Are You an Editor or a Writer? Part II: The Editors


Writers and editors work together all the time, but the two clans are somewhat mysterious to one another. Mutually suspicious, even. How do you know which career path you should specialize in? And how do editors become editors, anyway? Ann Finkbeiner and Laura Helmuth asked several journalists to describe the differences between writers and editors.  In an earlier post, writers explained what it is they do. Today, the editors weigh in.

Scientific American online news editor Robin Lloyd:

I didn’t choose editing over writing so much as it chose me (same goes for journalism and science writing). As a reporter, a few of my superiors mentioned over the years that they saw me on an editing track, so I just kept saying “yes” when I got offers to do fill-in editing. Then I got an offer to be a writer/editor, and I said yes. Then I got an offer to be an editor, and I said yes. And so on. Over time, I have gained confidence in my ability as a short-form editor, though I still have much to learn, especially with long-form editing. I have an ear for prose that “sounds right.” I find that not everyone has that. One of my editors once told me I have good syntax. So I looked up “syntax” and thought, “Yeah, I do have good syntax.” I also did well in grammar class in 10th grade.

More seriously, my motivation as an editor is clear, compelling communication for the reader. Delivering that is my first job. Readers are looking at every word for an excuse to bail out—to stop reading a story. My job is to prevent that and to keep them reading this story by focusing on clarity, pacing, logic, arc, and sparkling prose (rewards). Also, I enjoy teaching and helping people.

I like reporting and writing on deadline, and I did it quite a bit for more than a decade, but I find editing on deadline a bit more relaxing and rewarding. It’s about the right size for my ego and skill set for now. Based on my experience, of course, I think that one becomes a better editor after a good chunk of foundational years as a writer.

I’ve seen many edits by many people who are paid as editors. A handful of them are great editors. I quietly learn from them.

Independent writer and editor Deborah Franklin:

Not every writer can edit, nor every editor write, but it sure does improve both sets of skills if you find yourself fortunate enough to spend at least a little time wearing each hat. I started out as a writer (for magazines and newspapers) and never sought to be an editor (for magazines and radio)—in fact fought it for many years—but the time I’ve spent editing has definitely improved my writing and my life!

An editor:

  • Is good at puzzles, at seeing the flecks of green in several scattered puzzle pieces and understanding that they fit together to form the green hillside at the top of the story/painting, not the puddle of green algae at the bottom. Is thoughtful and analytical; good at spotting holes in arguments and seeing through well-written hand-waving. A voracious reader.
  • Is more of a team player than a loner. Sociable. Likes dealing with different types of people (e.g. the infographics expert and the physics writer and the psych reporter).
  • Is verbally articulate on the phone as well as in person. Can write a good, conversational email that makes the writer feel understood, appreciated, liked, and motivated to make the story better.
  • Is part therapist; knows how to talk friends (or writers) through tough spots, and doesn’t hold their insecurity against them.
  • Has good parenting skills. Knows to first point out some specific things you like about the writing and the story before being negative about things that don’t work. Not a pushover; knows the value of discipline, and knows how to deploy it.
  • Knows that only one part of the job is working with the writer. Doesn’t mind being interrupted; is organized, can multi-task gracefully, and is able to quickly switch gears during a tough day.
  • Finds meetings tolerable, maybe even fun.
  • Can manage up as well as down in an organization. Understands how to represent the reader in fiercely defending the story, whether to the writer, the top-editor, the fact-checker, the copy-editor, the art director, the photographer, the illustrator, the social media czar, the publisher, or the advertising director. Is honest and kind and empathetic. Not a stick-your-finger-in-the-air-to-see-which-way-the-wind’s blowing kind of manager who just tells people what they want to hear. Rather, a calmly firm and compassionate listener/leader who has a strong enough ego to make and defend a good argument, but not an ego so big that it sucks all the air out of the room.
  • Prefers/needs to work hours that are more easily contained. Editors often work long hours, too, but it is easier to walk away from the job at the end of the day as an editor than as a writer.
  • Does not mind that the writer often gets the credit for a collaborative effort. Is able to take a parent’s pride in a successful, beautiful, groundbreaking piece.

