The Role of an Editor: When to Put Down the Red Pen


In 1980, the author Raymond Carver famously confronted Gordon Lish, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, for stepping over the editorial line. Carver in his impassioned letter wrote that his stories no longer felt like his own, particularly objecting to Lish’s “edits” of “A Small Good Thing”. I say “edits” but it would be more accurate refer to Lish’s contributions as a rewrite. Gordon Lish had not only shortened the story by over 20 pages (leaving eight), he had also renamed characters and changed the title of the story to “The Bath”. Carver felt his integrity as a writer had been compromised, writing, “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here”. Lish felt he was simply doing his job.
This raises the question, what is the role of an editor? Henry James referred to editing as “the butchers’ craft”, and Christopher Hitchens says, “Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome;” however Steven King famously instructed writers to “kill your darlings”, a task easier said than done. Perhaps it is the editor’s job to be the merciful executioner of those darlings. Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees, an advice book for writers speaks favorably of the editorial department, asserting, “For the writer who truly loves language, a trip to the copy editor is like a week at a spa. You come out looking younger, trimmer, and standing straighter”.
The role of an editor goes far beyond that of manuscript alterations. An editor is also responsible for acquiring manuscripts, acting as a psychologist for their authors, and pitching their manuscripts to their publishers. While the author-editor relationship can be fraught, it is often a relationship of trust and mutual respect. So where should the line between editor and writer be drawn? Comment below with your thoughts!


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