The creative war between writers and editors (and how to call a ceasefire)

The creative war between writers and editors (and how to call a ceasefire)

writing a book with an editor

I recently watched the movie “Genius” – which is about Thomas Wolfe and the editor who got him into print. The topic is a fascinating one, something I’ve discussed in previous posts, but fleshed out in more romantic detail in the movie. In short: “genius” is the pure, uncivilized, manic, raw, passionate energy that produces the work. The book belongs to the author, says the editor. “My only job is to get good books into the hands of readers who love them.”

However, to make the book marketable, the editor softly recommends trimming a few chapters and choosing a more commercial title. These suggestions turn into a flaming feud between the author and the editor, which ruins the friendship. But the roles are still clear.  The editor’s job is to take the art and turn it into a product. The author creates for himself, the editor makes the work accessible to other people.

At the celebration dinner, after selling 15,000 copies, Thomas Wolfe’s supporter Aline Bernstein shows some bitterness about the way Thomas has been praising Mr. Perkins. “We should give Mr. Perkins all of the credit. After all, he’s the genius who made all of your dreams come true. He’s the one who shaped that massive collection into a marketable bestseller. Putting it into the eager hands of readers everywhere.”

Aline is pissed off because she was Thomas’s first supporter – his patron. She believed in him. Now, after his book is a bestseller, regular people want to get in on his success, but it wouldn’t have happened without her.

The role of the editor goes far behind simple proofreading and copyediting: when Fitzgerald comes in looking for handouts, because Gatsby was a flop that didn’t sell, Mr. Perkins gives him a pep-talk and some cash to see him through.

In other words (as depicted in the movie) artists are the tortured geniuses who know nothing about rules, society, expectations, holding a job, paying the bills, so editors and patrons – who do know those things – need to hold their hands and sometimes, believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves, and pick up the check so they can do their great work.

And yet – they are the source of beauty. Thomas Wolfe’s description of a man seeing a girl and falling in love is masterful and powerful.  Perkins reads it out loud.

“You don’t like it.”

“You know I do. That’s not the point.”

The point is, it’s overwritten and stylized, and detracts from the main message and flow of the story. It’s beautiful, but unnecessary. An editor’s job is to cut out decoration, the unnecessary, and focus on the story. So they trim all that wild beauty into a manageable, digestible, enjoyable shape for the masses.

The process is both a negotiation and a mentorship; the editor acts as a father-figure and writing coach. “What was it like when you were falling in love for the first time?”

“It was a lightning bolt.”

“Then that’s what it should be. A lightning bolt. Save all the thunder.”

That’s a great line, but it’s harsh. It cuts out half of the experience. It discards the hour of growing rumbles in the dark, the sudden flash that puts all of that noise into context and illuminates everything, the quietening and static electricity that lingers afterwards. A lot of contemporary writers focus on action and plot and have very little downtime, and very little beautiful writing, because they’ve learned to do things this way.

In the end they cut out “her eyes were blue, blue beyond blue like the ocean, a blue he could swim into forever” and left “her eyes were blue.”

Max and Thomas slave over the book every day for two years, arguing about what to cut and what to leave in. Both men sacrifice their personal relationships and family for the book.

Wolfe compares his writing to Jazz. It’s an art. It pours out of him. “To Hell with standard forms! Be Original! Blaze new trails!”

At this point, it seems like Thomas is teaching Max how to let go and loosen up. And that this is a positive thing. But a minute later, Thomas tries to get Max to have an affair, saying “They’re working girls, it doesn’t count.”

Max replies, “Yes, Tom, it does.”

Tom stays out and parties, Max goes home and gets to work.

book editing

Tom’s messy, theatrical lifestyle erupts in a frantic Aline’s suicide attempt, which Tom blows off. Max goes home to his wife, newly appreciative of his nice big house, his loyal and faithful wife and his family.

