A Writer’s Life: Why You Need A Good Editor

Reading & Writing


In today’s world has everywhere been written about? I’ve read novels set in North Korea and among ancient tribes. What about the modern state of how we live now in the UK, our relationships and confusions, and the way in which ‘career portfolios’ replace traditional jobs? US novelists write state-of-the-nation books very well, but we don’t seem to be interested.

Five years ago I was looking to write a thriller and had a good idea for the way it started, but I couldn’t make the dynamic of the book work until, thanks to a push from my agent, I changed something fundamental. This had the effect of not just making it very modern, but unprecedented. The danger with originality is that it’s generally not what thriller readers want (although Lee Child has been consistently original by playing with the genre).

One of the hardest things for an author is to stay fresh. Traditionally your agent can help in this area. Now, though, we have the rise of the star editor. It was always part of the agent’s job to turn down work s/he feels isn’t up to snuff, but now that challenge is being taken up by sharp editors at publishing houses who can make names for themselves by helping to shape an author’s work, turning it from merely interesting to something essential.

Before, writers fretted about finding a good agent. Now they need to find an agent with good contacts who can match the right editor to the author. An editor may ask for much more than just minor changes and even demand a complete reworking of material. I can see a future where writers must be prepared to think very differently about books. The work won’t stop with the delivery of the manuscript. That’s where it will start to get interesting.

I for one can’t wait. Writers work alone, get no feedback and often go off-track. If there’s trust, an editor can collaborate with the writer to ensure that the book stays focussed and sharp – and become something unique.


11 comments on “A Writer’s Life: Why You Need A Good Editor”

  1. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, regarding your observation, “US novelists write state-of-the-nation books very well.” What prompts that conclusion? And may I amend it, please? “Writers in urban east coast/west coast of the US with connections to NYC publishers write about state-of-the nation preoccupations very well, as this is where those preoccupations and biased are generally formed.”

  2. John Howard says:

    Is this trend going the way I imagine film scripts are written, developed and then filmed.? Watching a fair few film documentaries lots of scenarios seem to go along the lines of, ok the author has given us this draft, it’s not what we really need, so lets get Witzend in to polish it all up for us.

    Or do you think a similar process was always there in the book world, just a bit more subtle.?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I hope this develops into a discussion because I have a friend who doesn’t understand why an author needs an editor at all. You just read it over, let your friends read it over and comment, rework as needed and that’s it. It depends on who your friends are, of course, and whether you have publishing means under your control.

  4. admin says:

    Brooke – NYC, LA and Chicago are not the only homes of fine publishing houses but they have the biggest ones and the biggest agents. The New York Times book list usually has a good range of authors from across the US so why wouldn’t a writer in, say, New Mexico submit a book to a major company? We’re not bound by geography anymore.

  5. snowy says:

    What might be called Domestic drama has been largely colonised by ‘Soap Operas’ available in daily doses, pre-digested and then reheated with a little added spice just to cover the fact that the base ingredients never alter.

    But TV can also have an invigorating effect, 6 weeks of costume drama can open peoples eyes to books they had never thought of reading. [Though anybody who thinks having seen an abridged version of ‘War and Peace’, that the classical Russian canon is going to be a non-stop thrill ride is going to be sorely disappointed if not comatose.]

    Looking at the US example from this small island, America seems to possess a hinterland, it is large enough that there are still regions and ways of life that remain unfamiliar to readers. The UK is quite small and rapid transit and mass communication make it seem much smaller still. Scotland seems somehow to maintain its difference, perhaps this explains why ‘Tartan Noir’ is such an enduring genre.

    I know nothing about editors, [except for my desperate lack of one when writing comments, before anybody else gets that in.] They must come in all flavours from the martinet to the laissez-faire, grammar fiends, post structuralists, bluffers, fluffers and injectors of grit.

    So a question then arises since we never ever hear from editors.

    How about a balance piece from the other side of the desk?

  6. Helen Martin says:

    That would actually be interesting, Snowy. I know that some authors are also editors, formal or informal, especially among the American female mystery writers, whose thanks for editorial help appears on their acknowledgement pages. There are a number of Canadian authors who are also editors. It is such a secret sort of job that it is done best when the results are invisible.

  7. Brooke says:

    My point is not that writers across the US don’t have access to the publishing houses. Rather I point out that “state of the nation preoccupations” are not necessarily shared preoccupations. And I am thankful that we get to read works by authors of different vantage points and regional views. No argument–just to say that as a reader I am tired of state of the nation stuff and the marketing hype that surrounds it. Perhaps UK authors are wise to avoid….
    If you have US authors that you think write well, please recommend.

  8. admin says:

    I know what you mean about ‘state of the nation’ books – a lot of titles on the bestseller lists feature multi-generational stories of families that illustrate the changing social fabric of the last 50 years. Mostly, my idea of hell. I admire a huge number of US writers, but you know what they say about the difference between US and UK writers – English writers write as if they’re mothers were reading over their shoulders and American writers write as if their tutors were doing the same thing.

  9. Brooke says:

    “tutors looking over shoulders”…does that account for the really plodding, flat footed writing I find in US authors?

  10. admin says:

    Well you often get that everywhere I’m afraid!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Aside from the fact that North American University students don’t have tutors. University is like high school only harsher and with more sex and drinking. (or so they say.)

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