An American Editor

September 23, 2015

Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.


Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:



  1. These books are indeed an amazing example of the impact and value of editing. However, the essay overlooks the author’s role in the process. While the editor was instrumental in guiding Harper Lee through the transformation of rough idea into enduring and touching story, Lee wasn’t a robot who just handed over her manuscript and let the editor reinvent it. Rather, they went back and forth, back and forth, debating and discussing, with Lee doing the revising. So when considering and describing the value of editing, we must include the interaction factor, as well as the editor’s unique slant. A different editor might have had a completely different influence on Lee, and the work could have evolved in a different direction. Lee was mighty lucky to have someone able to bring out the best in her and her book!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Carolyn — September 23, 2015 @ 6:03 am | Reply

  2. There may be more to the tremendous difference between these two works than the fact that Mockingbird was so carefully edited while Watchman was not. There’s a rumor afoot that Truman Capote, and not Harper Lee, wrote Mockingbird. Having loved that book and having found Watchman an awful read — all telling, rather than showing — I would not be surprised that the rumor has some foundation. It would take a lot more than a great editor to make Watchman right. It needs a total, complete rewrite. They were not written by the same person.


    Comment by Helen O'Neil — September 23, 2015 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

    • No comment re: the Truman Capote rumor, but as for these remarks — ” It would take a lot more than a great editor to make Watchman right. It needs a total, complete rewrite. They were not written by the same person” — I must respectfully disagree. A great editor can move a writer to totally, completely rewrite a book to the point where it seems that somebody else wrote it. I’ve experienced this directly and observed it happen with other people’s works. Indeed, my own novels would not have achieved publishable quality had I not been provoked, prodded, directed, dragged by the nose, and otherwise harassed and encouraged by great developmental editors, for whom I rewrote the manuscript 20+ times for one book and 30+ for the other. When you compare the early drafts to the final versions, there’s almost no resemblance, and you could easily claim that different people wrote them.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Carolyn — September 23, 2015 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

      • I wish this blog had “Like” buttons for the comments. This comment deserves a billion LIKEs.


        Comment by Veronica — September 24, 2015 @ 10:39 am | Reply

        • There *is* a Like button. It’s tucked away between the article and the comments, on the left, under Share This.


          Comment by Carolyn — September 24, 2015 @ 3:29 pm | Reply

          • No, Carolyn, you misunderstood me. That Like button is for the blog post. I want to like comments to the blog posts. So when someone commenting on the article makes an exceptionally good point, I can LIKE it. WordPress has the feature available, but the blogger has to dig around for it and put it in on purpose.


            Comment by Veronica — September 24, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

          • I think I found the feature you are referring to and have activated it. I didn’t realize this was an option. Thanks for the tip.

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by americaneditor — September 25, 2015 @ 3:43 am

          • EXCELLENT Work! Thanks!


            Comment by Veronica — September 25, 2015 @ 9:12 am

  3. There are a lot of good points here and I largely agree with your argument. I do wonder about your comments on authors who don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on editing. Harper Lee did not pay for the editing of Mockingbird. Her publisher did. Two years of developmental editing now would cost an author thousands of dollars. Some are able and willing to pay that because they believe in their books, but most won’t ever make that money back. With the uncertainty of the market, the author has to want more than a monetary gain from their book in order to justify extensive editing.


    Comment by Katherine Pickett — September 23, 2015 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

    • Actually, Harper Lee *did* pay for the editing, although it was indirect and concealed. An author’s advance and royalties are calculated on many factors, including the cost of producing the book. One of the things rocking the industry today is the cost of editing. It used to be unknown or ignored outside a publisher’s accounting department until the bean counters took over and pushed so many editors out of staff positions and into self-employment. All of a sudden that invaluable but invisible quality-control process became exposed and had to be justified and re-valued. Authors no longer can take for granted that their book will be edited as part of being published; they have to decide on their own whether it’s something they can afford to buy, and then they have to make decisions about what kind of editing they want/need, and whether the person who performs it is suitable. In the old trad-pub days, they had little to say about that, but they underwrote it with a percentage of monies earned by their book that funneled into the administrative side of the publishing company’s business.

      In other words, authors either pay directly and a la carte for editing, or indirectly through lower revenue as part of a publishing package. It seems like apples and oranges because in the one case it’s big lump sums out of pocket, and in the other case it’s percentage of a trickle.


