Finding Your Inner Perkins

When you think of legendary editors, it’s hard not to think of Maxwell Perkins. His fingerprints, though sometimes overshadowed by his authors’ notoriety, are all over The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Yearling, and From Here to Eternity. This man knew how to shape a masterpiece. For Tom Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, that meant throwing away 66,000 words. Perkins could only massacre a manuscript like this because he had full command over the art of storytelling. His enviable gift was born from a perfect storm of genealogy, an incomparable tutelage, and copious amounts of reading and editing. One part of this trinity doesn’t belong to him alone.

Yes, it’s true. You too can do copious amounts of reading and editing, and you can even do them both at the same time. All you need is a red pen and a manuscript. Preferably one you didn’t write.

The latter distinction is important. Although we all partake in the noble and necessary enterprise of editing our own work, that isn’t the sort of thing our inner Maxwell Perkins is made of. His understanding of literature came from editing someone else’s work. For us to tap into his genius, we need to do the same. The easiest way to do this is to beta read.

Personally, I’m a huge proponent of the beta read. In the beginning of my writing career, I’ll admit, I accepted requests for purely selfish reasons. I figured if I read someone’s work in progress, they would read mine. But then something unexpected happened. I found that readings others’ work actually helped me write mine. I’m now of the mind that, as the old proverb goes, it’s better to give than to receive. I say yes to requests to read others’ work whenever it’s humanly possible.

But it’s not for the faint of heart. When you commit to beta reading, it’s work. You have to sit down with a manuscript for some other reason than enjoyment. Unlike the books you pluck from the library shelves or the Carve Magazine you bring along for your swing on the hammock, you have to pay attention to plot, syntax, dialogue, voice, characterization, even punctuation. Yes, you have to edit it. You’re playing Maxwell Perkins and, consequently, honing your craft.

And how, you may ask, will editing the first draft of someone’s first novel of vampire fan fiction help your own writing?

I liken it to an experience I recently had with a non-profit organization I work for. Someone offered to create the organization’s logo for free, and everyone knows there’s no better price than that. We accepted, but the final product seemed off for some reason. I couldn’t articulate what exactly was wrong with it; I just knew that something was off about it. I brought it to a bonafide graphic artist, Sally Hamilton, and she spotted the proportions problem right away. She told me, “Your subconscious notices it’s wrong, but you don’t know why. I consciously know that it’s wrong, and I know exactly how to fix it.”

This is what we’re practicing when we beta read. We’re consciously looking at a manuscript. For this reason, it is possible to read a piece with flat dialogue, overly wrought narrative, or a convoluted plot and become a better writer because of it. We see a spade and are forced to call it a spade. It’s a different exercise than reading Pulitzer Prize winners, but it is no less valuable.

Consider this: If, after reading a book, all we are able to say is, “That was bad,” or “That was good,” it means we don’t really know our art. Any reader can offer those criticisms. Look no further than the millions of reviews on Goodreads. As writers, we should be able to offer far more fidelity. We should be able to identify problems and (when we’ve gotten really good) say with some certainty how best to fix them—just like Sally could when she saw that logo. We should also be able to recognize when something has been done extraordinarily well, understand why, and set our red pens gently off to the side so we don’t edit for the sake of editing.

This sort of erudition has the power to make you a self-aware writer with the ability to self-edit. There is no better combination than this. It can also occasionally ruin a perfectly good book for which you’ve paid $14.99 plus tax. Once you’ve gained an editor’s eye, it behooves you to learn how and when to blindfold it. Perkins himself said reviewers and editors “ought to just take a book and give themselves to it, and read it like a regular citizen….” Actually, it wouldn’t hurt to get ahold of the books he’s had a hand in and do just that.

If I’ve convinced you to beta read in all your other spare time, all I can say is I’m sorry, and you’re welcome.  Because here’s what may come of it: you may take on something structured so well that it causes you to have your own revelation about plotting, and you finally finish your book; or you may come across someone’s 300,000-word, perplexing, postmodern opus on whatever and curse my name. In both versions of this future, you’ll be tired, much like Perkins was when he finished the 1,114-page manuscript entitled O Lost, which would later become Look Homeward, Angel. But just think—you may, like him, have left your fingerprint on a future masterpiece. If not that, you’ll have at least taken one more step toward writing yours.

Either way, Maxwell Perkins would be happy to know that you’re carrying a little bit of him wherever you go. And rest assured, you’ll go farther with him than without. So go, read, edit, all copiously, and with him in mind.