You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, But Brilliance Needs a Good Editor

F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t be F. Scott Fitzgerald if editor Maxwell Perkins didn’t have his back.

When we discuss great literature, our focus rests first on the But where would these great creators be without a network of help? On the path to publication, an author’s work can be thought of a raw material – the ore before the iron, the coke before the coal, black crude before the oil. Although there are no hard and fast rules we can safely assume that even in this day and age most successful published works benefit from behind the scenes work by publisher, agent, editor, and many others along the way. As we at CambridgeEditors do not (yet) count publishers and agents as members of our team, it follows that I’ll be discussing what I know best and the pivotal player in the transformation of a written work from the first to the final drafts: the Editor.

A good editor draws out the best in his author. The two collaborate from start to finish, often before even a single page is written. Look to Maxwell Perkins, who is often cited as one of the greatest editors of all time. Perkins’ list of clients included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among many others. Perkins’ editorial career took off in 1910 when he joined the publishing house of Charles Scriber’s Sons. Perkins signed Fitzgerald, who was barely twenty-three years old at the time, to Scribner’s in 1919. The working title for Fitzgerald’s first novel was The Romantic Egotist, and the manuscript was at first rejected by Scriber’s. However, Perkins pushed Fitzgerald to make significant revisions, and the novel was published the following year with a title you’ll probably recognize: This Side of Paradise.

Through Fitzgerald, Perkins was introduced to Ernest Hemingway. Perkins subsequently advocated for the publication of Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises, which was controversial for the time because of its profanity. Hemingway dedicated his novella The Old Man and the Sea to Perkins’ memory.

Perkins’ relationships with his authors were complex and not always cordial. Fitzgerald’s well-documented struggles with alcoholism and early fame made him difficult to work with, but Perkins remained a loyal benefactor until Fitzgerald’s untimely death. Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River, wrote at a prolific pace and pushed back hard when Perkins suggested making massive cuts to his novels. Over time, Wolfe grew to resent Perkins due to the credit given the editor with regards to the success of Wolfe’s novels. Like Fitzgerald, Wolfe died young, but Perkins remained involved in Wolfe’s literary career until the end.

Whatever the medium, the editor helps shape the identity of the artist behind the work. The title of this entry is lifted from an extended play album by a band called Manchester Orchestra. Even musicians need editors in the studio; the musical equivalent of an editor is a producer. Look no further than the greatest and most successful pop ensemble of all time, The Beatles. Their producer, George Martin, is often revered at “The Fifth Beatle” for his significant contributions to the composition and arrangement of many of their most popular songs as well as his help in developing revolutionary recording techniques.

T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land would be a completely different poem were it not for the sweeping edits of Ezra Pound. Music producer and talent scout John Hammond had a career that spanned six decades and helped launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Newspapers and magazines are only as strong as the work of their editors. Any writing workshop, academic or otherwise, will emphasize to no end the necessity of peer-editing for fledgling works. And I’m sure most of us can remember when a parent proofread our seventh grade Language Arts homework.

The next time one of your own written works is nearing completion, consider the value of a good editor in the transformation of your work from good to great.

Yours in revision,



1 Comment

Filed under Sean Nolan, Uncategorized

One response to “You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, But Brilliance Needs a Good Editor

  1. well done-thanks. I adore Max Perkins-sharing!

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