You Don’t Know What an Editor Does

What an Editor DoesI’ve noticed that most people don’t know what an editor does. They almost always think that an editor is a copy editor. That means that they think what editors do is work their way through a writer’s text and replace “than” with “then” when the need occurs. And this is an important job that is done less and less. Who has time for copy editing when you have to get an article out on the results of National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius within five minutes of its release? It’s a now, now, now world — and I’m just trailing behind it.

I’ve known a couple of great copy editors in my life. They are amazing. Copy editing is like playing music: you can study and get good at it. But some people just have the mind for it. I was not born with this gift. But I’m an okay copy editor because I’ve developed a few tricks. But I never do any copy editing here. It’s hard enough to get myself to do a quick read through of an article after I’ve taken the time to write it. If I happen to read an article I wrote a long time ago, I always find errors. And roughly half the time I can’t even be bothered to fix them then.

Editor Ecosystem

It’s not surprising that people think editors are all copy editors: it’s so concrete. What’s more, “editor” is not actually a job title. The editing process is so vast that calling yourself one is like calling yourself a scientist. Sure, if you were a theoretical atmospheric physicist, you might tell the prols you were a scientists just to avoid getting a bunch of questions. But you would think of yourself as an atmospheric physicist because your job doesn’t involve a white lab coat or the use of a pipette.

At big publishers — book, magazine, website — you will have layers of editors. You have editors who screen material and send it on to other editors. You have development editors who work with known writers to come up with in-house projects. And you have content editors, who actively work with the writer throughout the project. But these are only used when publishers think they have something big — generally when they have a famous non-writer creating something. I don’t live in that world and I never have.

Now, of course, the title “editor” has lost much of its meaning. Brian Beutler is Senior Editor at New Republic. I would be shocked to learn that he sits in on editorial meetings and works with writers. Beutler is one of the most senior writers at New Republic. He is also pretty much their best. But I guess at a lot of places, an editor is a step up from a writer. So if a writer becomes too dear, they become an editor, even if they are doing the same thing they were doing before.

The Ginsu Knife Editor

The name for what I do is “line editor.” It sounds like an intense copy editor. But it is actually a jack-of-all-trades editor. It is the editor that small companies have because they don’t have enough work to split the job up. So here are the main things that I do, more or less in the order of importance:

  • Mother: I make sure the writers are happy. I try to get them to do more work. And I advocate for them. I also tell them (in the nicest way possible) about various hard truths of life. This is easy for me, because I’m older than everyone else and I genuinely like my writers.
  • Develop: I get a constant stream of requests for articles that will fill some need. It’s often quite a lot of work to figure out what that article should be and how to communicate it to the writers. This last part is key. I don’t want writers wasting their time (And mine!) writing about the wrong thing.
  • Edit: this is mostly copy editing. But it involves a fair amount of content editing. It also involves fact-checking.
  • Publish: there are a lot of different parts of this. It ranges from typesetting to finding graphics to pushing things live. Interestingly, it’s both tedious and terrifying work. It’s also great, because it is the end of a project — in some cases, one that took over a year to complete.
  • Write: when I don’t have a writer for a particular task, I have to write it myself.

Editor as Generic Middle Manager

There’s no doubt that I do much more than that. At the end of any day, I’m not usually sure what I got done. I feel like I’ve spent the whole day playing Fruit Ninja (which I only know about because of work).

There are many kinds of editor. But being a line editor (“lone editor” would be a better term) is very much like being a middle manager at any other company. There are people, they do work, you try to keep it all flowing while maintaining an acceptable level of quality. Oh: and you try to remain calm.

8 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What an Editor Does

  1. God that ad takes me back. “Versatile 6-in-one kitchen tool,” meaning Vegetable Peeler.

    You’re a good editor, I think. But I haven’t worked with many. Mostly college professors and a few blog hosts who judge writing the way bad college professors do — if you hit the right “theme,” the writing doesn’t matter, and vice versa. You seem to be more concerned with clarity and readability than anything else.

    But I dunno. Maybe in real life you’re a tyrant. All submissions must contain the phrase “I hereby bow before Lord Frank.”

    • For people our age (and this site is frequented overwhelmingly by the 40-50 set), the ad is iconic. I think it is a really effective ad. I like how they introduce the fork when cutting the beef and then later say, “Oh, we’ll give that fork too!” And cutting through the can and then slicing the piece of paper is impressive. I’m nostalgic for that kind of advertising. Now we get, “The only thing that matters in a car is how it makes you feel!” Really?! I generally want an engine and wheels for purely practical reasons.

      Professionally, the “mother hen” really is the biggest part of the job. Writers are, in general, fragile. I know how I am. I’m eager for criticism. But I want it done in a nice way. I think in this article, I never got around to talking about what I really wanted to talk about. That is the fact that the editor and the writer are collaborators. I touch writers’ work as little as possible. But there are many occasions when major structural changes are required. So it isn’t so much the fine-grain work that people think. That’s especially true with long articles.

      And I am kind of mean to Elizabeth, but I know she can take it. Also: she writes like a lawyer. :-)

      • Well, nice criticism is just a sign that someone found your work worth reading. Which is all any writer wants. Not necessarily a zillion readers, but at least a few that think the piece interesting.

        I’ve noticed an odd thing lately. I’ve been doing more hack work, just out of boredom and to help out the blog runner in the Twins site. And it’s easier, if less enjoyable, than emotionally involved pieces. Yet when nobody reads the hack work, I get more irritated than when they ignore the heartfelt stuff. I expect people to ignore the more emotional pieces; they’re long. But I do put effort into the hack work! I make jokes, find fun pictures, etc. At least with the pieces difficult for me I can feel good about my efforts, even if nobody reads them. With hack work, if nobody reads it, it’s like “why did I even try?” I’d rather just not do them, though, than do a truly lazy job. (We’re all a little lazy sometimes.)

        You and E-Liz must edit those articles very well together, because they don’t read like legalese to me. Nuts and bolts of politics, sure, but I get why that’s fun to write. I could easily do 3000 words on different movie projectors! And politics is far more interesting.

        • That’s interesting that you get more upset about the hack work. Remember: it’s not like a newspaper that will be thrown away tomorrow. It will be around for years — maybe decades. But what do you mean that nobody reads them? That can’t possibly be true.

          I try not to change the feel of Elizabeth’s — or anyone’s — articles. Although today’s article did get changed and added to and deleted from quite a lot because of the time constraints. Which reminds me: I have to get to your work. The reason I work on Elizabeth’s is that they are usually time sensitive. But I’ll try to get to one of yours tonight. Yours are much easier to edit. What would you write about movie projectors? That sounds interesting.

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