The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist - A Review

The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist by Thomas McCormack

I started out thinking I might review this book on my blog. I don’t review all the writing books I read. Some I quickly decide don’t have enough to say, or they don’t speak to me at all, so it’s hard for me to be fair to them. I expected this to fall into one of those latter categories since the copy I have was copyrighted in 1988, and so much is changing so fast in the publishing industry that books that were relevant two years ago, are now outdated. 

This book is not one of those. With so many authors self-publishing and having to hunt for editors on their own, this book is more relevant today than when it was published.

This isn’t going to be my standard review because I’m going to talk about the book, but I’m also going to add some of what I see coming and how this book relates to the industry today and in the future.

First, while this book is addressed to everyone interested in the publishing industry, it seems that the primary intended audience is editors. The author Thomas McCormack was an editor for over 30 years and at the time of publication served as Chairman and Editorial Director of St. Martin’s Press. Impressive credentials.

According to him, the two primary skills an editor needs are a highly developed sensibility and craft skills. Now, when he says “craft,” he means editing craft.

Sensibility is about how readers will feel about the story/writing. To a large degree, this is an instinct. No editor will have good instincts across the board. They may have the ideal sensibility for romance and be totally clueless about science fiction or literary stories. Sensibility will tell an editor that something is wrong with the story. It will even tell a good editor what is wrong.

When writers hear the word “craft,” it means things like sentence structure, grammar, dialog, punctuation, etc. All those things that make a story “well told.” McCormack isn’t talking about that. The craft he means is the craft of editing. Where sensibility tells the editor what is wrong, craft is what tells a good editor why it’s wrong and allows him to guide the writer to what needs fixed. There are no classes for an editor to take, no certifications to earn. Anyone can set their sights on becoming an editor, and many have simply be being hired by a publisher and working their way up through the ranks.

So how common are these qualities one should look for in an editor?

I’ll let you judge from his own words.

Years of extended discussion with writers, agents, editors’ assistants and editors themselves, and the examination of manuscripts and books and the editorial letter letters, memos, and marginalia behind them, and a reading through available essays and memoirs of editors past and present, have led me irresistibly to the conclusion that the whole notion of such things as a systematic editorial analysis of internal faults has been all but unheard of, unthought of.

In my conversations with editors themselves, when I concede (author’s emphasis) instinct, brows unclench. Then when I quickly add my line about how instinct tells you that something is wrong but not necessarily what’s wrong, I have repeatedly observed a kind of churning silence fall.

That’s what McCormack wrote in 1988. It’s worse today.  Over the years, “editors” at large publishing houses have pushed more and more of the editing responsibility onto agents. It has even filtered down to some degree to critique groups.

So how do you find a good editor?

That’s the $54,000 question, isn’t it?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. 

McCormack acknowledges that you won’t find the perfect editor, simply because that editor would have to be super-human. That’s okay, but you should understand what an ideal editor looks like, so you can evaluate an editor’s strengths and weaknesses.

Because there is no certification, no training, no standards, anyone can hang out their shingle and claim to be an editor. I’ve seen writers with no published work announce they’re accepting clients as an editor. If they know half as much as they’re claiming to, why don’t they have at least one book published? Okay, so sue me.  I’m a cynic.

It’s a game of let the buyer beware. There are things, however, that you can do to help thin the ranks in your search for a good editor.
  • ·         Be clear about what kind of editor you’re looking for. A line editor isn’t the same thing as a story/content editor. The latter helps make your story the best it can be; the line editor makes sure your punctuation, grammar, and spelling are correct. Be sure the editor you’re talking to is the kind you want.
  • ·         Ask about the editor’s background.
  • ·         For content editors, find out which books they’ve edited in you genre. (If they don’t have experience here, move on to the next one on the list.)
  • ·         Read at least one of those books. Twice. Be sure you read critically the second time through.
  • ·         Ask yourself what would make the book better. (In other words, think like an editor.)
  • ·         Contact authors who have worked with that editor and ask what input the editor made. Ask if s/he made suggestions the author didn’t use. Ask how aggressive the editor is to help you decide if this is someone you want to work with.
That’s a lot of work, but if you’re looking for an editor for the length of your career, it’s a choice you should make intelligently.

So let’s assume you find an editor. They’re not perfect. If you’re lucky, you know what they’re weaknesses are. How do you minimize that? By writing the best book you can. By not ignoring that naggy feeling that something doesn’t quite work. By finding the best critique buddies you can to help you pre-edit. (Yes, I know. That ideal critique buddy is just as hard to find as the ideal editor. The advantage of having critique buddies is that you can have multiple critique buddies who have different strengths, but you only get one editor at a time.) By educating yourself about story craft as much possible. All these things will help you as a writer and they'll be worth their weight in gold when it's time to evaluate an editor.

