What Makes a Good Editor?

Peter Ginna and a wide cast of contributors help to answer that question


In this space back in June, “Too Big to Edit?” pondered why books from seasoned authors often compare unfavorably to their newcomer counterparts. I argued that the heart of the difference is the investment in editing and, in that column, anticipated the release of What Editors Do as a helpful reminder to cost-cutting publishers that good editing makes good books.

Peter Ginna edited this compendium of discussions from editors representing every possible facet of books and the book-publishing process. If you’d like to know what his job entailed, you can find out in chapter 20, “Reliable Sources: Reference Editing and Publishing” by Anne Savarese.

There, you’ll learn that reference works typically start out as ideas that later get married to authors, and that’s just what happened with Editors. Ginna was recruited to spearhead this book by yet another editor, Mary Laur, and he notes, “We got almost dizzy contemplating the complexities of my editing editors writing about editing, and her editing my edits of the editors…”

The result is a revealing look behind the curtain not just into the myriad details of what it means to be an editor, but also into the publishing world as a whole.

As I look back through my highlighted and Post-It-Noted copy, here are some of the primary takeaways I’m chewing on:

To the reader, great editing is visible only in its absence. This is the unfortunate paradox of editing: When it’s done well, the reader doesn’t notice it. We only know that the author gave us a great book. As contributor Matt Weiland says in “Marginalia: On Editing General Nonfiction,” “I aim to be useful to the author but invisible to the reader.”

It’s possibly only in comparison to other, less-polished books by the same author that we might come to understand why every author and every book needs solid editing.

To the author, great editing includes remembering who the author is. Last week, I went to hear Alice McDermott in conversation with longtime Washington Post columnist Bob Levey at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. She shared an anecdote about her first agent suggesting an editor she thought would be good because “he doesn’t want to be a writer. He’ll let you be you.” As Alice explained, she had exactly 100 pages of a novel at that moment, “and if he’d told me to put a murder on page 101, I would have done it.”

Several contributors here make a similar point about being sure the editor is supporting the author in achieving the author’s best book, and not attempting to make it the book the editor thinks it ought to be. This is an especially delicate dance for a fledgling author to do: figuring out what’s worth protecting against a seasoned acquisitions editor who knows what sells. Which leads us to the next point.

“I love it. Now let’s change everything.” It’s fascinating to read the discussions of book acquisition that many of the contributors describe here, since acquisition is a black-hole mystery to would-be authors. A number of editors describe the beginning of book acquisition as “falling in love” with a manuscript, and then getting others on the editorial staff to fall in love, too. As Ginna says, “Unless you’re passionate about a book, publishing it is a mistake.”

The editors then go on to describe, post-acquisition, the process of developmental editing, which often entails stem-to-stern reworking of the manuscript. Plots that don’t hold together, characters that wander aimlessly, and dialogue that no human would ever utter all need fixing. With that kind of heavy-lifting needed to make a book workable, I could only wonder, “What exactly were you able to fall in love with in the first place?” I’m guessing that this is another difference between debut manuscripts and contract deliveries: few editors would invest that kind of effort in a debut.  

Like effective journalism, effective editing requires a long apprenticeship. In “Widening the Gates: Why Publishing Needs Diversity,” contributor Chris Jackson says, “Publishing, it turns out, is a job you can learn while doing, if people are willing to help a little.” In fact, according to What Editors Do, it’s a job you can only learn while doing, because there’s nothing else out there that teaches it.

The defining characteristic of would-be editors is a love of books, but after that, it’s a learn-by-working-with-the-master sort of thing. Unfortunately, shifting economics and business models mean the opportunities for that kind of apprenticeship are shrinking. What does the future hold for readers if we end up with successive generations of amateur editors?

The dirty little secrets of publishing for the most part remain secret. Recently, I spoke to a young woman who had been summarily laid off by one of the Big Five publishers in a major cost-cutting move. Many of the people let go had worked at the company for their entire careers.

Like the tyranny of the editorial calendar, these are not the stories you will generally find in Editors. However, there are a few chapters that take on some of the uglier truths of publishing in general. Which leads to my next point.

Aspiring authors, read this book. Also, prepare to be depressed. Far more than a description of editing as a career, Editors is a window onto the business end of publishing. Business equals bottom line, profit-and-loss sheets, sales targets, and return on investment. I’m sorry, did you think we were talking about great literature?

Yes, actually, Jeff Shotts does think we’re talking about great literature. Shotts is the executive editor at Graywolf Press, one of the best-respected and most successful independent presses in operation. In his contribution, “The Half-Open Door: Independent Publishing and Community,” he comments on how the Big Five equate quantity with quality and have sacrificed literature for sales.

Within that reality, “It cannot be exaggerated how rare and how valuable it is for an editor to have the freedom to take on books based on their literary quality and their capability for social change.” But that is generally what indie presses do.

Life is still too short to read bad books. As Jane Friedman describes in “A New Age of Discovery: The Editor’s Role in a Changing Publishing Industry,” much of that role is to “filter and amplify.” That is, in the deepening slough of published material, editors need to help readers wade through the muck to discover what is truly worth their time.

Even if you’re neither an aspiring author nor editor — perhaps just a lover of books — it’s worth your time to read this one. It explains a lot.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and writes and reviews regularly for the Independent as well as the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. She is the conference chair of the 2017 and 2018 Washington Writers Conference.

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