word craft



If you look up: “Famous authors who self-pub­lished,” on Google you will find many. Among them: 

  • Mar­garet Atwood
  • Frank Baum
  • William Blake
  • Robert Bly
  • Beat­rix Potter
  • Alfred, Lord Byron
  • Willa Cather

For a vari­ety of rea­sons these days, there is a bit of vogue for self-pub­lish­ing. One can have no objec­tions to that. That said, I think one can find fault with self-edit­ing. Not so much because it is wrong to go with­out exter­nal edit­ing, but because one’s work suffers. 


Writ­ing as I know it, is for oth­ers, for read­ers. The edi­tor is tra­di­tion­al­ly the first read­er and the one who can do much to make the writ­ing read­able. While many pro­fes­sion­al edi­tors work for a pub­lish­er, these days there are plen­ty of good free­lance edi­tors who can be hired. 

In fact, I’ve known writ­ers who (in secret) hire a free­lance edi­tor before they give their work to their reg­u­lar editors. 

Yet, while the role of an edi­tor in pub­lish­ing is thus vital, it is high­ly unusu­al for an edi­tor to be cit­ed pub­licly. In my most recent book, Loy­al­ty, the per­son who designed the phys­i­cal book is cit­ed right on the copy­right page, but the edi­tor is not. The clos­est one comes to that is when an edi­tor achieves such suc­cess they have been giv­en their own imprint, as in “A Richard Jack­son Book.” And there are edi­tors who are famous in their own right. Per­haps the most famous, Maxwell Perkins, was one who edit­ed (among oth­ers) Ernest Hem­ing­way, F. Scott Fitzger­ald, Mar­jorie Kin­nan Rawl­ings, and Thomas Wolfe. 

There are writ­ers who work with one edi­tor for their entire careers. I have a num­ber of writer friends who have done that. I, because I have worked with many pub­lish­ers, have had many. 

For the most part, edi­tors choose which books they work on, but not always. Now and again, for a vari­ety of rea­sons, they are assigned books. That can be tricky. What hap­pens when an edi­tor does not like a book they have been assigned? Not good. On the oth­er hand, my Crispin was pur­chased by one edi­tor who then retired. The man­u­script was (I believe) assigned to some­one else. The book went on to win the New­bery. My very first book, Things That Some­times Hap­pen, had three edi­tors: one retired, the sec­ond changed employ­er, and the third, I’m not sure because I nev­er spoke to her. For anoth­er book of mine, City of Orphans, the orig­i­nal edi­tor became ill and signed off. I told the pub­lish­er I didn’t think the book was done. The pub­lish­er assigned anoth­er edi­tor to work on the book. The col­lab­o­ra­tion was splendid. 

So, the rela­tion­ship between edi­tor and writer is com­plex. While it is often cor­dial, with­out fric­tion, and most often pro­duc­tive, it can be oth­er­wise. It can even be adver­sar­i­al. A writer may have one vision of his/her book, an edi­tor can have anoth­er. More­over, the writer may be wrong, and the edi­tor right. By the same token, the writer may be right, and the edi­tor wrong. In my writ­ing career, I have expe­ri­enced both. 

I have known edi­tors who always think they know bet­ter than their writ­ers. And the oth­er way around. I recall one writer who described to me the emo­tions gen­er­at­ed by the editor’s stan­dard notes to be akin to the famous paint­ing, “The Scream.” 

I have no doubt there are authors who are con­sid­ered just as difficult. 

I was once in my editor’s office when I saw a Roald Dahl man­u­script on someone’s desk. On the top page, in pen­cil, the fol­low­ing was scrawled by Dahl; “God damn it, when I write … I mean … !!” 

Over my years I have heard many a dis­cus­sion among writ­ers about edi­tors, their strengths and weak­ness­es. I assume edi­tors do the same about writ­ers. Rarely, but it has hap­pened, I have heard an edi­tor refer to an author as “dif­fi­cult.” 

This ten­sion, which might I sup­pose be called “cre­ative ten­sion” from time to time, does exist but is sel­dom dis­cussed pub­licly. I think that’s because the writer/editor rela­tion­ship is (at its best) one that requires great trust, tact, hon­esty, and not least, a huge amount of tru­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive work. Yet when I have asked edi­tors (and I have asked) why their names are not attached to the book they will say, “Because it’s the author’s work.”  Not entirely. 

Indeed, the writer who works with­out an edi­tor does so at their own peril. 

My point here is that the writer-edi­tor rela­tion­ship is one of the key aspects of pro­fes­sion­al writ­ing. Yet, curi­ous­ly, it is rarely talked about. 

It should be. 

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