Robert Giroux, who eventually became T.S. Eliot’s editor, once asked Eliot if he agreed with the sentiment that most editors are failed writers. Eliot’s reply: “Perhaps, but so are most writers.”
Putting the witticism aside, what are editors? Failed writers? Uber-writers? Or something different?
I’ve been writing professionally for 38 years and editing for almost as long — and I’ve been pretty successful at both. Because writers and editors work on the same end product, it’s tempting to see their jobs as extensions of one another. But this is a fallacy. Music producers are not musicians, quality assurance engineers are not coders, and food critics are not chefs, even though in each case they work on the same end product.
So what are the competencies of writers and editors, and how do they complement each other?
Writers are builders and artists
The job of writing is a job of creation. The writer plans, assembles materials with which to work, and generates something intended for others to read. Some writers write to entertain. Others, like journalists, write to inform. Business writers write to create a change in the mind of the reader.
Fundamentally, creation is a solitary activity. When you’re actually writing, there is nothing but you, the keyboard, and the screen. The only person you have to argue with is the imaginary reader in your head.
Because of this, while the writer needs to know all about the tools of language — grammar, vocabulary, paragraphs, sentences, tone, style, and structure, for example — the writer needs only worry about how to apply those tools to the writing task at hand. A gifted writer not only has the gift of language, they also have the gift of knowing how best to use their own talent. This comes from experience, practice, and feedback, of course.
Editors are not failed writers, they are clever and versatile readers
Editing is, at its core, a skill of reading, not writing.
The editor’s job is to stand in for the reader. They carefully review the text in the role of the reader and determine if it is working or not.
So can any good reader be a good editor?
(This is an error many writers make. They ask a friend, “Read this for me and tell me what you think.” The friend says, “I liked it” or “I found it confusing” or “It seemed wordy.” What is the writer to do with that advice?)
The editor’s skill goes beyond reading, because the editor knows the types of problems that both written material and writers have.
This requires skill and experience because there are just so many things that can go wrong in a piece of writing.
Is the idea muddy? Is the structure choppy? Is it easy to follow? Are there problems with transitions? With grammar? With inconsistencies? Is it persuasive? Is it offensive? Is it boring? Is it inaccurate? The number of possible problems is unlimited.
The editor must not only identify these problems at whatever level they occur, but suggest solutions to the problems. This means understanding how writers think. The editor is not just a blunt critic (“This was way too long and boring”) but a psychologist of writing (“I think you had trouble getting to the point because you didn’t know what the point was until partway through the piece. That’s why we can cut the first three paragraphs and the piece will be stronger for it.”)
A respected author whom I edited recently recommended me to another potential author as a “brutally good coach and editor.” I will cherish those words. The author who recommended me knew that I was tough on prose and shared my goal of making it as excellent as it could be.
Unlike the writer, who must only know their own habits, the editor must know every kind of writer and every kind or writing problem and have a suggested solution for whatever comes up. They must cultivate some distance from the prose to enable them to see it from an unbiased reader’s perspective.
Must such an editor be a writer (failed or not)? No. But it helps with credibility to say “I have been in your shoes.”
All editors love language. All good writers do, too. But not all good writers are effective editors, and not all good editors are successful writers, because they require different skills and attitudes.
If you are a writer, you have a choice. You can continually refine your talent until you are the best writer you can be. This means becoming an expert in your particular talent and approach.
Or you can become knowledgeable about everything that makes writing and writers better. This will make you a good editor, which requires becoming an expert in all the different approaches and techniques of writers in a given genre.
You can do both, of course. Many editors also write, and editing often helps people learn more about what to do in their own writing. But the two skills you need for these two roles, while complementary, are very different.