It would not be entirely correct to say that, for some decades now, my “day job” has been as an editor. To say “day job” means that it’s significantly less important than my chosen vocation, writer, and is only there to pay the bills while I toil in secret on the Great American Novel. What’s inaccurate about that, for me, is that I love being an editor. In fact, my own attempts at writing have largely fallen away, and not because I was somehow driven out of the business, or anything like that. I spend most of my time as an editor and what frustrates me at the end of a week or month—or year—isn’t that I’ve spent too much time editing and not enough time writing, but that I’ve spent too much time on petty life distractions and not enough time editing and writing.

This week, I’d like to share a few thoughts I’ve collected from various sources on the subject of we, the editors. To start, someone who didn’t quite hold us in the esteem we might hope for:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

That was Vladimir Nabokov, but what the hell did he know? Don’t we all think Toni Morrison was way, way smarter?

The good ones make all the difference. It is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one, then you are better off alone. But there are editors so rare and so important that they are worth searching for, and you always know when you have one.

Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable—not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. 

And leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to distill this whole thing to a single sentence:

There are fewer good editors than good writers.

This whole thing is nothing new, of course, as we see way back in 1725 in Samuel Johnson’s preface to Alexander Pope’s Shakespeare:

In perusing a corrupted piece, he must have before him all possibilities of meaning, with all possibilities of expression. Such must be his comprehension of thought, and such his copiousness of language. Out of many readings possible, he must be able to select that which bests suits with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his author’s particular cast of thought, and turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge, and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor. 

This duty, by the way, is not just often but as some of us, including Karl Ove Knausgaard, believe is best done away of prying eyes, and with no recognition outside a small inner circle:

The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible.

John Cheever, as might well be expected, had a more idiosyncratic view of us:

My definition of a good editor is a man I think charming, who sends me large checks, praises my work, my physical beauty, and my sexual prowess, and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.

Feels like Cheever was describing an agent there, but who am I to argue?

In the end, I try to live by this last quote, from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which for me, distills what it is I actually do:

Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called and continue to be called editors.

For me—and for all the editors it’s been my privilege to work with—working with an author is an immense honor, and never one to be in any way diminished as a “day job.” I love that what I do all day, what pays my mortgage, can be simply stated as reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels (and other books) and helping authors make them better. That’s a job worth doing.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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