Monthly Archives: July 2012

Writers Need Editors

Many great writers need great editors.

I recently watched biographies of Mark Twain and Jules Verne. Both of these writers relied on collaboration to craft their famous works into masterpieces.

Pierre-Jules Hetzel edited and published the works of Verne. According to the biography, Hetzel was involved in every stage of Verne’s writing. The editor-publisher would help with outlines, guide character development, and aggressively edited the works of his friend. There is some debate as to how much Hetzel might have written — but that doesn’t matter to me. What is important is that the works of Jules Verne seem to have been sloppy and disorganized without editing.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the legendary Mark Twain, relied on many colleagues to help shape his works, including William Wright and Bret Harte. Twain wrote a great deal, often in choppy vignettes that had to be stitched together with some assistance. Friends like Wright helped Twain balance his wit with storytelling. Pacing a story is not easy, and Twain recognized the value of collaborating to polish a tale.

While these are only two examples, many — if not most — famous writers share credit with editors.

I’ve met too many aspiring writers unwilling to recognize that writing is a collaborative process. The self-publishing boom is not helping this situation. Maybe it is because a writer needs to be confident; rejection is part of the publishing process. Maybe it is because a writer doesn’t want someone else to alter a work that is a part of the writer’s soul. There are probably a dozen reasons many emerging writers don’t want to call on an editor.

Read about famous writers and learn about their relationships with editors and publishers. We are losing those relationships in our digital era, and that concerns me.

Lately, I’ve read too many stories that are not “good” by the most generous of standards. I imagine sitting down with the authors and asking them questions. Yes, I see too many grammar and mechanical errors, but the problems that annoy me involve storytelling. Characters suddenly appear, clues are omitted, and hate turns to love in an instant. Books feel like puzzles that shipped with four or five missing pieces. You can still make out the image, but it is unfulfilling.

If you are set on self-publishing, find an editor. I don’t mean a copyeditor, though that is certainly good advice. No, find an editor with experience shaping stories. You want someone able to tell you why the main character won’t be liked by readers. You need someone to tell you when the story is boring. You need someone willing to bruise your ego a little so that story you want to tell is the one you finally publish.

There are solitary writers, but they are exception. Most writers need feedback to be at their best.