Every few years in the past, I’ve held classes for people who wanted to write, or who were already writing. The class attendance would range from fifteen to four. My strictures were annually identical. “I can help you become better writers, but I can’t make you writers.” I believe this firmly.
Some students have indeed produced publishable work. Three have gone on to be published. I edited them all. (And incidentally am available to do more.)
What I wanted to be when I was very young was a new Maxwell Perkins, the “legendary” editor of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. I wanted to help make other people’s work better. That was my only goal. Alas, no one would hire me in that capacity. I was trapped in publishing publicizing and promoting other people’s work, doing my own on the side. I was good at what I did and no managing editor wanted to be without a good p.r. flack, whereas every twenty year old graduate of a liberal college wanted to be, and somehow could afford to be, a secretary, a sub-editor, a reader. These people grew eventually into editors of one kind or another. I was on the road.
When “Edgar Allan” made its grand splash, and was followed the next year by “Lisa, Bright and Dark,” I decided to go “free-lance.” As noted earlier, a big mistake. I missed the office community with its espionage and back-stabbings, but also with its real comeraderie.
After forty years of writing and teaching (everything from fifth grade social studies to graduate level American literature), my chance to edit finally arrived.
I didn’t, and don’t, want to rewrite someone else’s words. I didn’t, and don’t, want to change their style. I can help make what is being said clearer; I can help by suggesting a felicitous phrase. But the project on which I work remains the apple of its producer’s eye. No matter what, when editing is completed, the work remains his not mine.
Throughout the editing process, I repeat frequently that I am only suggesting something, a change, a different word, a cut here or an expansion there. The author himself (or herself) either agrees with me or not. It’s their work. I might suggest a change in the order of chapters, in order to make progressions and personalities clearer. That decision is the author’s.
I can’t get angry. I would feel the same way. “It’s my book!”
It is, and it should be, no matter what happens to it when it’s completed.
Few editors reach the exalted status of a Maxwell Perkins, who in time became a better bit of publicity than the book on which he might have been working.
In my mind, my editorial work should be transparent, invisible. I believe this approach makes a writer more confident and satisfied with the result. If something I suggest is taken up and acted upon, sooner or later that author is going to forget whose suggestion carried the day and make the result his own. Fine with me.
If the writer in question is a good one, he or she will return to combat with another book, and ask again for my help. If his or her work doesn’t have what it takes to last for the next forty years and dies upon seeing the clear light of day, he or she will at least have done what they set out to do, and I’ve tried to help.
If a school teacher’s satisfaction and value is impossible to calibrate, as it so often is, until years later, the same may be said for the work of a good editor. Both of us have done our best, and if Fate surprises us and makes our students notable, that’s enough for us.