The Editor’s art


As someone who proofread and edited every one of the 67,651 words (280 pages) in the ‘Golfing Life of Jock Kirkcaldy’, I have just an inkling of what this book editing lark must mean to serious literary editors, and I thought I would put together a tribute to some of them.   

The second ‘Jock Kirkcaldy’ book is well on the way, but as an editor I’m a long, long way from the serious stuff; for instance, the seven Harry Potter books accumulated over a million words (in just over 6,000 pages), with only the first one (The Philosophers Stone at 76,000) being near Jock Kirkcaldy’s length.   

The timeline of Harry Potter in word-count terms. She started small, but increased dramatically…

It was said that Rowling, poor and unpublished, contemplating her twelve rejection slips, had time to edit the first book hence its relative conciseness.   She may have been guided by the normal tolerable length of ‘middle grade’ fiction being 25,000 to 40,00 words, with young adults up to 80,000.   She admitted that her later books were not subject to the same strictures, and that she had trouble cutting anything out of the manuscripts, hence the longest, The Order of the Phoenix, exceeding 250,000 (ouch).     Given that ‘War and Peace’, the usual metaphor for overlong tomes is 600,000 words, (and only 31st in the list of the World’s longest books), I (and she) are mere amateurs at this game…


Who needs an editor?

Great Authors require great Editors: that’s my statement – authors have variously described their editors as ‘pompous avuncular brutes’ (Vladimir Nabokov describing all editors), and ‘word and punctuation-scything maniacs’ (David Carver of Gordon Lish).     Jock Kirkcaldy was a challenge; the first-time author sought to interconnect a number of stories with recurring themes (including a golf course which had to be 23 holes to accommodate all the story lines), and characters –  adding to that a theme of complex sentence structures which saw editorial difficulties emerge and build.   The amount of time required to resolve this and keep the book below ‘War and Peace’ proportions ultimately is very tiring.   Add to that the statistic that 30% of the book is fact as opposed to fiction.    Fact has to be exactly correct; fiction can be waffle.    But one of the editor’s key tasks is to absorb issues, allowing the author the time and space to develop their story lines unhindered; in this context, the author is the key inspiration, the editor the facilitator.

J K Rowling’s parallel experiences are explained in the introduction – she simply abandoned attempts at conciseness in favour of quick publication, retention of her adoring followers, and shedloads of money.

An experience I had recently relates to an American friend and near contemporary at school, who, in the early 1960’s for two years experienced the quality of Scottish school education (his father being on a two-year assignment to Edinburgh), learning how to precis and condense structures so as to improve their readability.    He recently reported to me “This created some problems when I returned to US for University.    My first English assignment was a written essay on a specific topic, and I compiled a concise 300-word piece. The Teacher returned and said he wanted 500 words, agreeing that they were not needed to cover the topic, but I had to add additional words regardless.     I think he was trying to train Politicians”.


Some famous editors

A useful article identifying well known editors is that by Brian Hoey. In this article, Hoey cites:

Max(well) Perkins – probably is the most famous fiction editor in American history.   

Maxwell Perkins – famed for his editorial association with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway

He is credited with discovering and/or developing F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among many others.    In the Golf Short Story Fiction (GSSF), context, he is very much associated with Ring Lardner.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton and his contemporary Charles Dickens who edited each other’s books

Robert Gottlieb, suggested by some as the finest editor of his time (he’s still with us), has edited novels by John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Chaim Potok, Charles Portis, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Margaret Drabble, Michael Crichton, Mordecai Richler and Toni Morrison.

Robert Gottlieb, whose client list reads like Who’s Who or the Pullitzer prize nomination list

His non-fiction connection is just as impressive with authors including Bill Clinton, Janet Malcolm, Katharine Graham, Nora Ephron, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Tuchman, Jessica Mitford, Robert Caro, Antonia Fraser, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bruno Bettelheim and Carl Schorske.

Gordon Lish – is a fine example of an aggressive and extreme editors who thoroughly changed authors’ works for the better.    He is known to have made massive and insistent cuts to the stories that comprised Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981).     Lish is supposed to have sometimes cut more than half of what was in Carver’s original versions, adding his own details and embellishments as he saw fit. The result was one of the classics of American short fiction.     Lish’s tactics helped to define the minimalist style for which Carver would become known, and probably set a standard for that style of collaborative editing.

Michael Pietsch  – David Foster Wallace;    Pietch even rebuilt and in 2011 he edited one of Wallace’s books (The Pale King) after his death.   It won a share of the Pullitzer prize.


