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.

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