We have been lucky in our publishing career: we’re allowed to write pretty much whatever we want, and on the few occasions that we weren’t 100 percent enthusiastic about the work assigned to us, we didn’t exactly suffer, either. However, there is one thing about our life in publishing that’s bothered us (and it’s not the fact that the big bucks have been elusive). We’ve never really been edited.
Copy-edited, yes. Proofread, yes. But no one has ever given us a clear and straightforward assessment of our work: its strengths and weaknesses, intellectual failings, emotional bullshit, lines that must be crossed, ambitions we might harbor. No one who knows us well and whom we trust calls us out when we settle for being amusing when we could do more. (Reviewers don’t count; speaking as a reviewer, we don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind.)
Having seen many movies in which the editors of the great New York publishing houses take their writers to four-martini lunches to talk about their manuscripts, having read about Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, J.D. Salinger and William Shawn, and all the great writer-editor tandems, we’ve always wanted the guidance of a mentor-editor. Maybe if we’d majored in Creative Writing instead of Comparative Lit, or attended more writing workshops, or enrolled in an MFA program, we might’ve found that editor.
We joined exactly one workshop, the UP Summer Writers’ Workshop, during our sophomore year in college. It was wonderful: we met writers, talked about our work processes, felt less alone in the lit universe. But the discussion of our story went like this: “Oh, it’s the J.D. Salinger fan. Hilarious! Next.” Sure, there were a couple of angry Marxists muttering on the sidelines, but they never said anything openly.
Since then we’ve had some wonderful publishers, but we’ve been hoping for a Gordon Lish to come along and slash and burn our drafts for our own good. This is not humility—our ego is vast and swallows planets (like Galactus). But every time we have a new book out, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re missing something vital.
Some weeks ago, while preparing the manuscript for our new collection of short stories, it occurred to us that we know someone who is a brilliant editor and a great friend. She also happens to be the most well-read person we know. So we asked Tina Cuyugan (editor of Forbidden Fruit, former World News editor of Today) to edit our book.
The other day Tina sent us her edits and comments—which stories were strong, which parts were structurally unsound, what could be left out, and so on. It was as if we had been scribbling away in a dark and airless tower, and someone opened a window. And not for us to leap out of. For the first time, we got a proper appraisal of our work. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Now we know what we can do. Suddenly, we feel like a writer.
Every writer needs an editor. No exceptions.