An acquaintance of mine, after finding out what I do for a living, asked me if I considered myself a writer. She’s an English professor, who has devoted her life to studying writers. So when I said, “I love writing, but I think I lean more toward being an editor,” she seemed surprised. When you’re a kid, you never say, “When I grow up, I want to be an editor!”
Everyone wants to be a writer--but every writer needs a good editor.
When I tell people I’m an editor, they don’t really know what it means. If they have some idea about the profession, it’s that we spend our time looking for misplaced commas and typos. Of course, we do a bit of that, but in reality, that’s what copy editors and proofreaders are for. My time is spent assigning articles, and then making sure that the writers have hit the mark. I’m usually editing articles about business and technology, which means there are a few things I’m looking for.
- Has the writer asked and answered the logical questions?
- Has the writer used sources appropriately? (Too often, new writers who are used to blogs insert themselves in inappropriate ways)
- When a source makes a statement, has the writer explained and explored it, or just left it there as though its self-explanatory?
- Is the article ordered in a way that makes sense?
- Do I get the sense that the writer understands the material?
Of course, there are other things to be considered, but if these criteria are met, I can work with what you send me. If you haven’t asked the right questions, gotten coherent answers and used them effectively, then I need to send it back to you for serious revisions. This usually happens with relatively new writers and writers who aren’t used to writing about technology.
Frankly, part of being an editor also means knowing which writers you can count on to turn in clean copy that won’t take up a bunch of your time. Sooner or later, though, you have to work with a new writer. I usually start them out with small projects–a 650-word news piece instead of a 2,000-word feature. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize how satisfying it can be to work with a writer who isn’t a ringer, and help them become better at what they do.
Even the biggest authors need editors. If you’ve ever had a favorite author whose books seem to get worse as they get older and more famous, you can bet it’s because no one is really editing them anymore. They’ve become too big, and when their editor gives them notes they can say, “Nope, not changing that…” You end up with a bit of a mess. The books are usually too long, with meandering plots, and long passages that don’t seem to serve a real purpose. That’s because everyone can benefit from having a good editor take a red pen to their copy.
Experts in Something, But Not Writing
In my line of work, I also find myself working with subject matter experts pretty regularly. Quite often they are marketers, and therefore, fairly good writers. Because they re relying on their own expertise they don’t usually need to conduct interviews and rely on sources, but that also means they can tend to assume everyone knows exactly what they’re talking about and don’t always explain themselves well enough. Or they can be a bit too promotional and I have to dial it back and remind them that they aren’t writing an advertisement.
Other times, I’m working with people who work in a more technical field and know their stuff, but aren’t writers. Oddly enough, they can make for pretty easy edits. As long as the right information is there, I can revise, rewrite, or completely overhaul the text. The time-consuming part of any writing project–at least for me–is the research and interviews. That’s the part I really need someone else to do. And as long as they get that info on the page, I can make it better!
I also have writers who are creating content in English, even when it’s their second or third language. That presents a whole other level of challenges. There are, sometimes, fairly simple syntax issues or expressions that don’t quite translate. But I also run into overly complicated sentences. Run-ons that I find hard to read, and lack punctuation. This is a bit trickier to navigate. If I find it hard to get to the end of a sentence, so will your readers–but because of the overly complicated sentences, I often find it hard to tell exactly what these writers are trying to say. That makes it hard to revise without further input from the author.
Any company looking to start a blog or some other kind of content marketing campaign would be wise to hire an editor. You may have all the in-house expertise you need to create useful content, but if you want it to be readable, you need someone to whip it into shape.
Even Freelancers Need a Helping Hand
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an article from someone who claims to be making a living as a freelancer and thought, Yikes, you might need a day-job. Sometimes these are new writers, and all they need is some guidance. I’ll usually make a point of sending their articles back to them with comments and track changes–rather than fixing it myself–so that they can do the work that will ultimately make them a better writer. Rarely, this happens with an older, more experienced writer. I’ve actually wondered if they’ve sent me an old version of their document because its problems are so overtly obvious.
I know that when you’re cobbling together a living from freelance assignments, hiring an editor isn’t an expense you can afford. So, if you find an editor who is willing to put in the work to help you become a better writer, take as much work from them as possible. Even if they don’t pay particularly well, their expertise is valuable in its own way and will help you earn more money down the road.
You Can’t Teach Writing
Don’t be silly, obviously, you can teach writing–there are entire composition courses dedicated to it. But those things can’t make you a writer. You may learn how to structure an essay or an argument. You’ll learn how to cite your sources, but some people just don’t have that certain little something that makes people want to read what you have to say. That’s fine–frankly, there are too many people out there who fancy themselves writers without the skills to back it up.
Sometimes, though, you’ll still need to write–especially as the business world becomes more and more reliant on content. Maybe you can hire a ghostwriter, or have a marketing department that can slap your name on the content they create. But if you don’t have those things at your disposal, or you truly want the ideas you put out into the world to be your own, you should just hire an editor to help turn your words into something spectacular.