Recently, I read about Amy Tan's search for an editor in the Wall Street Journal to help manage her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. Tan is a best-selling author whose most famous books is The Joy Luck Club. After a courting phase, she chose Daniel Halpern, editor and president and publisher of Ecco, an "imprint" (branch) of HarperCollins.
One of the first things Mr. Halpern did when he received the full draft of "The Valley of Amazement" was make a timeline of the entire novel, with notes on each individual character. He also made comments on the story and chapter-by-chapter notes.
He suggested altering the opening, so that the story began with the characters in the courtesan house in the early 1900s, instead of later in the plot. He worked with Ms. Tan on developing the narrator, Violet, who seemed "thin" to him in the beginning. "I remember saying to her, 'You've got to add flesh onto this woman,' " he said, "I mean, who is she really?"
Although Mr. Helpern is a book editor, what he does applies to a what a great editor does for any genre of writing. Rewriting intros, strengthening characters or aspects of a story, and cutting out extraneous detail are the job of an editor and can transform a rough draft into a highly readable (and hopefully memorable) final product.