Other well-known editors

Jackie Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)

The former first lady didn’t sit around moping for too long after her husband’s demise in 1963, and following a period of bringing up her children, then marrying and seeing off the second of her stellar husbands, she returned to the career which she may have followed had she not met the first one.     As Jaqueline Bouvier, she won a twelve-month junior editorship at Vogue magazine; she had been selected from several hundred other women nationwide.     The position entailed working for six months in the magazine’s New York City office and spending the remaining six months in Paris.

Jackie Bouvier, later Kennedy, then Onassis, probably found her true vocation – as an editor – in later years after seeing off two husbands

Following her resignation from Viking Press in 1977 (two years after Onassis’ death), Kennedy was hired by Doubleday, where she worked as an associate editor under an old friend, John Turner Sargent, Sr.     Among the books she edited for the company are Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe, the English translation of the three volumes of Naghib Mahfuz’s Cairo Trilogy (with Martha Levin), and autobiographies of ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, singer-songwriter Carly Simon, and fashion icon Diana Vreeland.      She also encouraged Dorothy West, her neighbour on Martha’s Vineyard and the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, to complete the novel The Wedding (1995), a multi-generational story about race, class, wealth, and power in the U.S.

Nathaniel Parker Willis (January 20, 1806 – January 20, 1867), also known as N. P. Willis, was an American author, poet and editor who worked with several notable American writers including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.    

Nathaniel Parker Willis, Victorian era editor, famed for his association with Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He became the highest-paid magazine writer of his day.     For a time, he was the employer of former slave and future writer Harriet Jacobs.    His brother was the composer Richard Storrs Willis and his sister Sara wrote under the name Fanny Fern.   Born in Portland, Maine, Willis came from a family of publishers. His grandfather Nathaniel Willis owned newspapers in Massachusetts and Virginia, and his father Nathaniel Willis was the founder of Youth’s Companion and many other publications.



Science fiction and Comic Books

Many editors cut their teeth as authors and editors of comics and science fiction series.   The following are a few:

Steve Saffel, USA, freelance editor, formerly at Del Rey Books and Marvel Comics

Karl-Herbert Scheer (1928–1991), Germany, shared editorial direction of the Perry Rhodan series with Walter Ernsting – mainly Science Fiction: 

Scheer – was responsible for a prodigious output – over 70 novels and hundreds of magazine installments

Scheer created the science fiction series “ZbV”, which ran from 1958 to 1980. In 1960 he joined forces with Walter Ernsting (under the pen name Clark Dalton). Together, they developed the Perry Rhodan series, which has since become the world’s largest science fiction series, with uninterrupted weekly publication of a new novel/novella since Unternehmen Stardust in 1961, and a circulation exceeding 1.5 billion volumes.    Scheer wrote over 70 of the novels in the series, as well as the synopses for the first ca. 650 volumes, before passing on the role as lead author to William Voltz.    He also developed the concept for Perry Rhodan’s sibling series Atlan, which published 850 instalments between 1969 and 1988.

Liz Scheier, editor, formerly for Roc Books and Del Rey

Christopher Schelling, USA, literary agent, former editor for Roc Books and Harper Prism


Editorial qualifications (include)

OK, so now you have read a bit about famous editors, perhaps you would like to know some of what it takes to achieve their literary standing.     The following list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Should be a writer
  • Should be a voracious reader
  • Should be extensively experienced in the topic being edited
  • Should possess powers of persuasion, in equal amounts with humility
  • Should be tenacious but yielding


Other references

In case you think that’s all the research that’s required, you’re wrong.    Here are just a couple of the sites you need to thoroughly investigate.    That should keep aspiring editors busy for a while.

The ‘Ranker’ website – – – although this source doesn’t name many fiction authors

The Famous People (Editors) – – shows over 100 editors including W. E. B. Du Bois, Stan Lee, Diana Vreeland, Alan Coren, Ali Kemal Bey, Victoria Woodhull, Whittaker Chambers, Alain Badaoui, Andrew Lang and Henry Beard, to name but a few of those shown on this comprehensive list.


Conclusions (interim)

While it looks as though J K Rowling’s million plus magnum opus was latterly editor-free, the function of an editor is to control the scale, quality and consistency of the written product.   J K R may have managed this herself, but many authors can’t.     That and the need for a decent schedule going to press is a compelling reason to engage with the so-called ‘avuncular brutes’ and ‘content-scything maniacs’.     Watch this space; Jock Kirkcaldy part two may unearth further editorial maxims and theories.    We don’t have J K R’s adoring followers to satisfy, and want to keep the costs under control, and the volume to roughly the scale of the first one, so the editorial pen may strike heavily.

Should I condense this essay from its near-1700 words?     Only you can comment – why not start honing your own editorial skills?


Acknowledgements are due to a number of websites, the identity of which are disclosed at the time, and some references have been sourced from Wikipedia.   No copyright infringement is intended.

@ Alastair Allanach 2020


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