Genius: The Relationship Between Editor and Writer

by Monica Shaughnessy

red-pen-1422017The movie Genius, starring Jude Law and Colin Firth, is catching buzz in writerly circles. It’s the story of famed editor, Max Perkins, and his protege, Thomas Wolfe. Okay, so the reviews aren’t great. Ironically, one reviewer said the movie was overly long and could’ve used an editor’s red pen itself. 🙂 But that’s not going to stop me from seeing it, and here’s why…

A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that a literary biopic “usually describes sensationalistic yarns that cover every aspect of an author’s personal life — his or her sexual hangups, drug addiction, legal and economic woes — but hardly ever his actual job, writing.” This movie breaks that mold, and I find this refreshing – poor reviews or not.

You see, writing IS a job. It’s not a silly daydream or a gift from Heaven or the residue of angel wings or even what’s at the bottom of a whisky bottle. It’s thinking. It’s showing up and putting your rear in the seat. It’s planning. It’s debating, sometimes with yourself, sometimes with your characters. And it’s hard work. A lot of people who don’t write (and a few who dabble) think it’s purely art. If only that were true. So a movie that focuses on the actual job of writing, a movie that lifts the curtain and shows the struggle and heartache and emotion and finesse that goes into spinning words into prosaic gold needs, in my mind, a round of applause.

But that’s only half the story, isn’t it?

Genius asks the thought-provoking question: Would Thomas Wolfe have become an American Icon without the help of his editor? Likely not.

Enter one Max Perkins. The man was no ordinary editor, though. He worked with both Fitzgerald and Hemingway (my idols). Standing toe-to-toe with literary giants is, I imagine, no easy feat. To do so, one has to possess gifts of equal or greater value. Before anyone calls me out and says, “Hey, if that Perkins guy was such a genius, why didn’t I read his book in high school English?” Well…because editing is a completely different skill.

A reporter for the Houston Chronicle writes, “Of all the creative gifts, the ability to edit — that is, to edit text — is the least heralded and the least understood.
Most people have never been edited, and those who benefit from it most tend to forget that the editing ever happened. But the ability to see a shape within a mess, to recognize a structure before it’s in place, to understand on a first read what is there that doesn’t belong and what belongs that isn’t there — this is no casual talent.”

Disclaimer: I am a developmental editor.

Am I biased? Heck, yeah. Nonetheless, the Chronicle reporter hits the nail on the head. An editor’s job (at least a developmental editor’s job) is to see inside a story and interpret what the writer meant to say. Once that’s done, the editor must gently shepherd the writer toward the stronger version of their story, a version the writer must actually agree is stronger. Now if you’ve never been edited before, you might be thinking, “The only version of my story I’m interested in is mine! I won’t have someone telling me how to write!”  To that I say, keep calm and carry on. If an agent accepts your manuscript, you’ll be edited then. If they sell it to a publishing house, it will be edited a second or third time. And if you go straight to self-publishing, readers themselves will tell you how you should’ve edited it. Rarely does a book succeed without input.

If you’re a reader, I encourage you to marvel at the unseen hand of an editor the next time you consume a flawlessly executed book. If you’re a writer just starting out, considering hiring an editor to take your prose and plot to the next level. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Am I a genius? Nah. I’ll leave that to Max Perkins.

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