 The main strength the editor should have is to identify (and articulate) a manuscripts weaknesses. An editor should not try to become a co-writer, but a good editor may offer suggestions.

McCormack does use his own vocabulary in places, mostly, because there aren’t words in English (or at least not common ones) to make some of the distinctions he makes. It can make some of what he says harder to grasp because you have to hang onto the way he’s defined these terms, but if you pay attention, he’s making valid points.

He spends a lot of time talking about the story content editor, much of which is important to keep in mind when you're trying to decide who to hire. For instance, one of the points that particularly struck me was:

The sole fact that someone is an editor is no proof that he has apt sensibility... High literacy is not sensibility; high grade in comparative literature certainly do not entail sensibility; and a high desire to write is sometimes flatly antagonistic to the kind of reader-responsiveness needed.

He also points out that many editors don't take that extra step beyond.

...when it's all over, something is missing. That was okay, that story, I enjoyed it, lots of good stuff in there. Not bad. And because it was "not bad", because it didn't obviously fail, the editor doesn't rise to an explicit awareness of an insufficiency at the heart of things. He doesn't say, "It held me, but it didn't seize me", and then ask, "Why not?"

One of the things he bemoans is the lack of formal training for editors.

Year of extended discussions with writers, agent, editor's assistants and editors themselves, and the examination of manuscripts and books and the editorial letters, memos, and marginalia behind them, and a reading through available essays and memoirs of editors past and present, have led me irresistibly to the conclusion that the whole notion of such things as systematic editorial analysis of internal faults has been all but unheard of, unthought of.

McCormack's book has a lot of great food for thought about what we writers should expect from editors and I think the move to self-publishing may be a blessing in that when it all sorts itself out, writers will be able to have a strong influence on the editing profession because we'll be the onces doing the hiring. The demand for good editors is already out there and it's only going to become greater.

So how is the demand going to be met?

Publishing houses have been tightening their belts and laying off editors. I've already seen a few of those laid-off editors banding together and offering their services, generally at premium prices (they mostly still live in NYC after all.) In spite of the prices, I think that's over-all a good thing. More choices are always better. But is it the best answer?

Historically, even if you got published by one of the big NY publishers, the editing hasn't necessarily been all that great. I'm sure you've seen traditionally published books, just as I have, that have plot holes you could drive a Mac truck through, or characters who have a change of heart for no apparent reason (and a dozen other problems that made you go WTF. Even little details that should be caught aren't. I recently read a book that had two characters playing pool and the first ball off the table was the seven ball, yet on the next page, one of the characters is shooting at, yes, you guessed it...the seven ball. I won't even go into the muddle it made of stripes and solids. (From what I've seen in books, few writers or editors have even a passing acquaintance with pool.)  

McCormack has additional warnings you'd be wise to keep in mind:

After they're in publishing, people too often rise to editorship on inadequate evidence. In their own houses, they get such jobs because the editors they worked for have moved on; or if they win editor's desks in other houses, it's because of the books their resumes say they have "worked on"--with no examination of the work they did.

So remember: just because they look good on paper doesn't mean they have the skills you're looking for.

Agents, too, are seeing their incomes dwindle. In an effort to recoup their losses, they've started offering to publish authors' backlists. The ethics of that have been discussed a number of other places, so I won't go into that, but it seems to me that what they really have to offer are their content editing skills, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to them yet. I think it will eventually and that means more choices. Always a good thing. I suspect the agents who go this route will be in high demand because writers are more familiar with agents' reputations than they are with most professional editors, but the same cautions apply.

All these choices means you've got to be more aware of the skills an editor should be bringing to the party which brings us back to McCormack's book. If you don't know what skills and editor should have, you won't know what to look for. This book will enlighten you. It's a tough world out there and the competition is stiff. Arm yourself. This book should be in your arsenal.

I'd love to hear from folks who've dipped a toe in these waters. If you've hired an editor (or considered it), please feel free to share your experience.


  1. I'll have to get hold of that book.

    I've been doing edits for awhile freelance, and it seems to work well for me. I do tend to notice things missing or details that should have been caught in mainstream books, in magazines, newspapers....

    1. It's a surprisingly worthwhile book. So much that involves the industry professionals is out of date if it's over 5 years old (or thereabouts.)