word craft


A Letter from the Editor

suggestionsOne of the stan­dard forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between a writer and pub­lish­er is the edi­to­r­i­al let­ter. It works this way: 

You’ve worked on your book for a year—probably more—and you’ve sub­mit­ted it to your pub­lish­er, which is to say an edi­tor. If the book is accept­ed, you will, in time, get what is called an edi­to­r­i­al let­ter, which, in essence, is the edi­tor telling the writer how to make the book better. 

I have worked with many edi­tors. The best edi­tors are try­ing to help the writer achieve the full pos­si­bil­i­ties of the work. Poor edi­tors (I’ve worked with a few) try to bend the book to their vision of your book. Not much fun. 

In all my years of pub­lish­ing only twice has an edi­tor not sent such a letter. 

It was with the late, great, Richard Jack­son. It was the first time I worked with him, and the book would become SOR Losers. When the text was sent to him, he let me know he felt it was good enough to pass right on to the copy­ed­i­tor, that’s to say, to start the pub­li­ca­tion process. I was star­tled. Did this guy know what he was doing? 

So, I object­ed. I said I thought the book need­ed more work and made sug­ges­tions. He agreed and we went on in reg­u­lar fash­ion. Indeed we worked on many books togeth­er, and nev­er again did he ignore an edi­to­r­i­al letter. 

The oth­er time, the edi­tor informed me (do you remem­ber the day of tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions?) she didn’t believe in send­ing such a let­ter, but sim­ply told me what she liked about the book I had writ­ten and then returned the sub­mit­ted man­u­script with notes for revi­sion right on the text. 

But most of the time I’ve got­ten an edi­to­r­i­al let­ter as I just did yes­ter­day, for a new book. The let­ter is four pages, sin­gle-spaced. From my expe­ri­ence that is some­what short. 

The let­ter begins—they all do—with pos­i­tive remarks about the book, what she thought was the strength of the text. This is impor­tant because it gives me con­fi­dence that I’ve done some­thing right, and just as vital, I know what the edi­tor thinks is the strength of the text, and I can work to that. 

After that intro­duc­to­ry sec­tion, most of the let­ter has sug­ges­tions as to how to make the book bet­ter. Let me stress that word, sug­ges­tions. These are not com­mands, as in “When you do this then I will pub­lish the book.”  Indeed, I’m being encour­aged to talk to the edi­tor about any of these ideas. 

That said, in my ear­ly days, I received direc­tives about changes nec­es­sary if pub­li­ca­tion was to take place. One editor—I kid you not—once said to me, “It needs about five more words.” (That book would even­tu­al­ly become The End of the Begin­ning) Most of the time the requests are for much, much more. 

I have nev­er argued about these sug­ges­tions. If I dis­agree with a par­tic­u­lar idea, I try to under­stand the rea­son for the per­ceived prob­lem and make changes so as to deal with it in a dif­fer­ent way. I am there­fore not ignor­ing the prob­lem as I am find­ing an alter­nate way to resolve it. 

By and large, I am hap­py to use the editor’s sug­ges­tions about revis­ing the work. I am mak­ing the book bet­ter. Let it also be said, revis­ing a work is—at least for me—the most enjoy­able part of the writ­ing process. I know the work will be pub­lished and I know I’m mak­ing a bet­ter book. Indeed, as I revise, I sense the book is get­ting bet­ter. I also love work­ing with edi­tors. Not infre­quent­ly, work­ing with an edi­tor brings out mas­sive improvements. 

Also, as I sub­mit revised drafts of the book, I may well receive more edi­to­r­i­al letters. 

In all of this, it is impor­tant, I think, to stress a vital fact about the pub­lish­ing process: the writer is NOT work­ing alone. It’s a deeply col­lab­o­ra­tive process. In many a book—on the copy­right page, or elsewhere—the book’s graph­ic design­er is cit­ed. So too is the artist who cre­at­ed the cov­er. They should be. But it is rare to see the edi­tor cit­ed unless the edi­tor has achieved such promi­nence as to have the book ref­er­enced as “A Richard Jack­son Book.” 

Edi­tors should be cit­ed too. 

Some­day some­one will be smart enough to pub­lish a col­lec­tion of edi­to­r­i­al let­ters. It will be a rev­e­la­tion, a mas­ter­class on the writ­ing of good books. 

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