John Fischer on Editing: The Writers Are Not Your Friends

I think that a good editor can’t afford to have any friends when he is operating as an editor. Time and again I have been tempted to publish something that is less than first-rate simply because it came from a friend or a friend of a friend.

A second hazard of the business: You may find yourself out of sympathy with writers. This is a very easy thing to do. Most writers are difficult people. They have abnormal amounts of ego. They couldn’t function as writers if they didn’t have that trait because it is a lonely, hard, and discouraging business. Writers are demanding, unreasonable, often ill-tempered and it is easy to find yourself gradually losing your empathy for them.

You must remember that your goal is at best that of a midwife; that writers are the ones who are doing the actual production, and if you can’t deal with them with enthusiasm then you are probably not going to be a good editor.

An editor ought to hurt a little every time he says no. He ought to realize that he is hurting the writer who maybe has invested months of work into a story. If you turn it down callously you probably don’t have the sensitivity that you ought to have for the job.

The ideal editor is one who keeps just a little ahead of his readers. The history of magazine publishing is littered with the bleached bones of publications that got too far ahead of their audience.

—Condensed from an essay by John Fischer in “Great Editors on Editing,” a booklet published in 1963 by the American Alumni Council. Fischer was editor of Harper’s magazine from 1935 to 1967.

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