The Essence of the Editor

I’ve finished reading three books in the last month or so–one by a fledgling Christian author not yet 30 years old, another by a long-time bestselling author, now dead, who didn’t begin writing till he was 40. [The third, by an acclaimed novelist I had never read–but that story will keep for another time.]

Each of these books–the first: a memoir, the second: fiction–has shown me something valuable about who I am and who I want to be.

The In-Between, by young blogger, now author-in-print, Jeff Goins, reminded me that the thing we press ahead to attain may not be all that we intend if we manage to make it happen prematurely or without the necessary teamwork. An accomplishment reached before its time is like a rosebud forced open and spoiled. Maturing and reaching the ideals we most admire takes time. The ‘in-between’ interim is not a waste of time, but crucial to our growth and integral to the becoming we await…

This is the main point of Jeff’s book, but ironically, it is also the truth I see underlined by the poor quality of this, his second paperback in as many years. I have appreciated Jeff’s good words at his blog for writers. He does an excellent job at it. But his goal was to get published, and so he has. The product is rough and awkward, not the well-honed product one expects from a major publishing house. Granted, The In-Between is readable and of inherent value as Jeff’s candid personal memoir, but it is not excellent. It lacks the eye of an experienced editor willing to come alongside and help him sort and polish his words to greater clarity. Could it be that rushing to the goal of ‘getting published’ has short-circuited the crucial ‘in-between’ time of preparation?

Or maybe the world of publishing is just changing and audiences are more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ as long as the author has something to say and shares a piece of himself in the process. Jeff has done this.

Perhaps the reason I find myself criticizing the quality of his finished work is that concurrently with reading his book I have been reading The Novel by seasoned writer, James Michener. Written back in 1991 toward the tired end of his successful career as a novelist, it lacks the ‘umphh’ and excellence of his popular earlier works. [Contrary to cover descriptions it is neither riveting nor suspenseful, at least not until the last 35 of the 435 pages, which unveil and hurriedly solve an unexpected murder mystery!] It is not his best novel but what did fascinate me about this slow-moving fiction was its thorough depiction of the inner workings of the publishing world. The role of the editor enthralled me. Was I born for this?!

The book is divided into four segments, each written from a different point of view: The Writer, The Editor, The Critic, and The Reader. I had imagined the part of the writer fairly well but had little idea how influential the editor’s role is in determining the final product. Here is the person without whose expertise the writer will never achieve his best work. Here is the person who must not only spot the author’s faults and quirks but must be able to cheer him on to remedy them.  She must inspire him to improve, to revise his story line if need be, to re-cast his characters more credibly, to rewrite and revise until his story truly represents his best effort. Her role is indispensable.

Ironically, the editor is tasked with inspiring and facilitating a task which she herself is unable to do. She is not a novelist. She is an editor. But her skill or lack thereof will be clearly evident in the finished product. The author is deeply indebted to a competent editor, but the book will not bear her name. She is just the editor. But the book will not fulfill its potential without her best efforts.

How like the Body of Christ this is. We are not intended to be ‘solo’ saints, heroes doing exploits single-handedly, pedestal people clambering over one another to be the best–‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.’ (Gal.5:26) We are each only parts of the great published work that will chronicle our Lord’s glory. Only together with each member doing the part for which she/he was designed will we showcase the manifold wisdom of God to all the powers that be, in both heaven and hell! (Eph.3:10)

It’s a team effort. One may be chosen to write. Another will have suggestions to add to that work, and corrections. Another will work to make the formatting and cover design attractive. While yet others will be busy with the technical features of printing and binding, and still others the ‘people’ aspects of marketing and sales…All contribute their best so that the reader can know the thoughts of the writer. Without any one of these experts the end-product will not achieve its fullest potential.

A book with a professionally designed cover and immaculate formatting will be a failure if the editor has neglected its content.

And even the most insightful writing, edited to near perfection will miss its greatest audience if it is wrapped in a glum unattractive cover and left on a shelf to be discovered.

But back to Michener’s novel… the third point-of-view was that of the Critic—the one who assesses the worth of the finished product, but has no vested interest in its success. Depending on his expert opinion, sales of the book may rise or fall, unless common good-sense and relish for the book override his intellectual opinion. The critic’s reviews may be scathing and heartless; encouraging the author is not his task. Promoting excellence in literature is. But if he is not watchful, his elitism may blind him to what is truly good and praiseworthy. The Critic in this story was my least favorite character, but I also recognize my own propensity to fill this role. Pronouncing judgments without regard to the person behind the work is an odious fault.

But the critic in this story had an epiphany. He was intent on writing his own novel, one that would tower above the common lot. But try as he would, he could not. Being also a university professor who taught writing, he had a sense of excellence that he himself could not produce. But he could train others. At last he had to concede:

“…I had an obligation to become honest about who I was and was not. I was not a novelist. I did not have the insights and poetry required by the creative writer. What I did have was a powerful understanding of what good writing was. I had a nose that unfailingly identified rubbish. And I could teach others to do what I couldn’t.” (Michener, The Novel, p.291)

Isn’t this too what it is like to be a part of the Body of Christ? Some of us are noses, others livers. Some are hands and feet, others eyes. There is no point in envying or longing to duplicate another’s excellence (though I still do at times). But we can honor others’ abilities even as we contribute our own to their success. Only then will we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Only together, “when each part is working properly,” will “the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph.4:13,16)

Fulfilling our callings is not an individual pursuit, anymore than a writer can create a masterpiece alone. But with each one doing his part the final copy will be amazing. And whose name will the cover bear? not ours, but Christ’s who dreamed up the story of redemption before the beginning of time and has given us the privilege of taking part in its being published!


Meanwhile, behind the scenes at the Skelton house, I am studying the trade of Copy-editing. This is what I want to be when I grow up! I am seeing now that it is not all negative—finding fault and circling it in red. That part comes naturally to me! The true goal is to see beyond the errors to what a manuscript might become if the author will persevere with the editor at his side cheering him on. And I think that’s a pretty awesome role to aspire to in this next season of my life…


“…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Eph.4:15   ” He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jn. 3:30

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Gal.6:2

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…” Rom 12:6

2 thoughts on “The Essence of the Editor

  1. Interesting new quest for you….editing…..but you are also a gifted writer, which according to your insights the critic was not….perhaps the two can be found in the one person?

    I know that in the body we will have distinct callings and giftings, of course, but there are some things we are ALL called to in a measure….would be interesting to look at that sometime.

  2. Ah yes, I know the woes of the writer with a critic on her shoulder–a hard union indeed.

    As for the 'all called' category…We are all called to believe and to follow, to love and to walk by the Spirit…What this will look like for each of us is a 'many splendored thing' that only God could create–the beautiful bride of Christ.

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