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Writing Right: The Blog

GREAT WRITERS AND GREAT EDITORS

Someone asked on a forum recently if great writers need great editors, and I couldn't help but chime in--if only to correct some of the ridiculous responses others had given her. Here's what I said:

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Do great writers need great editors? Some do; others don't. A truly "great writer," if you stop to think about it, doesn't need a "great editor," whose work would only be superfluous. Now, if you mean a tremendously popular writer or even a highly skilled writer, then I'd have to say it's likely that an editor would help. But, that would depend upon the writer's abilities and literary adeptness, as well as upon the editor.

 

Hemingway, although hugely popular in his day, would likely not have endured without a first-rate editor backing him up. Fitzgerald, ditto. Even J. K. Rowling, who I understand enjoys a certain amount of favor among readers these days, needs the help of talented editors: She's powerless without them.

 

As for one commentator suggesting to you that feedback by a group of writing peers is more valuable than that from individual professional editors--ridiculous! He may be thankful for everything his group taught him, but I'm not impressed. Anyone who scribbles out, "A writer can more quickly experiment and evolve their technique when they have multiple people reviewing and reacting," deserves some skepticism. Aside from the misplaced modifiers and failure of agreement between subject and verb in a single sentence, his logic is flawed. But that's another story.

 

Back to your point, truly "great" writers don't need editors, great or otherwise, to succeed. However, they do need them to correct the little things that hound every writer, from the opening sentence of a book, article, or short story to the finale. Editors play a significant role in sharpening even a top writer's most dynamic prose, especially when writing book-length works of 60,000 words or more. Typos slip in, and grammatical errors pop up. A qualified, professional, experienced editor is a wunderkind at spotting and correcting them.

 

When I worked at a large-circulation national magazine back in the seventies, I was assigned an article from a talented and successful freelance writer whose work I had long admired. Still, as a newbie, I wasn't surprised when, after learning of my assignment, he advised me to keep my hands off. And my red pencil in the drawer. He'd gone over the article numerous times, and it was perfect.

 

He changed his mind when I returned the article to him with half a dozen glaring errors marked in red. And he apologized. From that day on, whenever that author submitted an article for publication, he requested me for his editor.

 

Does that mean I'm infallible? Sure, just as much so as any other writer/editor is. When I write something, particularly book-length material, I know it's "perfect" because I've gone through it a dozen times or more. Still, I'm never surprised when another professional editor points out a few problem areas I'd missed.

 

The key, of course, is for a writer to find a professional editor who has a knack for recognizing problems in a manuscript. It's rare to find someone like that in groups where there's often more ignorance of good writing than grammatical perfection circling the table. Not to mention a certain panache that comes with an editor with tons of professional experience and an eye for catching and correcting what's wrong. Or at least offering a preferable alternative solution.

 

I'm not saying that no writing groups are worth joining. But, in my experience, a group needs an accomplished, seasoned, informed, competent professional author/instructor to head it up. And, in case you haven't noticed, leaders with those qualifications are few and far between.

 

God bless 'em when you find 'em.

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