What Do Editors Do?


This is about human editors for writing, not software tools for coding.

What does it take to get a story published in the New Yorker? Roger Angell's 1994 essay shows there's not much to say: write something good and unique, work with an editor, and be patient.

What does it mean to write something good?

“Are you looking for the typical New Yorker story?” someone else asks. “Sure, lady,” I want to answer back. “The one that’s exactly like Borges and Brodkey and Edna O’Brien and John O’Hara and Susan Minot and Eudora Welty and Niccolò Tucci and Isaac Singer. That’s the one, except with more Keillor and Nabokov in it. Whenever we find one of those, we snap it right up.”

On the editor:

[T]he obligation to preserve the sanctity of a neophyte’s script is counterbalanced by my hope that he will, by life habit, come to ask himself those short, tough questions as he writes along, never omitting the big question at the end: Is it good enough? Is it any good at all? Lifelong practitioners—the best ones, I’ve noticed—ask themselves this every day: that’s why they look the way they do (hunched over their word processors, or at the bar next door), which is like morticians.

On the transition from amateurism to professionalism:

I pause and look at him. He is trying to decide whether I’m simply a bully or someone out to steal his writer’s soul. Perhaps it’s neither. How can he be persuaded that these are the same wireworms and dust balls that every writer discovers in the corners of his beautiful prose, no matter how carefully he has woven it and laid it down? The young man looks pale, and who can blame him? He feels himself at a brink. He wants to be an artist, but he also wants to be a pro. His words, which once looked so secure, so right, are beginning to let him down.