Slate science and health editor Laura Helmuth:

My editing muse is Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones. For 50 years, he’s been the least famous or recognizable member of the band. In videos, you glimpse him only briefly as the camera pans across the stage to focus on Mick Jagger as he struts or Keith Richards as he snarls. Charlie sits behind his drums with a slight smile, nodding his head as he watches the real rock stars entertain the crowd. Charlie doesn’t wear spandex or eyeliner or weave beads into his hair, which is gray. He never had a drug problem or stole his bandmates’ girlfriends. He is easily the most boring musician of his generation—steady, calm, and resolutely not in the spotlight.

Editing requires most of the same skills writing does, but it also demands, if you’re going to be a good editor, a huge dose of humility. You will never and should never get the credit for a great story. Editors who seek recognition for their work are mostly bad editors—the Phil Collinses of the editing world, people who may be fine as solo artists but should really never work collaboratively. Other editors think they can write better than anyone else—and maybe they can, but then why are they working as editors? Those are the Keith Moons of the editing world. They will drown out their writers’ words and then vomit all over the stage.

An editor’s job is to make writers sound better, sound more like themselves. You cannot be proud and be an effective editor. The best writers don’t need much from you, and the worst ones may not appreciate how much you’ve helped them. If you edit well, your work will be invisible to a reader and as unnoticeable as possible to the writer. If you suggest a metaphor or joke or perfect transition that your writer uses, you should be satisfied even though no one will ever know it was yours (even writers forget where things came from, as they should, those clever magpies).

You cannot be jealous. If you are sitting in an office all day and you send someone to India to write a story about tigers and he emails one morning to say that he finally saw a tiger, an email full of exclamation points, you must be genuinely and purely delighted for him, to the point that you have a stupid smile on your face for the rest of the day. Imagine this: You have a great idea for a story and suggest it to a writer who then writes a terrific story, better than what you could have written. If you can imagine this being the most satisfying part of your job, you should be an editor.

Editing is like match-making. Perhaps the most important part of your job is knowing your audience. What writers would your readers fall in love with? Which stories should they sit next to at a dinner party? What fields of science would surprise and amuse them? You have to think about what your readers know they want and satisfy those desires, but you also have to keep introducing them to unexpected treats. And you’re constantly trying to attract new readers.

You have to think long-term. Every story you edit should be a pleasure to read, but the mix of stories you publish in a given day or month or year should build its own form of pleasure. You have to follow a lot of fields at a shallow level and know when they’re ripe for coverage, which may be years from now. You have to say no to a pitch in a way that makes writers want to keep pitching you when they find that perfect story in the future. You speak to journalism classes in the hope that one of the students will come to you someday with a scoop.

Editing isn’t as creative as writing, and it lacks the thrill of pursuit of reporting; it’s more business than art sometimes. You have to think about budgets and how your publication is funded and who the competition is (and how to smash them). You have to be conversant in marketing-ese and sit in on a lot of meetings. You’re basically a project manager, working with the art department, copy desk, publication staff, and technical development department on individual stories and long-term strategies.

There are actually a lot of good reasons not to be an editor, now that I think about it. But the best thing about being an editor is getting to work with writers. When they’re performing, you have the best seat in the house.


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  7. From what I understand most editors started as writers and worked their way up. Is their a way to abbreviate the transition? I think I would fall in the ‘editor’ category, but is there any way to make the jump without years of writing first?

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  9. I am a writer and an independent editor; when I write, I create, and when I edit, I shape. I enjoy both, but the editing is mainly to provide income, while the writing is my calling.  Editing for the past ten years has given me even more insight into the craft of writing. And in its own quiet way, editing contains its own kind of magic.

    It’s like this:  An artist has presented me with a statue made of clay, but it’s not yet ready for public viewing. The artist is at a loss; they have spent too many hours with their sculpture, and being too close to the art, they are unsure how to fix the flaws they can see. They rework an area, only to have it look lumpier than before. 

    So this is where I come in, and it is a bit exciting, as I focus intensely on the object, work my way around it, seeing through the imperfections to the art that is just below the surface, if…. if the writer can just add a little more clay here, say, to the torso — yes, that’s it… and then I can shape the sharp edges, smoothing them just so, blending them into the small of the back, removing the excess clay from the legs, giving the cheekbones a bit more definition, widening the space between the eyes, cleaning up the flecks of dust that have settled around the whole, and then — is everything in proportion? Yes, it is, and I present the polished piece at last to the creator, who can see the soul of their original art in the finished creation.  And that, for me, is satisfaction.

