Editor Advice For Writers – Maxwell Perkins

Cool!  More advice!  I can always use advice, seeing as how I haven’t reached a whole herd of Best Seller Lists quite yet.  One of these days, I may not need it as much, but I’m still always gonna listen to the World’s Greatest Editor.  Actually, I’ll pretty much always listen to all advice, as long as it’s free, ‘cause I know I don’t have to follow it if it sounds goofy but it just might be valuable.  But when it’s the World’s Greatest Editor, I’m paying a lot closer attention.

The World’s Greatest Editor, according to Dana Isaacson, was Maxwell Perkins, book editor at Scribner’s for 37 years.  The evidence backing that up is pretty overwhelming, considering he brought names like Hemingway, Wolfe, and Fitzgerald into the mainstream of the literary world.  Mr. Isaacson is also a widely-experienced editor, writer, and literary agent, and posted the following article on the Career Authors website.  I found it through the Facebook page of the most-excellent literary agent, Gina Panettieri. 

So here I am, faced with writing advice by a very wise and experienced editor, that’s being pushed by a couple of very smart people who have had a lot more experience and success than me, so I’m thinkin’ it would be a good idea to take this to heart.  It’s a short and easy read, but there’s a lot to think about in understanding the business, framing your approach to your task, and keeping principles in mind.

And it’s free!  So you can take it or leave it without pressure, but I suspect that if it’s good enough for Hemingway, it just might do me some good.  Ya think?  Maybe you, too!

Writers’ Master Class: 7 Lessons from the World’s Greatest Editor

Posted by Dana Isaacson | Mar 15, 2021 | Publishing

A French literary critic once said that a great editor is an artist whose medium is the work of other men. Despite its inherent sexism, there is wisdom in that statement. Certainly Maxwell Perkins, considered by many the greatest book editor ever, left a monumental legacy in his thirty-seven years at the publisher Scribner’s, helping shape literature and guiding writers from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dawn Powell to Ernest Hemingway. 

Editors at book publishing houses play a variety of roles. Lamented Perkins, “What are we supposed to be—ghostwriters, bankers, psychiatrists, income tax experts, magicians?” We could add cheerleaders and nursemaids to that list. After Thomas Wolfe declared that he was quitting writing because of rotten reviews, Perkins wrote him, “If I really believed you would be able to stand by your decision, your letter would be a blow to me.” Writers today would be amazed to hear that editor Perkins even spent time negotiating down Wolfe’s dental bills.

Bibliophilic me treasures my tattered first edition collection of Perkins’ editorial letters, (Editor to Author, The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins), sadly out of print but full of gems for writers.

How publishers choose

In a rejection letter to an unknown author, Perkins explains that book publishers must make money to stay afloat. But even as they strategize and carefully decide what to publish—and despite commercial motives—their role in society is significant:

“There are certain rules of quality and relevance, which can only be determined by some sort of selection, and this the publisher, representing humanity, attempts—with many mistakes—to make. Or, to put it differently, artists, saints and the other more sentient representatives of the human race are, as it were, on the frontiers of time—pioneers and guides to the future. And the publisher, in the capacity mentioned, must make some sort of estimate of the importance and validity of their report, and there is nothing he can base this on but the ability to judge that God has given him.”

LESSON 1: Like authors, publishers are gamblers, hoping for the best.

Live life

In one letter, Perkins recalls a conversation with author John Galsworthy:

“He said these writers who become writers right from the start are invariably disappointments. It is much better for a man to have been something else than a writer, so that he has viewed the world from a fixed position.” 

LESSON 2: Skip your MFA, get life experience, then write about it.

Harsh Writing Advice

I enjoyed this article from Hannah Guy at Kirkus Reviews.  I subscribe to their newsletter and it wouldn’t hurt anyone else to check that out, too, because that’s how I find great thoughts on occasion.  Sometimes I stumble across them, and sometimes they leap out and smack me on the noggin, but they won’t do either if you don’t give them some access to you, so look for the ones with value and invite them into your email.

