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Why Two Writing Heads are Better Than One

Me & my OED

With the death of a child, many parents don’t end up staying together long after. Why? Shouldn’t such a monumentally difficult experience draw people closer together? Not necessarily.

When both people are going through the grief process concurrently, they have little energy to offer their partner. This isn’t the case in every heart-breaking challenge, but sometimes it is.

With a piece of literature, a certain amount of space helps prevent this kind of support gap. By working independently and not necessarily on the same portions, a writer will hit problems at a different time than the editor will, and that distance can produce excellent feedback.

For instance, in The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, author Simon Winchester explains that when editors went back in for a revised edition with the Oxford English Dictionary, they didn’t start with A. They started with M.

The explanation is simple: the original editor, James Murray, was just starting out with the project when the first few letters were published. While by no means are these original entries inherently inferior to most readers, they were a sort of warm-up for the best to come.

And so editors of the second edition acknowledged Murray’s strengths and their beginner’s weaknesses by starting with the sections where Murray had hit his editorial stride.

While I wouldn’t suggest working on a novel in this manner, for obvious reasons of pure confusion, the underlying theory remains applicable to the fiction writer-editor relationship.

For example, let’s say the editor is finishing off the last section of a first draft while the writer is tackling a rewrite of the first part of that draft for round two.

The editor is, necessarily, behind the writer. The author doesn’t wait for the editor’s feedback before foraging ahead and the editor works as the writer produces.

The writer is facing issues in what is likely the weakest part of his writing while the editor has already provided feedback on those parts and is now critiquing stronger writing.

They’re not trying to tackle the same problems at the same time.

Additionally, the problems in the early manuscript aren’t likely to be the same (or as problematic) as later writing when the author hits her groove. The editor can see some of the strengths that have emerged while the author might feel overwhelmed by the challenge of getting a grip on a wily early draft.

It’s a useful balance of perspective, both for morale and for solving the problems, and each partner in the process contributes something different.

For instance, the writer might have his mind deep in the character building in the beginning of the novel, while the editor hasn’t given it a thought lately. The distance the editor has from the immediate issue the writer sees can, and often does, provide the ability to see solutions more clearly.

Novels are not written by one person. Behind good novels are good editors, I believe, regardless of the fact that it’s the writer’s name that becomes memorable while the editor’s is simply a credit inside or maybe in the acknowledgments the typical reader might skim at best.

But to me, this give and take, back and forth relationship is like raising a child. Each person puts forward their best contributions, hoping the kid will come out better than the two individuals that made her.

One Comment

  1. Glenn Hopp wrote:

    We had a guest speaker on campus two weeks ago who talked about writing and editing. He was really good (Randy Murray is his name), but from your blog I have really learned more, especially about how editing is a calling of its own and how editors should not be thought of as people who are frustrated writers working as editors until their writing gets them established. I am beginning to notice, I think, when a book needs better editing, not from usage or mechanical things, but from undeveloped or unaddressed areas that would satisfy the reader more and make for an overall better book. I recently read Stefan Kanfer’s new biography of Humphrey Bogart, which was really smart and stimulating, but the two editors he thanks in the fine print failed to push him in exploring more fully (and sometimes even documenting) the primary source material that furnished him with all the comments by Bogart that he used (the subject, having died in the 1950s, was of course someone that the author had not personally interviewed.) Kanfer is a journalist who has written for TIME magazine for years, and his insights in that book (about Bogart’s attitude toward character and professionalism in particular) seemed to be things that Kanfer had pondered most of his adult life, but the awkward, partially unattributed use of the primary source comments marred his work in this one way.

    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 3:05 AM | Permalink

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