Only my name appears above this story, but it bears the imprint of an editor’s invisible hand as well, and is the better for it. Every writer, no matter how seasoned or esteemed, needs an editor—someone to look at his or her work with fresh eyes and clean up the muddy parts, pull the weeds, stabilize any rocky ground, and prune the trees. In extreme cases, an editor may even rearrange the landscape.
Yet despite the importance of good editors, those who want to become one often have to rely on trial and error, or, if they’re lucky, a mentor to help them learn the craft. While many journalism schools do offer an editing track, most editors (myself included) come to editing by way of writing. Typically, a writer takes on editing after several years as a staff writer or a freelancer, inspired by an urge to try something new, by the prospect of a better—or at least steadier—paycheck, or by ambition to ascend the masthead.
But once you have the job, how do you master it? How do you draw the best out of the writers you work with? How do you figure out what’s broken in stories, and how do you suggest fixes with the right mix of tact and directness? In short, what do editors need to know to do the job well?
Find the Right Writer
Ending up with a great story that both writer and editor are happy with starts at the assigning stage, says Jamie Shreeve, executive editor for science at National Geographic. First, be sure the writer and the story are well matched. “I think it’s just so crucial,” he says, adding that National Geographic generates many story ideas in-house and often faces this challenge of ensuring the right fit. Someone with expertise in wildlife biology who writes in an irreverent voice probably isn’t the best choice for, say, a story about the Nepal earthquake. “You can have a great writer, and if you give them the wrong story, they may not be as good at it as someone who may seem like a long shot,” Shreeve says. “You’ll save yourself half your work life or more if you know how to recruit and assign the story.”
Character is another thing to look for when assigning, says Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate and the former science editor at Smithsonian. “You’re only as good as your writers,” she says. “You need to identify people who are plagiarists, or are going to be jerks to sources.” Such lack of professionalism is not always easy to discern from an email or phone call, but a quick Google search can help avoid tangling with a Jayson Blair type.
Build a Solid Plan
Once the match is made, the next step should be to talk through the angle and approach for the piece. “You may find out that while talking, a third thing comes up that neither of you thought about. It’s much better to make sure you’ve had that conversation,” says Shreeve. Afterward, send an email summing up what you’ve agreed upon.
Clearly defining the scope is key at this early stage, says Helmuth, especially for features that involve expensive field reporting. Have a conversation to establish a story’s scope at the start, but also stay in touch and be prepared to change course if necessary, she suggests. “A feature can take wild turns [during reporting], so it’s important to let the writer know if the story changes, it’s OK to tell you about it. It’s important that the writer does what they agreed to do, but that they also know you’re flexible.”
Roll up Your Sleeves
When the first draft comes in, prepare to spend a good amount of time getting acquainted with it and figuring out what it needs, Shreeve advises. Reading first drafts can sometimes feel like trying to diagnose a mysterious illness. “Sometimes I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the story, and it just causes me a lot of stress,” he says. “If I don’t get a sense of what’s wrong right away, I feel inadequate to the task of fixing it. It’s just a matter of patience. It may take three reads before you begin to feel the organic nature of the story.”
As you flag problem spots, make sure you’re clear about how to address them, Helmuth emphasizes. First point out what’s wrong with the existing language—a metaphor that doesn’t convey the right meaning, or an obtuse reference, for instance—then suggest a possible fix, or a few options. “The editor should make it clear to the writer that these suggestions might not be the best possible solution, and that the writer should feel free to suggest an alternative that fixes the original problem,” she says. “We really want them to make it better themselves.”
Avoid saying things like, “I’m bored here,” or “I don’t care about this,” or “This doesn’t make sense,” Helmuth cautions. “These are good things for the editor to notice while reading the piece, but they’re basically useless to the writer. Unclear edits are often caused by editors being lazy or inconsiderate of the writer, or both.”
