When Faulkner finished A Fable ( his 17th book) he brought it to New York and to his editor Bennett Cerf at Random House. Cerf read the novel and put Faulkner in an office and told him to rewrite it.

When Thomas Wolfe was writing his novels in his New York apartment, his famous editor, Maxwell Perkins, knocked on the door, came in, took the manuscript away from Wolfe and told him, “you’re done now, Tom” and went off and edited Wolfe’s pages into a publishable book.

The reason for a publisher is the editing talent that they bring to a manuscript. These editing skills are not generally available to most self-published writers. Yes, a few RPCV writers have gone out of their way and hired editors, mostly for copy editing, not line editing, or editing for content. These are three different types of editing: 1) content; 2) line editing; 3) copy editing. It is rare that you can find one person who can do a professional job on all three.

My agent, for example, is not a copy editor, and his line editing isn’t the best, but he is wonderful when it comes to understanding what ‘makes’ a book. That is, shaping the content. He thinks ’big’ and has an understanding of the marketplace.   

There is an art to shaping a book, moving it from manuscript to printed page. Just because someone has written it down doesn’t mean it is any good, or is good in the way that it is written. Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivoire 1998-2000) wrote Nine Hills to Nambonkaha after she came home from Africa. She borrowed a cabin out west and wrote for three months. When the book was finished, she got an agent and an editor at Henry Holt  who wanted to publish the memoir of her Peace Corps years.

She was lucky in that she got a great editor at Holt. I asked her if she had written her dramatic opening scene to start her book and she said no. It was her editor at Holt who had pulled that scene out from the middle of the manuscript and moved it to the first chapter. That is just one small example of why Sarah (and all of us) need an editor.

There are other reasons as well. I read recently a short piece on-line from The Atlantic Magazine. It was written by Alexis Madrigal and entitled, “Why Editing Could Make a Comeback.”

He talks about “desktop publishing,” which came into vogue around 1985, and what we have now in all these self published books. Here’s his analogy to show why everyone needs an editor.

“We take good roads for granted in the US; our highway system just works, so you start to think of it almost as geology, almost immutable and close to eternal. But if you take a drive on the backroads of the Yucatan, the forest encroaches, large potholes appear out of nowhere, and the signage is indecipherable, regardless of your level of Spanish…Writers might blaze the trails, but editors maintain the roads.”

So, the next time you ‘create’ a work of fiction or non-fiction, remember that it is not finished until a good editor has taken a whack at your prose.

And always remember, nothing hurts as much as a poorly written sentence, unless, of course, you have written an unedited book.