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. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Posts