As you work through an edit, take a break when your stamina begins to wane, Shreeve says. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming less vigilant in identifying problems. “It’s exhausting doing an edit,” he says. “As you get further on in a manuscript, you tend to let things go.”
Be a Partner
It can be tempting for editors to wield their power too liberally. Keep in mind whose name is on the story, and approach the editing process as a collaboration, says Sandra Upson, executive editor of Backchannel, an online technology magazine owned by Medium. “You should both be happy with the outcome,” she says. “It’s not a power struggle.” (See “Are Edits Suggestions or Demands?”)
And be careful not to impose your own voice on a piece. “Counter that impulse to make it sound like you,” says Shreeve, acknowledging that he struggles with that urge himself. “An editor who has been an editor all along may not even have that issue, but I was a writer for many, many years.”
Shreeve says he doesn’t have any particular tricks for quelling the impulse to replace writers’ voices with his own, but the difficulty of catching this mistake underscores the importance of letting the writer take a crack at revising trouble spots before stepping in yourself. He adds that when he does intervene, it’s often to make the phrasing or level of discourse more closely align with that of the magazine.
When you’ve got a finished edit, it’s a good idea to include a note at the top that gives the writer a general sense of what’s working well in the piece and what needs reworking. That might include noting confusing passages (typically those attempting to explain complex scientific concepts), holes in the overall logic of the piece, or structural problems. In stories with significant organizational issues, it’s helpful to lay out a brief outline for the new structure you’re suggesting.
This introductory note accomplishes a few key things. It provides a chance to draw up an overarching set of goals that can help guide the writer while tackling the in-text edits. Just as importantly, it reassures the writer that the story she or he has spent many hours, days, weeks, or months toiling over is up to snuff, or will be with some revising. As Shreeve notes, all people, even big-name writers, need positive feedback. Lauding something specific—an evocative, compelling lede, deep reporting, or if nothing else, even just a nice turn of phrase—is preferable to flat praise. Things like “Good effort” or “This is off to a good start” probably will not go over well. That kind of tepid feedback can leave the writer feeling deflated and less than excited about honing the piece. The edit note should have the opposite effect: It should set a positive, collaborative tone for the editing process, which can involve multiple rounds and extend over several days, weeks, or even months.
A phone call can help set the right tenor too. Both Shreeve and Upson say they typically talk through the first draft with the writer. “That makes it feel like more of a team brainstorming thing,” Upson says. Again, she adds, be sure to give the writer positive feedback. Even if the story has major problems, keep the focus on how to make it better. You want to be clear about what the challenges are, but communicate them in an encouraging way.
Some editors pick up the phone before they send their written edits; others prefer to talk afterward, to address any questions the writer may have before digging into the revisions.
Watch the Tables Turn
When editor and writer have emerged from the editing process with a piece both are happy with, it then usually goes to a top editor for a fresh perspective. Ideally, Helmuth notes, the top editor polishes any sentences that are still convoluted or unclear and ensures there’s enough context for everything to be understood, even if the reader knows little or nothing about the subject.
“They basically approach the piece with a fresh eye and with the intention of making the language even brighter and clearer, without imposing their own style on the story,” Helmuth says.
What top editors should not do, she adds, is rewrite the story, especially at the last minute. “This is unbelievably frustrating for both the writer and primary editor,” she says. If you find yourself working with an overzealous top editor, she advises, “Run the story by the top editor as early as possible in the process, to get him or her to buy into the storyline and lede and hopefully keep his or her filthy mitts off of it in page proofs.”
Generally speaking, though, at the top editing stage, when you’re the one receiving feedback on the piece, rather than giving it, try to keep an open mind, Upson says. “You can forget that you too need editing as an editor,” she says. “Embrace that opportunity when it comes along.”
April Reese is an associate editor at Discover magazine. During her 15-year career, she has written about science, environmental policy, politics, and music for numerous publications, including Greenwire, Land Letter, High Country News, Atlantic.com, Smithsonian.com, and Trend magazine. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter @areesesantafe.