      Comment by Carolyn — September 25, 2015 @ 4:31 am | Reply

      • I agree, it’s apples and oranges. Accepting reduced income after someone else pays the up-front costs to create a superior product is a completely different situation from betting your own several thousand dollars on the possibility of your book taking off. In the past, one of the benefits of traditional publishing was the shared risk. When authors have to pay all editing costs, the risk is heavily on them and I don’t think you can blame them for being gun-shy.


        Comment by Katherine Pickett — October 7, 2015 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  4. For a very different take on GO SET A WATCHMAN, read Ursula Guin’s review, particularly toward the end:
    Here, for example, on the big picture:
    “It appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.”


    Comment by patmcnees — September 23, 2015 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

  5. For other examples of edited and unedited works I point you to early Tom Clancy books and late Tom Clancy books. The early books are tightly written. The words and the story work together. There is not a word out of place nor are there any extra words in the books. The later Tom Clancy books are ponderous tomes, full of errors and unnecessary words.

    JKRowling had the same problem. The early Harry Potter books are tightly written and engaging. The books got longer and less tightly written as the series continued. The last two books were nearly unreadable.

    Another place to find examples are the “author’s editions” of books. Read King’s “The Stand.” Great book. Tightly written. Then read the author’s edition. It’s about 300 pages longer it it’s virtually unreadable. Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters” suffered the same fate. Great edited novel. Horrible “author’s edition.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by nomadmu — September 27, 2015 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • I can’t comment on most of the books mentioned because I haven’t read them. As for the JK Rowling books, however, while they did get longer, looser, and more complex, I and some thousands of other readers managed to read them with great pleasure and no stumbling, indicating they were better written and edited than “nearly unreadable.”


      Comment by Carolyn — September 28, 2015 @ 6:59 am | Reply

      • The first time I read the Harry Potter series, I had no trouble getting right on through it with great pleasure and very little stumbling. I am a very forgiving reader when I read for pleasure.

        When I went back to read them again later, though, I started noticing little things. When I read them the third time, I kept finding more and more things. Plot holes that should have been fixed before publishing, continuity errors that should have been caught, and other “things” that you can’t help but notice when you immerse yourself in the stories.

        I don’t know if it was the writer who started to refuse good editing advice, editors who became too enamored of the story to do a good job, or the publishing house demanding the books get out fast rather than good, but I can see the steady downward progression of the writing as the series goes on. I would so love to see “new and improved” versions released in the future, but I really can’t imagine that happening.

        Oh, it is even worse if you listen to the audio books. The reader, Jim Dale, does an amazing job, but the problems in the later books became even more obvious to me when I was listening to the story than they were when I was reading.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Veronica — September 28, 2015 @ 10:37 am | Reply

        • But do those failings add up to “nearly unreadable”? That condemnation is what I’m challenging. Obviously, quality is a subjective thing, but descriptions like that are what people say about self-published first-draft novels, for instance, and the Harry Potter series is more competent, even if the writing/editing quality did not hold to a consistent level throughout the seven books.

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Carolyn — September 28, 2015 @ 10:50 am | Reply

          • I would argue that, if the first Harry Potter book was as loosely written as the last, it never would have been published. In fact, Rowling went through several publishers before getting an agent who found a publisher for the first book. I’d like to see the drafts that were turned down by publishers and compare them to the finally-published draft. I’ll bet the unpublished drafts of “The Philosopher’s Stone” are as sloppy as “The Deathly Hallows.”

            Just one example: the ENDLESS camping, whining and bickering. No one who wasn’t already heavily invested in the characters and story would have made it through that.

            Yes. I made it through. I also read it aloud twice: once to my son and once to my younger daughter.

            Coming, as they did, at the end of a beloved series, “Half-Blood Prince” and “Deathly Hallows” were readable, but only because fans had so much time and emotion wrapped up in the story. “Unreadable” might be slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly.

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by nomadmu — September 29, 2015 @ 7:31 am

          • The last two HP books struck me as first drafts, maybe cleaned up a bit, but then published pretty much as is. Not bad as first drafts, but a good advertisement for doing second ones!

            Liked by 2 people

            Comment by anansii — October 24, 2015 @ 1:45 am

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