Track Changes: From Writer to Editor

Two sets of train tracks diverging.
Gerald Bernard/Shutterstock


Writers and editors don’t always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes those differences can make it feel like they simply don’t understand each other. But many editors come to their jobs after spending many years as writers, and they bring that experience with them when they take on their new roles. Last week, five writers-turned-editors participated in a roundtable discussion, via a series of group emails, to discuss what they’ve learned in making the switch. I opened the conversation and then let it evolve.

The editors participating in the discussion were:

Siri Carpenter, features editor, Discover and editor-in-chief, The Open Notebook

Eva Emerson, editor in chief, Science News

Eric Hand, U.S. news editor, Nature

Amy Maxmen, senior editor, Nautilus

Corinna Wu, associate editor, Chemical & Engineering News

Corinna: What was the most surprising thing you learned when you made the switch from writing to editing?

Amy: My duties immediately quadrupled as an editor. As a writer, I was used to nurturing a few stories at a time. Now I need to nurture about ten, in various stages. On top of that, there are pitches I’m developing alone, pitches I’m developing with writers, pitches we’re still considering, an intern to edit, contracts and invoices I need to send out and check on, a video I’m making with our video editor, and I always get a bit obsessive about the art for each story. As a writer, I used to feel a little peeved when I’d rush to turn in a draft and then not hear back from the editor for a few weeks. I’m not excusing that behavior, but let’s just say I’m now much more sympathetic.

Siri: The juggling act was a big shift for me. Just deciding what to work on, and when, was in itself a learning curve. One thing that has helped, trivial though it may seem, was buying a Planner Pad. It makes it easier to come up with a realistic picture of what I can accomplish in a given day and week, and to put my list of everything else out of sight.

Corinna: It’s funny you mention the Planner Pad, because I got one too. I thought I had developed a pretty good project management system when I was a freelancer, but it was inadequate for the extreme multitasking I do as an editor. This old-school, calendar-style notebook seems to do the trick.

Eva: As I write, I am “stealing” time from three very urgent, must-do things. But that’s what most days are like, I find, as an editor. The urgency can be overwhelming (turning us into reactionaries, as Siri pointed out). I try to find a few things that I must get done each day (the urgency) and schedule (in advance) meetings or opportunities to actually plan, think, figure an important issue out. Without those scheduled times, it’s easy for the week to wink by just on the urgent stuff.

Eric: The juggling is insane. Busy, busy, busy. Be nice to your editors, peoples! Here are three other things that took me by surprise after becoming an editor:

  1. How quickly I lost touch with my beat. When I covered physics and astronomy, I prided myself on knowing everything that was going on in that world. I had carefully constructed feed readers and Twitter feeds and email lists that I could scan daily. I could be prospective and anticipate stories and trends coming down the pike. Now, as an editor, I have to rely on my reporters as my feeds. There is no way I can keep track of everything. I have a broad sense of what’s happening in the wider world of science, but it’s somewhat superficial, and definitely reactive.
  2. How variable in quality copy was. Sure, I knew going in that some reporters were better than others. But I had no idea. Some copy comes in in beautiful shape. And some copy arrives as a train wreck.
  3. How many other editors I had to satisfy. At Nature, all print stories get top-edited and sub-edited, after my initial edit. It’s a lot of editing. Some people think that the editor/reporter relationship is adversarial–and a degree of that is healthy. But for me, after that initial edit, I become a sort of advocate. I have to fight to preserve space, stylistic choices, and so on.

Amy: I echo Eric’s sentiment about how editors work on each story with a network of people—it’s not just me and the writer, even though they may see it that way. This sometimes results in last-minute requests that are frustrating for me and the writer, but the upshot is that I can interact with the art department in a way that I couldn’t as a freelancer. As a writer, I was too far from the action to push for a collage, or a video, or an interactive graphic. Now I’ve got more power to do that, and boy, am I running with it.

I didn’t anticipate so much variation in the quality of experienced writers’ first drafts. Some are nearly perfect. Some are lovely to skim, but lack science and hard substance. Others are very well reported but dry to read. And many lack that big-picture outlook, which is admittedly a really hard thing to pull off.

Corinna: Related to your first point, Eric, I was surprised by the sudden shift in perspective I had as an editor. As a writer, I had always worked under the assumption that my editor knew just as much (or perhaps more) about my story as I did. (She’s the EDITOR, after all.) Now, I realize that the opposite is true. I haven’t done the interviews or the background research, and I haven’t done all the synthesizing and culling of ideas that the writer has. I approach almost every story I edit as a newbie—even stories I’ve assigned. It’s kind of humbling. It used to baffle me when an editor asked what I thought were naive or even bizarre questions about my draft—and now I’m the one doing it!