You can even subscribe to my blog!  (hint, hint…)  There are things of value in it from time to time, mostly culled from people much smarter than me, I’ll admit, but at least I’m smart enough to recognize awesome things I wander into, so there’s that.

This is a discussion on writing advice that exploded across Twitter a while back, so there’s another good thing about finding it on Kirkus Reviews because Twitter has revealed itself to be too much of a GuanoStorm for me.  So far, at least.  Maybe if I grow another head to help store and filter and analyze that enormous fire hose of opinions…

Take a look and enjoy, and realize that a lot of the “harsh” part is just wit and deep thoughts.  Some pretty superficial, but at least enjoyable.  And sometimes the truth might sound a little harsh, but you need to hear it anyway, don’t you?

Our Favorite #HarshWritingAdvice Tweets

February 11, 2021

Normally we don’t pay too much attention to tweets that go viral. But there is almost always an exception to a rule.

On January 29, 2021, author A. M. Hounchell tweeted the following: “HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Your writer friends are also your competition. Sorry.” Immediately, the writing and publishing Twitterverse responded in kind, igniting a weekend of arguments, discussions, and retaliatory tweets under the hashtag #HarshWritingAdvice. A ton of folks from various parts of the writing community, including some heavyweights, weighed in and shared their own writing advice. 

Even a few Hollywood folks chimed in. Seth Rogen (@SethRogendedicated an entire thread to answering questions about writing. Some of his advice included, “Do lots of loose notes and outlines and lists that are low pressure and if you do enough of that thinking on paper, before you know it you have stuff” and “I firmly think you have to LOVE your idea or else you’ll burn out on it.” (Rogen’s response to dealing with writer’s block? “I smoke weed and watch movies that inspire me and remind me of what effect I’m trying to deliver to the audience.”)

The trending topic has, of course, faded in popularity, but we wanted to share some of the best advice and wisdom left behind by well-known, bestselling, and/or popular writers and authors. 

Are other writers your competition…or your friends?

A number of folks didn’t waste time dismissing the notion that other writers are competition. Instead, they emphasized that the writing community benefits when we all support each other. “The actual HARSH WRITING ADVICE is that it’s really hard a lot of the time and your fellow writers are the other people who understand this and will help you get through,” tweeted Food and Wine senior editor and author Kat Kinsman (@kittenwithawhip).

Other authors agreed, adding: 

HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Writing a book is hard and lonely, and if you treat other writers like competition instead of the community, inspiration, and co-conspirators they really are, the whole process will be miserable and your book will probably fail.

                        —Lilly Dancyger (@LillyDancyger)

Harsh writing advice: Your writer friends are an amazing source of support, and all your lives will be better if you appreciate and encourage one another.

            —Jennifer Wright (@JenAshleyWright)

Naturally, there is always someone who sees “competition” and takes it a little further than one might expect.

“HARSH WRITING ADVICE: You have to hunt and eat your fellow writers,” was Chuck Wendig’s (@ChuckWendig) offering. “They will taste of Cheetos, pink wine and despair. But this is how the Publishing Gods are fed. Sorry.”

Less competition, more writing

Others were quick to remind writers (especially aspiring ones) that worrying about competition was less important than focusing on the actual writing you do. After all, the best way to create a great book isn’t by competing for it but by writing it. 

“HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Thinking of your friends as competition isn’t going to make you a better writer, because no matter what imaginary horse race you invent, you can only write what you write,” tweeted writer/director Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama). “So write it.”

HARSH WRITING ADVICE that a Black woman writer gave me nearly 20 years ago: Stop worrying about getting your writing published; worry about getting better at writing.

                        —Deesha Philyaw (@DeeshaPhilyaw)


You actually have to write.


                        —Jenna Guillaume (@JennaGuillaume

My contribution to HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Writers write. That’s it. One word at a time on the page. There’s no romantic, mysterious force or beguiling muse that will inspire your genius. Sit, write, sweat, cry, self pity, edit, revise, finish, and then get up and do it again.

                                    —Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli)

Lay off the social media