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The Mark(s) of a Good Editor

Writing is generally a solitary undertaking, but with my latest book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, I received an invaluable assist from my editor at W. W. Norton & Co., Robert Weil. Instead of tooting my own horn here, I'd much rather tell you how great Bob is, and how much he added to my manuscript.

To truly appreciate Bob's achievement, you have to understand how the book business has changed since the heyday of legendary editors such as Maxwell Perkins. Nowadays most editors are really acquisition agents — they buy and market book proposals but they devote precious little effort to shaping them. There's simply no time for that, and the economics of the book business don't reward literary quality. If you doubt me, just look at the bestseller lists.

I knew Bob was different from the start. Back in 2006, when I was first formulating a book proposal on guerrilla warfare, I envisioned a shortish tome focused around half a dozen notable commanders or campaigns. Bob would have none of that. He told me what he wanted was an epic history of guerrilla warfare that told the entire story in a compelling and highly readable way. He instructed me that I should take as much time as I wanted so that I could do plenty of research in the archives to make the account as authoritative as possible. Oh and space was not a concern — I was to write as long as necessary to tell the story.

This is, to put it mildly, not the usual advice one hears these days from editors at major New York publishing houses: they want it short and fast and never mind the footnotes.

I was daunted but also galvanized by the challenge. I knew that there was no other overview of guerrilla warfare and terrorism available — no good one at any rate. I relished the prospect of filling that gap on the historical bookshelf, thereby helping to inform and entertain readers interested in the most pervasive form of warfare.

As I started on my research and writing, however, I quickly discovered why more historians have not attempted the same feat: it is no easy matter to condense thousands of years of history and hundreds of campaigns into a narrative that would appeal to a normal readerit is no easy matter to condense thousands of years of history and hundreds of campaigns into a narrative that would appeal to a normal reader.

My first attempt to write the first few chapters was — I admit it — not the best work I have ever done. I gave them to Bob to read, and he was very sweet about it but conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that he expected better from me. He told me I had to do a more skillful job of synthesizing the material and bringing out the big themes without getting bogged down in too many details.

At first I was crushed; no writer likes to hear his work criticized. My vanity was wounded; I thought I knew something about book writing, having produced three previous books. But none had been on such a monumental scale: even my previous book on the history of military technology over the past 500 years seemed small in scope by comparison with a book that would range from Alexander the Great's campaigns in Central Asia to George W. Bush's campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. On reflection, I decided Bob was absolutely right. I tossed out my first few chapters and started from scratch. What I then wrote flowed much better because of the nudge he had given me.

I did not interact much with Bob over the next few years as I put my head down and moved methodically through my narrative. Finally, at the end of 2011, I turned in a manuscript to him. That in and of itself was an unusual occurrence. Both of my previous two books were started by one editor and finished by another because the original editor had moved to a different publishing house in the years-long interim. In today's book industry, editors seem to have the half-life of fruit flies: they are constantly flitting from one company to another, either voluntarily or (increasingly these days) involuntarily.

Bob is different. He has been at Norton, a publisher owned by its employees, since 1998. He was there when I signed the book and he was there when I turned it in six years later. He is there still — he even has a whole new imprint to direct. (It's called Liveright and it's the revival of a storied name in publishing.)

I wasn't surprised that Bob was still in place; that was a big part of the reason why I had signed with Norton in the first place. But I was surprised when I received my lengthy manuscript back in just a few short weeks. Practically every page had penciled emendations in Bob's messy, sometimes hard-to-read writing. I was amazed that he had done such a thorough editing job in such a short time, but then I gather Bob works bankers' hours — investment bankers' hours. Meaning that he is always working.

Lines that he liked received a checkmark; others received suggestions for changes. He did not push for a massive rewrite, but as I began to respond to his suggestions, I came to appreciate how thoroughly he was improving the final product by pushing me to deepen a point here, to add some context here, and to tie everything together more tightly. I was struck, too, by the sheer depth of his knowledge about so many fields — no surprise, perhaps, given how many different authors he has edited over the years. He raised queries and offered suggestions for additions that, however small, made the reading experience richer and more rewarding.

I have been an editor myself (at the Wall Street Journal), and I have worked with a lot of editors over the years — some good, some bad. What I hate more than anything is stupid, needless editing — editing that messes up perfectly good sentences for no good reason. What I love more than anything is skilled editing that improves the author's work, and that is just what Bob had done.

I don't know exactly how Invisible Armies will be received, although the early notices have been encouraging (in a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it a "must read in today's world"). But I do know that the book has been immensely improved by Bob's brilliant editing. I wish all writers could have as good of an editor. Alas, there is only one Bob Weil.

÷ ÷ ÷

Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

Books mentioned in this post

Max Boot is the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present

2 Responses to "The Mark(s) of a Good Editor"

    Karen Martinac January 16th, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Thank you for writing this. I so often wonder while reading, "Where have all the editors gone?" It is heartening to know there is at least one left!

    Daniel Baxter January 17th, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Boot, for what I know is an exceedingly accurate portrait of this extremely gifted, incredibly dedicated editor. I have been a very close friend of Bob Weil for almost 19 years, and have been with him as he has shapped innumerable books, including yours. If the vast majority of his authors were to put aside their pride and be totally honest about Bob's contributions to their books, they would write similarly laudatory reviews of their remarkable, one-of-a-kind editor. That you can so honor him speaks to your own honesty and integrity. I wish you the very best on your latest and most important book. THANK YOU!

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