    So there is definitely a satisfaction and pride in editing, and in helping another realize their vision.  But writing?

    Writing, for me, is like being a rider who hears that gunshot to start the races, but when the gun is fired, that horse of my imagination breaks free into an enormous field. It may get absorbed in the foliage that borders the far reaches, and perhaps lost, but it will always find the way back home. 

    Writing is utter freedom… the freedom to play with rhythm, to bend the rules, to speak bluntly and directly, to paint with words, to bleed unbandaged. To find the irony in the everyday. To explore. To unearth artifacts. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said, “I write to reveal what I already know.”

    The difference between editing and writing, for me, then, is the difference between examining something intensely in order to refine it, and being creatively unrestrained. As an editor, I help others reveal the extraordinary in their art, but the soul of the piece, it doesn’t belong to me; as a writer, I own it all; the story I’ve created is a part of me, and as such, it is unequivocally mine.

  10. Mike, I hear you, I feel you, I’m your sister.

    The terrible thing for a writer, who has to hold the ability to do justice to the story as a matter of faith, the terrible thing is when an editor (e.g., Laura Helmuth) writes something so good you wish you’d written it yourself. Then where are you, writer? Where?

  11. Reading this reminds me how much I love writing, and how much I love editors who do a great job doing something I dislike. You never realize how much you love good editors until you run across bad ones.

  12. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I’m an editor first and foremost, and my pet peeve is someone mistaking me for a frustrated writer.

    This is my favorite quote about editing. It’s from Thomas Kunkel’s bio of the New Yorker’s Harold Ross:
    “In the narrowest sense, editors lay twitchy hands on someone else’s work, fixing it, patching it, polishing it, and generally trying to keep it upright. In the broadest sense, however, they set the agenda, standards, and tone for a publication. They hire and fire; they pick stories, and the writers to go with them. They must have enough ego to confidently steer talented people, but the will to subordinate it. They must assuage prima donnas, compel laggards, and sober up drunks. Equal parts shaman and showman, they must have an unwavering vision for their publication, convey it to a staff, and then sell it to the great yawning public. For these reasons and many others, editing a magazine is not a job suited to the faint or uncertain, and it is enormously difficult to do well.”

    • Anita, thanks very much for the Kunkel/Ross quote. It’s terrific. Makes me a bit nostalgic for a time I missed, though–so far I’ve never had to sober up a drunk writer. (Although I may have driven some to drink.)

  13. I very much enjoyed this two-part series! Laura Helmuth–Regarding your muse, Charlie Watts, have you seen the newly restored documentary, “Charlie is My Darling”? The filmmaker followed the Stones during a 3-day tour of Ireland in 1965. The band’s energy and intensity is amazing, and Charlie Watts’ persona comes across as very attractive, and likeable.

  14. Elizabeth Moon says:

    I’ve had some terrific editors…and they helped me make the work better…but I’m firmly on the writer end of the spectrum. They have to work with what comes to them (the writers and the projects both) and I get to make up my own projects. They have to deal with a variety of writer-egos; I have to cope with only one. They also have to deal with Corporate Stuff…and they shield me from having to deal with Corporate Stuff. I have learned a lot about editing from them–which I can apply (to some degree) when working on a project–but I’m not good at helping someone else develop their own vision.

    I’ve actually done a little editing–most notably an attempt to edit a fundraiser cookbook for the library in this small town. Nobody warned me the ladies would hand in recipes in longhand with nonstandard spelling and abbreviations on any scrap of paper that happened to be handy. I had to do the layout, too. You might think it’s impossible for even a novice to get the first and last pages reversed. You’d be wrong. That and my few other forays into editing convinced me that I’m better as a content creator.

  15. Mike Lemonick says:

    I’ve done both, and I sincerely hate editing. The part where you see the underlying structure in a well reported but inartfully put-together story is great. The rest–making the moving parts of story, photos, graphics, design work together (and tying up loose ends as they keep coming untied); dealing with the demands of the editor one step above you while also dealing with the ego of the writer; making sure people all do their jobs in a good and timely fashion so you can do yours; thinking ahead several issues even as you’re scrambling to put together the one that’s suddenly, and for the third time in a week, falling apart. You can have it!