Editors. How to be an great one?

The older I get, the more I realize I may not be the next Great American Novelist and that I might not write the Great American Novel.

But… and I say this without a trace of self-delusion… I think there’s a decent shot of me becoming a great editor.

It’s the result of teaching: I simply don’t get to read and write as often as I’d like, but I can definitely influence my students into becoming more critical and demanding thinkers; to be devourers of words and lovers of language; to be discriminate and cosmopolitan readers and therefore, become better writers.

…but how exactly does one become a great editor? What courses of study are there? Besides a facility with the language and an excellent grasp of grammatical skills, what are the necessarily talents one needs to develop? Who are some legends in the field?

Hey. Let’s pretend I wrote that gushing mawk about not being delusional about becoming a great editor and DIDN’T misspell “necessary!”

Thank you, thank you. Showtimes at noon, five-fifteen and nine o clock.

Editors. How to be an great one.

Tee hee

The icons in the field are Max Perkins and H.L. Mencken.


Okay – I wrote “an excellent editor” the first time, forgot to change the friggin’ article.

I should merely point out I’m aspiring to be a great editor. This is a journey, people!

Perkins was an anomaly even in his own time, and no one like him could even exist nowadays.

Get one thing clear: editors don’t edit. Oh, they’ll do some grammar corrections, maybe add a line or two for clarity, and make a handful of suggestions to the author that the author can accept or reject. But they do not turn a borderline manuscript into masterpiece. If it’s borderline, they reject it and wait for a masterpiece (or, at least, something publishable) to come in the mail.

One reason is they don’t have time. Contrary to the image, editors never can read manuscripts in the office; it’s all done at home or during the commute. The workday is filled with meetings, reports, talking to the art director, scheduling the December releases, talking to agents, reading synopses sent to them by the first readers, and other managerial tasks.

Magazine editors are in the same situation, though at least they have the opportunity to write editorials and maybe have some influence there.

Freelance editors who perform edits of manuscripts can give advice that ranges from useful polishing to total ripoffs.

You’re actually better off as a teacher. You’re already doing what people think editors do.

and a brief anecdote: In college I roomed with this guy who was a music major and Russian language minor while I was an English major/creative writing type. He had loads of friends, and upon graduation, got a job through one of his social contacts (a lover actually who was working as an editor), an editorial position.

Me, knowing truly how little this guy knew or cared about texts, contemporary literature, English grammar and usage, etc. thought “Well, THAT won’t last.”

But lo and behold!–it turned out that the schmoozing and the shopping for clothes (he loved to wear nice clothes in college) and his fine social eye were perfect attributes for what he did. In the years since college, as I’ve published several books, I keep seeing his name in the acknowledgments of others’ books, some even of friends of mine, and I’m still mildly amazed. One author, a prominent baseball writer, raved about the editorial genius of this guy, which completely blew me away because:

  1. I’m a total baseball junkie, and I have been since way before college, where

  2. I was constantly trying to get my roommate to share my interest, or at least to tolerate it, in the hopes of getting him to let me play the World Series at least on the radio instead of Stockhausen or John Cage or some such shit, but

  3. he proudly explained for me his utter contempt for the game, and for everyone who ever went to a baseball game. Cut to

  4. Decades later, when this particular baseball writer (one of the few who’ve taught me something new about the game, a very complex, innovative, highly technical writer on baseball) is raving about my former roommate’s editorial brilliance.

You know this guy never learned anything about baseball, so he barely was able to parse this writer’s sentences, much less engage him on any sort of substantial level, and his (my ex-roommate’s) command of English was just average for a college student, nothing special at all (I knew literally hundreds of people in college who could write rings arund this guy), so how does he get to be a great editor?

I don’t know, but “editing” is about the least of it.

. . . to add what’s been said:

• Don’t make the author sound like you. You’re there to make the Joe Shlabodnik book (or article) sound like the best Joe Shlabodnik book (or article) it can be, not to make it sound like you.

• Following the AP or Chicago Stylebooks is all very well and good, but you don’t want to make a sentence sound so intensely correct it makes the reader go “WTF?” Sometimes keeping it in the vernacular is best.

I forgot to mention one of the main characteristics of a good editor: the ability to judge whether a manuscript is good or not, and, if it’s good, how it would fit into your line of books.

Sorry, I’m not usually so pedantic. It was just a classic variant of “Gaudere’s Law” so I had to point it out. Good luck in your quest!

I was an editorial assistant for a while, and I remember two things:

  1. Let the writer maintain his own “voice”

  2. Don’t sanitize it!

I liked that job. Probably better than that job liked me.

This will probably prove to be more of a diversion than a help, but I once heard a magazine executive (whose name and magazine unhelpfully escapes me at the moment) say that for all the attention he gets and for all that has been written about him and his lifestyle, what Hugh Hefner really is is the best magazine editor that ever lived.