­ry this way.” I said “No, thanks,” and took the same pitch to edi­tor 2, who accept­ed it as I pre­sent­ed it. The annals of children’s lit­er­a­ture are full of tales of books turned away, only to go else­where and win a New­bery Award. Mind, that which was turned away was not a New­bery book. It became so as edi­tor and writer worked together.

And acknowl­edge this painful truth: You, the author, may be wrong. And, yes, edi­tors can be wrong.

A good edi­tor (in my expe­ri­ence) makes you see your work in a clear­er, sharp­er light. That edi­tor makes you want to get back to the book and revise. Repeat­ed­ly. If an edi­tor sug­gests some­thing alien to the writer’s goal, it’s a poor fit. That’s not to say the edi­tor is wrong, it’s that, I repeat, it’s a poor fit. But it is painful to work with an edi­tor who doesn’t share your vision. Revis­ing a book to fit some­one else’s vision is not much fun.

Indeed, the most dif­fi­cult kind of edi­tor is the one who sees in your work some­thing that they would like to see, and tries to bend your work accord­ing­ly. They are try­ing to cre­ate some­thing for their own pur­pos­es. Again they may be right, (it might be for com­mer­cial rea­sons) and if the writer is will­ing to aim for that, so be it. But if edi­tor and writer are mov­ing in oppo­site ways, it’s hard. Leave Push-Me-Pull-Yous to Dr. Dolittle.

Meeting with your editor

I have always felt the best part of writer/editor moments occur when tex­tu­al prob­lems are solved togeth­er by talk. That’s when the edi­to­r­i­al process is tru­ly excit­ing. Then it’s all about ideas, and cre­at­ing excit­ing lit­er­a­ture to reveal them.

The best editors—and Dick Jack­son was one of the rare great ones—bring the author’s vision to full fruition. Great edi­tors may be invis­i­ble, but it doesn’t say they aren’t there. They are.

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