In the current publishing environment, one thing remains the same as in years past: Nearly all writers with a publishing contract have an editor. However, not all editors and not all publishers are made the same. Often, whether due to intent or time or budget (often all of the above), all that an editor can do is fix errors, make some suggestions, and generally guide the manuscript through the pipeline.
For those writers and editors who are lucky enough to be given the time and support to really work on a book together, though, the results can be revelatory. Take this essay by Thomas Ricks, in which he describes in some detail the lengthy, painful, and ultimately rewarding journey he went on with the editor on his (incredible) book Churchill and Orwell:
I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. ‘Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,’ he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, ‘Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.’
Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: ‘The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.’
Negative feedback, especially from a trusted editor and/or friend, can be crushing.
But it can also save your book.