As a writer, I admit that I sometimes grumbled about clueless editors. But I’ve come to think that as an editor, I have to be clueless, to a certain extent. That’s the only way I can approach a story the way a potential reader might.

Siri: Corinna, you’re raising a great point about the difference in perspective one has as an editor. One thing I used to not really understand was why editors sometimes asked so many questions whose answers couldn’t possibly all fit into the story—when they asked the questions, I wondered if they intended to double the story’s length. (And I started fantasizing about my paycheck growing.) But as an editor, I quickly realized how often it’s the case that as I’m reading a story, I find myself perplexed or uncertain about the point being made, and in order to understand the story well enough to edit it, I need to ask questions. I’ve come to think of this as the editorial analog to over-reporting. And now that I recognize it in my own process, I try to give writers something of a heads-up, so they won’t wonder why the hell I’m asking all these questions whose answers can’t possibly all fit in the story. I do try to keep those questions somewhat in check—you could ask questions forever. But if there’s a way to edit a complex story without going through that process at least to some degree, I haven’t yet figured it out.

Corinna: I have a name for that phenomenon of needing to ask enough questions in order to edit the story: BQSC—big questions, small changes. This is my shorthand for something that used to drive me mad as writer. I’d see these very broad questions in the comments of a draft, and I’d spend a lot of time crafting answers. Then, inevitably, I’d get the draft back and see that the editor did not use the text I had written, so I felt like I had just wasted my time. Now I see that when I’m editing, sometimes I need to ask those broad questions just to suggest a small word change or slight alteration in the phrasing that would help clarify. And sometimes once I know the answers to those questions, I see that the writer made a good choice about leaving all that stuff out. BQSCs are much more efficiently answered over the phone, I think.

Corinna: What else have you learned about editing other people’s copy that you didn’t anticipate?

Eva: I think the biggest surprise the first time I edited a piece (I was filling in at Pacific Discovery magazine, probably in 1996 or so) was the difference between editing and rewriting. Some field biologist/nature writer had written a first-person tale of working with bears in the wild. There was tons of passive voice, strange expressions, tangential references. I did major edits, recasting sentence after sentence. Then I showed it to the top editor—Keith Howell, I think—telling him what awful shape it was in. He had such a disappointed look on his face, I knew I had done something wrong. I’d completely sanitized the piece, he said. The whole point was that this was the authentic voice, passive verbs and all, of this well-known bear guy. I had been so eager to do a good job (to DO something) that I missed the point of editing: to help the writer tell his or her story in their own voice. (And, really, I wasn’t making the story “better,” just making it sound a bit more like I had written it.) I hadn’t realized that editing was as much about restraint as it was about correction or reshaping.

What I enjoy most (when I get to actually edit something) is really pushing a writer to figure out a way to make the story work, so that we are both happy with the result.

Of course, on deadline, rewriting happens. But I always wish it didn’t have to.

Siri: Another thing that surprised me, as I started editing, was the degree of focus needed to edit a story well. This is something that Discover’s former executive editor Pam Weintraub drummed into me, and I believe it wholly. As I’ve learned the hard way, it’s entirely possible to read over a story that fundamentally doesn’t make any sense and to think, “Oh, that’s a good read.” Many first drafts are superficially fine—sentence by sentence, they’re a good read. My first read of stories is often on my phone in the early morning hours (maybe because most writers are scurrying into the wee hours to meet their deadlines?) and reading them that way, quickly as I scroll, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking they’ll be a breeze to edit. But they almost never are. Almost every story I’ve worked on has required hard thinking on my part, usually across several rounds of editing. It’s not because the writers are doing a bad job—I’ve been lucky to work with very talented writers. It’s because that’s the nature of creating technically complex stories.

Amy: Since I’m fresh in the editing game, I’ve been adjusting my style in hopes of getting more predictable copy. I exchange at least a few emails with the writer pre-commission to figure out what elements the story should have. And I like talking with writers a couple of weeks before the story is due. Partly, I hope I can guide the writer a bit so that the story I get is closer to the one I was blindly expecting. And also, I might actually miss the obsessiveness of writing and reporting. I like to listen to a writer dump a messy ton of information. It shows me how much they care, and that makes me more likely to be sympathetic instead of frustrated when the first draft needs work. To me, the only terrible thing to edit is a story written by someone who doesn’t care. Luckily, that hasn’t happened much.

