Are You a Writer or an Editor? Part I: The Writers

Close-up of the keys of a vintage typewriter.
Bogomil Mihaylov/Unsplash


Are you an editor or a writer? How do you know? What are the crucial differences between the two specializations? The question arose when Slate science and health editor Laura Helmuth was visiting a class that Ann Finkbeiner teaches at the graduate program in science writing at Johns Hopkins University. Ann, hoping to help her students figure out whether they were natively editors or natively writers, asked Laura about the difference between writers and editors.

Laura punted.

Ann didn’t know, either.

After the class was over, Ann and Laura gave the question some more thought and then enlisted other writers and editors to help them answer it. We’ll run their answers in two separate posts today and tomorrow. Today, the writers.

Freelance writer Ann Finkbeiner:

I’m almost purely a writer. When I first started writing, my superb editors—people like Warren Kornberg and Tim Appenzeller—astounded me because they could say things like, “take the last sentence of every paragraph and make it the first sentence,” or because they could see the structure of a story that in my head was just a bunch of buzzing flies. “Wow,” I thought, “such seriously smart people.”

I still think they’re seriously smart, but I also think that’s what editors do: They stand back and analyze. I was busy trying to understand the science in the first place, then get it right, then write it so that readers could see how beautiful it was, then rewrite it 6,000 times for clarity, accuracy, concision, and elegance. An editor looks at the thing as a whole, analyzes its structure, and moves the boxes and connectors around until the story is logical, seemly, and stable.

So then what do writers do? They walk around with their recorders permanently set to “on,” listening for scientists using words oddly, for scientists saying they’ve just heard the strangest things, for scientists talking excitedly to other scientists about something the writer has never heard of and doesn’t understand anyway. They ask around and search the Internet to see whether this odd, strange, exciting thing might be a story, whether it makes that “click” that stories make. They go through the odds-against struggle of convincing an editor to feel the same click. If they don’t succeed, they try another editor. If they do succeed, they begin the joyous process of talking to scientists and understanding 100 times more about this story than they need to know. And then they try to structure it and almost can; and then they start to write it and they absolutely cannot, but they do it anyway.

My best example of the difference between writers and editors is when a writer-friend and I were having identical problems with our editors. We just had some neato little anecdotes (skinny physicist crawls around on Mexican border at midnight) and neato sentences (“Rumor had it she was a whore from Pahrump”) and neato people with neato quotes (“Pardon the expression, but I point the fucking telescope at the sky and see what’s out there”). And the editors were insisting on meaningful context (Why were they trying to ban atmospheric tests?) and big thoughts and implications (Does the nation need science advisors?) and beginnings, middles, and ends.

We all won, of course. Without the Mexican border and whore from Pahrump, the story has no flavor or color or sound, and the reader no point of personal contact. Without the context, implications, and structure, no one would even know it was a story.

Independent writer and editor Deborah Franklin:

Probably everyone skews at least a little bit more one direction than the other. I consider myself a writer who also edits.

A writer:

• Paints with words. Walks through life making connections between disparate things, noticing splashes of color, snatches of conversation. Remembers what was said and what people look like. Has a vision. Sees a blank page as fun, as permission, as a place to let go and just try things. Is willing to imagine. Not afraid of working alone, struggling alone with a problem for long stretches at a time. In fact, enjoys it.

• Loves language and writes things that people love to read.

• Would rather watch a movie than act in one. At a party, would rather sit on the stairs and watch and listen to people than be the one in the middle of the room holding forth.

• Is curious. Asks good questions. Is not afraid to ask obvious or embarrassing questions. Is a good listener, and a quick study who thinks well on his/her feet. Has enough spidey-sense to recognize a good quote or idea or scene and knows to record them in some way. Is a voracious reader.

• Has internalized the ethics of journalism: Accuracy, fairness, no plagiarism. When it’s you and the source in an interview, you’re on your own; if you haven’t internalized those rules you will someday fail in a big way.

• Doesn’t mind long, unpredictable work hours. Knows how to make deadlines and will stick with a task until it’s done, until the story has a beginning and a middle and an end. When you’re an editor, you can stop and walk away when the time runs out. When you’re a writer, the task’s not over until you have a complete story on the page. Must be able to live with, and maybe even thrive under pressure and insecurity.

• Can live on a shoestring, at least at first, and/or periodically throughout your career. These days, staff writing/reporting jobs are few and far between. Freelance writers who make a substantial income have an excellent combination of talent, luck, experience, flexibility, and the ability to identify side jobs to make it work. It’s very hard these days to raise a family on one writer’s income.

Slate columnist and former science editor Daniel Engber:

I don’t think this is a binary variable, that you’re either a writer or an editor. It’s a spectrum, perhaps like being gay or straight, and (for those who care to do so) there’s room to maneuver in between the ironclad identities. I would probably call myself a writer who edits, or a writer who can edit, or a writer who has edited. Likewise, there are lots of amazing editors who write, or editors who can write, or editors who have written. And there are lots of jobs that are well-suited to intermediate types, or types who scoot around the spectrum from one year to the next. (Slate happens to be an excellent place for people who hover near the middle.)

So how do you know which activity you prefer? You have to try out both and see how they each inspire and annoy you. If you need a hint, there are some broad personality traits that might align with your placement on the spectrum. Editing jobs are both collaborative and hierarchical, and so invite a certain adherence to a higher goal and respect for external authority. Writing jobs tend to be more conducive to an individualistic mindset, and one that bristles at group directives.

New Scientist correspondent Bob Holmes:

Like many people who’ve been around for a while, I’ve spent time at both ends of the editorial hatchet. In the end, though, I’m a writer at heart. When I analyze why, I come up with three main reasons:

1) I prefer depth over breadth. (If I really meant that, of course, I’d still be doing science instead of writing about it. But given that all journalists are dilettantes, I prefer deeper rather than broader dilettantism.) I’m always impressed by how much editors know about so many different subjects, because they range widely over the stories written by many different writers. When I was a features editor for New Scientist a decade ago, I liked that sense of seeing the whole landscape. But the downside is that when you do this you rarely get to explore the finer topography of any particular topic.

Now that I’m a writer again, I particularly enjoy the feeling of knowing that I’ve spoken with every important source on a story and have all the information I need to understand the subject. (I don’t get to that point with every story, of course, but it happens often enough to keep me going.) That’s a satisfaction that editors rarely get—instead, they generally have to trust their writers on the legwork.

2) I prefer doing over helping. Editing has its own highs, such as the joy of sitting down in the morning with 4,000 words of meandering, flabby prose and getting up at the end of the day with a tight 2,400-word story without having cut anything of substance. But even then, the writer gets credit for scoring the goal; the editor only gets an assist.

I’d rather be the main mover on fewer stories each year instead of a helper on many. Looking back over the years, my most memorable stories are all ones that I’ve written, not ones I edited.

3) I prefer a freelance lifestyle over a steady job. Of course, writers can have steady jobs too, and editors can freelance. But for the most part, editing work seems more constant, more institutional. Every week has its quota of words to be tuned up and stories to be commissioned. Usually, editors work in an office, with colleagues, schedules, regular paychecks, and a clear career ladder to climb. That has many advantages, and for many people it’s exactly what they want.

But I’m happier with the greater flexibility of a writer’s life. When a deadline is looming, I work harder and longer than I ever did as an editor. On the other hand, I can also walk my dog in the middle of the day or knock off early to go skiing. I can make bread or start a pot of soup during breaks between interviews. And I’m here when my son gets home from school. All this unpredictability would no doubt drive some people nuts—but for me, it’s one of the big attractions of the job.


[Editors’ note: Up next—The Editors

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