What happens when authors stop listening to their editors

When I moved into a second career in editing and publishing, friends told me that working as an editor might temper my love of books—that a professional eye might spy previously unnoticed flaws. I dismissed this, but they were right. Before, if a book left me restless, dissatisfied, annoyed, I would simply close it and move on. Now, I know what is wrong, why I, the reader, feel short-changed.

My thesis for a Master’s degree in editing and publishing looked at authority in author-editor relationship and what makes for a productive relationship (an essay adaptation was published in issue 65.1 of Westerly). One of its secondary findings was that the more successful an author becomes, the more their openness to editorial intervention diminishes. This wasn’t universally true, of course, but it was supported by the literature and the editors I interviewed. I was told that some authors become their own experts and too quickly forget the oh-so-subtle changes suggested by their editors.

As well as the meticulous examination of language, readability and sense, grammar, punctuation and formatting, an editor picks up any lack of clarity in scenes, structural issues, repetition. An editor is, first and foremost, the reader’s advocate, their critical eye suggesting changes where the story lags, an action jars, a character does something discordant, or language is not quite right.

I was reminded of this reading recent books by Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett. I adore Patchett’s early work—Bel Canto’s sleek precision—but The Dutch House (Bloomsbury 2019) proved too long, predictable and fluffy, without her earlier bite. And City of Girls (Bloomsbury 2019) by the extraordinarily diverse Elizabeth Gilbert? Not a patch on The Signature of all Things, which was an original and compelling read.

Both The Dutch House and City of Girls were well reviewed, and many five-star reviews on Good Reads indicate many readers disagree with me. Yet I kept seeing mistakes. I saw repetition, or the foreshadowing of an event that needed no introduction—actions or plot moves that carried their own weight and would have worked better left alone. I saw scenes that padded out a protagonist and, rather than adding to their character, became diversionary. I saw minor characters brought out on stage for too long, for no purpose.

In my editing practice, I point these out with the gentle advice that they distracted from the important action or character development happening elsewhere. I show where I, the reader, am—where my headspace is and how this takes me out of the story, out of that place, instead of drawing me in more deeply.

My research found that editors may well be offering these suggestions, but the onus is on the author to take them up. Best-selling authors are money in the bank for a publisher, who may give them free rein and skimp on funding the necessary rounds of editing. I interviewed editors who pointed to authors (older, established authors particularly) who do not engage with the edit. They have it ‘down pat’ and are ‘just churning out the next story. It’s just laziness!’

The public is also fed the view that an author works in isolation, an idea that the publishing industry does little to redress, and which feeds into the accepted wisdom that they are right.  Participant editors in my research backed this: ‘in the end it is their book’. Fiction editor Annabel Blay is firm that the manuscript belongs to the author—it is ‘always the author’s project’.

This deferring is abetted by ignorance of what an edit constitutes. In Good Prose, The Art of Nonfiction, Richard Todd asserts that writers often consider that an edit constitutes a ‘mark-up’—an endorsement with some tinkering and ‘fixing’ on the side; whereas Jacqueline Kent, in her article ‘On Editing and Invisible Mending’, raises the point that ‘[o]ften authors don’t know what to expect from editors, though they’re very aware when these expectations—which they have failed to express—haven’t been met.’ Another editor from commercial publishing noted that ‘a lot of [authors] think that their book is mostly edited [already].’

In acknowledgement pages, the author’s reflection on the relationship is with this journey behind them and though this may include warm thanks, it is an overture bestowed or withheld at the author’s discretion. In nearly four pages of acknowledgements in City of Girls, Gilbert takes one line to thank ‘copyeditors’ for their skill in removing commas. She’s being light-hearted, but the self-satisfaction is evident. I was interested to see that Patchett acknowledges her editor for Bel Canto (‘my love and gratitude’), but doesn’t offer a word in The Dutch House.