I’m wondering how much work the other editors on this thread put into stories up front.

Corinna: Amy, I like your approach in working with the writers at the early stages in order to help guide the story. Even for the short news pieces we commission, it helps. I freelanced for nearly seven years, and I can only remember a couple of times when an editor reached out to me to discuss a story. (Most of my communication with editors was through comments in the margins of my draft.) As a result, I became very shy about asking editors for help, even when I really needed it. I had this irrational notion that I had to figure everything out on my own, or else I wasn’t doing my job as a writer. It doesn’t make sense now that I see what the quality of the result can be.

As busy as my days get, I always appreciate getting an email or a call from a writer who wants to discuss which angle her story should take. That conversation is probably going to happen at some point, so it’s way better to have it with the writer before she starts writing the story than after. It saves everybody a lot of work. Now when I’m editing a draft, I call the writer as a matter of course, even if I just have minor questions, so I can get that mind dump. I find that it helps when the story moves on to another editor, because then I can answer many of those editor’s questions, and we don’t have to bug the writer about those things. I’m hoping that by my reaching out first, the writers will understand that they can always pick up the phone and talk if they need to. (Of course, maybe the writers just cringe when they see my name come up on caller ID. I hope not!)

Corinna: What do you wish you could have understood about editing (or editors) when you were a writer? How would that understanding have changed the way you approached writing and being edited?

Siri: I too wish I had understood the degree to which collaboration is welcomed, throughout the whole process (and not just when the story is mostly written, as Amy points out). I often felt as though calling my editor to work out a tricky issue would be perceived as (or actually was) some sign of intellectual failure, or would make my editor worry that I didn’t have the chops to execute the story. I rarely took advantage of the fact that there was someone I could simply phone who was as invested in my story as I was but who was not mired in the details of reporting, as I was. In retrospect, I could have made a lot of my work easier and had a lot fewer sleepless nights if I had just gotten in touch with my editors to work out quandaries now and then.

Amy: As a writer, I didn’t really understand how editors feel when they read pitches. This is the risky part of the job—you’re making a bet that a writer and their story will pan out, based on a couple of paragraphs.

I read all day long, so it really helps when people put a sort of dek on their pitches. Just a few lines at the top of the pitch that tell me what the story is about, and the most dramatic/provocative/important point the story will make.

I like longish pitches, but it helps to know what the pitch is about right away—and I don’t mean a quick title. Also, if I like it, I want to talk about it with my colleagues who are similarly busy. I need to sum the pitch up for them fast, so the dek comes in handy at meetings.

Also in the “pitch dek”: a statement that hints at why this story will resonate with readers, if it’s not automatically apparent.

As a writer I sometimes got entranced by how cool or interesting I thought a story was, and I didn’t step back and ask why readers who don’t care about this topic should care about my story. Sometimes I didn’t ask what the end game was, or see the big picture. These are abstract ideas that seem cheesy, but they matter. As an editor at Nautilus, I need to know that the story can have this element.

When I get first drafts, they’re often missing the deep-thought parts. So if I were to return to writing, I’d be more careful to include this on top of the hard reporting. Both in the pitch and the story.

Eric: Amy talks about having a “pitch dek”—summarizing, in a sentence or two, why anyone should care about their story pitch. Here’s a corollary: Dear writers, when filing your stories, please also include a headline and a standfirst. When I was a writer, I was always guilty of leaving these off my copy. I usually felt spent, and I knew that someone would change the headline down the road anyway. But it helps me so much—it tells me what you, the writer, imagines the main point to be, and also how strongly you can make that point.

Here’s another piece of advice on pitching: Show me how the new result or idea stands in context to the state of knowledge before, and show me you’ve done your homework on this by including links to past coverage, in both my publication, and others. Many places, including Nature, have free and open archives—do your homework!

And one final entreaty, for both editors and writers: Please include a phone number or signature at the end of every email you send. Yes, of course I have your phone number in an old email from you, somewhere. But make it easy for me, please. We are journalists: We want people to call us.


Corinna Wu
Corinna Wu

Corinna Wu is an online news editor for Chemical & Engineering News. She was previously a freelance science writer and has worked on the staffs of U.S. News & World Report, Science News, and the radio show Science Update. Follow her on Twitter @ckwu.

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