We have so many fantasies of what the writer’s life is like: jotting down notes at a café, time to dream, and a certain ease of getting published. While many of these, particularly the last, quickly fade, either because of early rejections or the need for a steady paycheck, there is one fantasy that I held on to until my first book was published: that of the overly involved, tough-love editor who would take my work to some next level—the Gordon Lish to my Raymond Carver—and care about it as much as I did.
My first book, a story collection, was published by a university press. The peer reviewers each gave a few careful comments. One reviewer wanted one story cut, the other thought it could be reworked. A second story was recommended for “fine-tuning.”
I agreed to address these small issues, and I waited for the editor to whom I had originally submitted the work to give me her edits. They never came. She told me to make the changes the reviewers had suggested, and then I was whisked right on to copy editing. I know she cared about the book. She just wasn’t going to edit it in the way I thought she would.
Rewind a year, to when I found an agent for my debut novel. He and I spent months going back and forth with my revisions, his comments, and more revisions. Here was the editing process I expected: where sentences are debated, scenes deleted, problems large and small addressed. Throughout this process, he kept telling me editors these days like really clean copy, and I started to realize that editors don’t really edit anymore.
“My agent used to be an editor,” says author Keith Lee Morris, whom I contacted after hearing him discuss the editing process at a book event, “and she quit to become an agent so that she could work more closely with authors on their manuscripts.”
My own agent, Madison Smartt Bell, agrees that editing has shifted: “Editors now can expect manuscripts submitted to them to be in an extremely finished state, perfected whether by writers teaching in the academy, or by agents drawing on their past experience as editors, or a combination of those two.”
Morris adds that editors are now expected to promote their books, and I know this was true of my university press editor, who not only acquired the book but was its marketing department, as well.
So, what have we lost with these changes in the industry? Is it just romantic ideals, or has some real care and attention to detail been lost? My debut novel, Strange Children, comes out with an independent press this month, and while the editor was certainly not a line-by-line editor, she did give me several helpful notes and talked me through ideas at length. I appreciated both her insight and her trust in me to take her comments and change the book how I saw fit. I know the time she spent made it a better book.
Morris did eventually seek out an “old-school” editor for one novel, but the experience was challenging: as writers, we may not be used to hands-on editing anymore, either. However, he admits, “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that, ultimately, he made it a much better book. He pushed me beyond my comfort zone in a couple of crucial scenes, for which I’ll always be grateful, even though it was painful at the time.”
Another writer, Lauren Kate, requires an extensive three-pass editing process. “I need the agonizing, visionary collaboration with my editor to end up anywhere near the story I’m trying to tell,” she says.
When we don’t have that, what’s lost isn’t just the quality or the not-quite-reached potential of a book, but also a sense of collaboration and mentorship. And though teachers, agents, and other writers are stepping up to fill the gap, there’s no guarantee that will always happen. As a writer, I regret not knowing that publication acceptance meant that the more rigorous editing process was behind me, not ahead of me.
The university press that published my book recently asked me to peer review a new book, and when I voted yes on the manuscript, I also handed in several pages of editorial notes, knowing I may be the only reader to do so. The editor and writer both responded with gratitude. And yet there were many small edits I would have suggested if I had been the actual editor, many places I thought a talented writer could be pushed more. As it stands, it doesn’t seem likely that push will happen. And that push, to me, seems like something we should seek out as writers, and make time for as publishers.
Sadie Hoagland is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and directs the creative writing program there. She is the author of the novel Strange Children (Red Hen, May) and the 2019 story collection American Grief in Four Stages.