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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