Other examples? With more than twenty books in James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux series (Orion, 1993–), his lyrical prose distils what it is to be human—our flaws and vanities, our petty obsessions, how we love. In Burke’s world, crime lies where the fragile membrane between coping and not coping breaks; where a civilisation’s codes are breached. Crime is in the cracks but that’s what lets the light in, too. However he should have stopped, or been stopped. His recent novels are longwinded, riddled with plot holes, and the main character seems never to age which is irritating. The blurb for the latest title notes that it includes time travel (which sorts out that problem) in a mix of ‘crime, romance, mythology, horror and science fiction’ (Amazon). I feel for the editorial assistant who had to write that one.

So who’s dudded here?  You.

Dispensing with editors might serve a reading public which wants a Disney-esque romp, or a soap opera, or is happy to gloss over the faults to spend more time with a favourite character, no matter how unlikely the scenario, but the excess in these books leaves nothing to my imagination. Good writing does not waste a word. Its tightness allows the reader to explore in their own mind while propelling plot and sculpting character. Burke’s work has moved into another realm entirely, asking readers who know these characters like real people to believe something simply not credible.

When publishers give time and creative space for authors to work with editors, the outcome is a better book. As Walt Crawford has put it, ‘unless your first Pulitzer or Nobel Prize is sitting on your mantel, consider the possibility that the editor may be right.’ And even then, Tracey Kidder with his Pulitzer and Toni Morrison with her Nobel appreciated their editors’ input. Morrison’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, reported her saying: ‘he uses commas grammatically. I deploy them musically. He usually wins.’

An author of literary fiction told me—

People talk about how they write, whether they write for themselves, or for other people, and I always, um, have felt very strongly that I write for other people. I like Margaret Atwood’s idea that [your] writing … is a gift for other people, and an ideal gift is … something that you’ve really considered the other person will like, and you’ve considered their needs and tastes and wants and desires. And for me, that really works … In the editing process because here’s a person who’s helping you make it right for all those people it’s for. Because it’s not for you. You know, it’s not to feed your ego or to satisfy your need for the book to be like this, or like that, you know, it’s not … For me that’s not the purpose of writing fiction. The purpose of writing fiction is to stimulate and give pleasure to other people.

As Betsey Lerner explains in What Editors Do, publishing houses no longer mentor authors over six or seven books, but only one or two, which accommodates commercial goals at the expense of working with them to bring out the best book possible.  

Other authors I interviewed said that this was essential: ‘I think [all writers] sometimes … fall down the rabbit hole of entertaining ourselves and not thinking about the other person. Laughing at our own jokes. That sort of thing.’ And, ‘I mean we like to say that we write for ourselves, which we do in a sense, and I wouldn’t quit because it makes me happy, but when people are paying for what we write, you’re no longer just writing for yourself. You’re writing for your readers … You need to have a bit of humility if you want to be as good as you can be.’

When publishers listen and invest appropriately, readers benefit.


Image by Eugenio Mazzone

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a writer and editor whose Master's thesis explored authority and the attributes of productive author–editor relationships in creative writing. Her reviews appear regularly in the Newtown Review of Books.

More by Jessica Stewart ›

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  1. Just by the by, Twitter could do with some good editors and editing. (Musk should be able to pay accordingly.)

  2. I once respected editors. I still basically do, but am more skeptical. I’m on a ten-year journey of writing (& hopefully eventually published) an epic memoir of survival of living with HIV. At the end of 2017, my manuscript had a major edit by an American-based queer editor. She suggested all these changes which I dutifully followed. Three years later, I was told by one publishers/editor that these new additions were unnecessary. I ignored their advise. An editor at an Australian university-based publisher was initially enthusiastic about my memoir, read the entire manuscript & advised the same suggestions as the first editor/publisher. She promised to read the amended & shortened book. Over four months in 2021, I rewrote over 80, 000 words. It wasn’t a mere cut-and-paste; it was yet again (10th? 12?) a major rewrite. When I finished, I sent two emails to this woman, advising that I’d finished the re-write. That was eight (8) months ago. I’m still waiting for a reply. In short, editors FUCK you over as well as helping you.

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