While Tom has the creative passion and energy, left to his own self-destructive devices, there would never be a book – Max has to come in and sternly tell him to STOP writing. He pulls the pen out of his hand and sets it down.

In a final gesture, Thomas writes a dedication to Max, but Max says “I wish you wouldn’t. Editors should be anonymous.” Max says editors lose sleep over how much influence they have over authors. “Are we really making books better? Or just making them different?”

The movie reaffirms the romantic view that art is unstable and necessarily tragic, and that to create art you need to let go of the rational mind and vomit up your passion. That’s the advice you’ll get from most big creativity gurus.

It’s wrong however, and dangerous, because that’s not the way publishing works anymore.

Editors aren’t going to fight with you to make your book better. If your book isn’t already good, already clean, they probably won’t even off your a deal – and if they do, they’ll expect you to make whatever changes they see fit. Not to mention, if you don’t format and style your submission according to the strict rules of the publishing house, they’ll probably move you directly to the reject pile. And that’s just in traditional publishing.

In self-publishing, you hire your own editor and pay them for their time. They’ll do their best to improve your book, but you are free to accept or ignore their recommendations. And although they may hope your book will be successful, they aren’t incentivized to work extra hard to make it a success (Perkins could spend 2 years on a project and still make a windfall on the successful book – freelance editors will put in as much time and effort as they’ve been paid for. After that you’re on your own).

Creative vs. Rational Mind

Metaphorically, we could say Mr. Perkins and Thomas Wolfe represent our logical and illogical mind. Reason comes from left brain, while creativity comes from the right brain. Each of us has  an internal writer and editor, and these two fight with each other over every line we write.

But that’s an ugly generalization: there is more than one way of writing.

Not all writers are pantsers, victims to the unrestrained flow of inspiration. Some writers are slow and methodical. One type of writing is no better than another type. Surely a book written irrationally is not necessarily a more creative book, nor a more enjoyable book, than one written deliberately.

And in fact, (this is important), for the vast majority of books that are earning any money, the deliberate book will be more successful.

All it takes is a simple mind-shift. Who do you want to be in control? The writer or the editor?

As the movie points out, the editor is the one focused on the market, on sales, on readership. The editor knows what people want. The editor sets rules and guidelines that enable the writer to continue writing. The editor is the stable, solid, wealthy, happy individual doing a job they’re great at and getting paid well for it.

The writer or artist, meanwhile, is a selfish jackass, an emotional mess, always poor, always struggling, never thinking about other people yet covetous of the success of his peers.

You do not have to choose between them.

You are both an editor, and a writer. But you do have to decide who is in charge. You can let the writer be in charge, write whatever they feel inspired to write, and then kill yourself trying to self-edit that hot mess into a salable book (or pay someone else through the nose to do it for you – and even if they give it their best, they can only clean it up, not rewrite it into a book that sells).


You decide to grow up and let the editor set some boundaries. They’ll consider the market, they’ll help plot the story – at least a bare bones structure – and have the final word about what to cut and polish. Letting the editor in early rather than after the book is written, is the easiest way to slash your writing time and triple your book sales. You can still be creative and inspired when you’re writing the scenes, the dialogue. Your characters can still do surprising things that change the story.

Note One: I’m talking about popular, genre-fiction. If you hope to traditionally publish literary fiction, by all means, ignore the editor and write from the heart. Also: romance doesn’t usually follow exact structure, which is why many pantsers find success in the romance genre without plotting. There are different rules for different genres: the point is, you need a creative process that produces the type of book that will be successful in your genre, if you hope to make money from your writing.

Note Two: “write drunk, edit sober” is a romantic ideology but still good advice. If you try to self edit everything while you’re writing you’ll never make any progress. You have to get the story down first, and it will be ugly, so your editors needs to stay quiet during the drafting period. Focus on story, scene, character motivation, what happens and why – don’t focus on the writing until the third or fourth polish. That said, I still the editor should be involved in the plotting phase, which should come before the drafting.

For more on this, read: