I’m currently on my third reread of the Harry Potter series. I came to the series late, my first readthrough being in 2014; and while I’m not a superfan, I love the series. It’s a great story across seven books, with wonderful characters and world-building. I also admire anyone who can write that much and have it all come together and make sense.
With the third reread, and thus the story well-settled into my memory, I’m starting to notice more little things in terms of style. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, around the time the series truly exploded — from what I recall, after Goblet of Fire was released — the tightness of the editing waned.
This struck me during Order of the Phoenix, which I’m almost done with. Now, it’s a good story, like all the rest. Its length isn’t a huge deterrent to me, though Harry doesn’t even arrive at Hogwarts until almost 200 pages in. It’s more the stylistic choices. A popular style choice in the book is to end every other sentence with ellipses. Almost everything Harry does or thinks trails off, especially after the halfway mark. It was okay the first 50 times, but after, oh, the fifth paragraph in a row with three sentences ending in ellipses, it starts to get irritating.
I won’t use this post to air all my style grievances with Order of the Phoenix (though seriously, the all caps yelling could also stand to take a chill pill). But as I noticed this sudden hard left turn from Book 4 to Book 5 — one that coincided with what I remember as the rise in the series’ popularity — I wondered if the series’ increased popularity, and J.K. Rowling’s subsequent increased clout, had the negative effect of the publisher taking a step back in terms of editing. Rowling’s books were immensely popular, and now that her work was proven — and rightfully so — perhaps there was less insistence to change or edit her work too much. But as I’m seeing in Order of the Phoenix, that isn’t always for the best.
I can’t say for sure that was the case for Books 5-7 in the Harry Potter series, since I wasn’t in the publisher’s office when the book was finished (though my Potter-loving friend said in response to my tweets about this, “No good editor would have let 400 fucking pages of idling in the damn woods stand. Also, the epigraph.”). But I can site a similar example that was in fact a documented case of a creator receiving little to no editorial interference: George Lucas and The Phantom Menace.
According to a book I just read and loved, Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery; George Lucas had earned the right (and money) to tell the studios that he wanted complete creative control over the return to the Star Wars universe. However, this led to a movie that many fans consider the worst in the series — it’s slow, the acting is wooden, it misses the forest for the trees in terms of lore, and the dialogue is god-awful. To the latter point, Lucas even admitted he wasn’t good at writing dialogue. And yet, he didn’t want assistance with dialogue — and the studios allowed him that freedom because of his clout.
I saw The Phantom Menace when I was 13. Even then, I knew what I was seeing was bad. George Lucas is a creative genius who has devised a modern legend that will live beyond any of us. That doesn’t mean he didn’t need an editor.
Everyone needs an editor, and yet almost no one wants to admit it. Editors are for amateurs, some think; or are deployed by anxious big-wigs who don’t trust their creators or anyone’s vision that’s different from theirs.
Yes, there may be publishers who overstep and edit to their expectations as opposed to the writer’s voice. But just because that happens, that doesn’t mean an author outgrows the need to be edited. It just means they need a better editor — one that respects them as a writer and wants to encourage their growth.
I know both the temptation to go at my work alone, and the sting of being told what parts of my creation need to be fixed. When I get my memo and edits back from Evelyn Duffy, I use them to learn and remember them as I write my next piece — and I’ll admit, I occasionally think, “Ha! I remembered to do [blank] this time! I’m doing one better!” I submit my work to her and wait to see if she notices and remarks on any improvement. I don’t kid myself into thinking a piece won’t need to be edited, but I feel a special sense of glee with the piece that only needs a few copy edits.
Still, those pieces are few and far in between — and lucky for me, I’ve found an editor who doesn’t let improvement on my part diminish any editing on her part. Evelyn even remarked that one of my short stories she recently edited “made me step up my editing game.” This is good for both author and editor, but in my mind, it’s especially good for the author because it challenges the author to keep growing and improving with each piece.
Even if one doesn’t have an editor like Evelyn (and I pity those who don’t, because she’s amazing), it’s still important to remember that, no matter where you are in terms of writing experience, popularity, or clout, you should always be edited and you should always consider the input of others. And if you’re an editor or publisher, you should always maintain that role over your authors’ work, even if they’re established and popular. It results in better outcomes for everyone involved.
I’m all for giving creators more freedom, especially when they’ve proven themselves. But there’s also such a thing as giving a creator too much freedom because they’re so popular. Everyone needs an editor. Everyone needs advice. Everyone needs oversight.
To bring this point home, I present a tale of two creators, as shared anecdotally by friend and fellow beer writer Will Gordon. On one hand, we have David Foster Wallace:
I used to have the cube next to David Foster Wallace’s copyeditor and I was in awe, assumed it was the most intense job ever, but nah, my buddy Mike just disappeared with Infinite Jest for 4 months and didn’t touch shit b/c he wasn’t allowed to
— Will Gordon (@WillGordonAgain) July 30, 2019
I won’t add much of my two cents, since I haven’t read Infinite Jest; but from what I’ve seen online, the general consensus seems to be that, at best, it’s an ordeal to finish.
On the other hand, we have David Sedaris:
Of course! My other lit star-f’er story is that I believe David Sedaris did everything that was suggested, even though he has a very distinct voice. He didn’t know or much care about nuts and bolts stuff but he respected it mattered so he just let us (not me) go for it.
— Will Gordon (@WillGordonAgain) July 30, 2019
David Sedaris has one of the most distinctive voices in literature. He is edited, and he listens to his editor.