Why Editors Matter

On Twitter, someone makes a controversial statement about writing that goes viral, and then other writers must glom on with subtweets to dissent. The current debate is regarding whether writers need editors. I find this debate rather perplexing because I don’t come from a fiction background, except for my undergraduate degree; I come from a journalism background, where journalism is performed in a newsroom, as part of a team effort. Editors are a vital part of the process.

It isn’t so now, though, given media budget cuts, and it shows. Which one of us hasn’t typed “pubic” instead of “public?” A good-natured, honest, human error. Without the extra set of eyes of a copy editor, that mistake goes on air, and becomes a viral joke, a way for the media to lose credibility in the eyes of the public. The public doesn’t humanize reporters and say “That’s something I would have done.” They attack them, make fun of them and it erodes trust.

In journalism, articles are produced in a newsroom in which every person has an assigned role. Reporters are assigned to specific beats and form professional relationships with the sources on their beats. They have an editor who oversees certain kinds of beats, like for example the City Editor or the Politics Editor. This editor works in the role of a developmental editor. Some editors are hands off and only proofread; others get into the weeds and try to shape the story with their voice. In between is the Ideal Editor who fixes mistakes and asks the reporter questions to make their story better. A bad editor can be damaging, yes, just as negative criticism can crush a writer for years. A good editor can make a story better. A good editor and a good writer together are a force that cannot be reckoned with. They grow together as mentors. Each has an imprint on the other.

After revisions are made the story then goes to the copy editors. The copy editors are essentially line editors. They fix errors like pubic spaces. They work night shifts, often starting at 9 p.m. and grinding into the night. There is also a chief editor, who serves a public relations role for the newspaper. But local copy editors are becoming a thing of the past. When I was working as a journalist, copy editors were the first to get laid off, and then they were conglomerated into regional, remote data centers. So someone was copy editing a paper in Oregon from a remote desk in Arizona, lacking local knowledge and institutional history.

The result is an erosion in attention to detail and commitment to accuracy. Don’t blame the writer; blame the writer’s corporate structure that believed writers could edit themselves. You can look a story over until you are blue in the face and you will always miss something. I read these blog posts over many times and I always miss something; a misspelled word, a sentence structure issue, a factual error.

Also, there is something to be said for objectivity. Writing a story is kind of like giving birth to a baby. You have worked on it for years, every day. You have made sacrifices for it. You have lost sleep over it. You have poured your heart, soul and emotional inner life into it. You have lost objectivity with it. You are too close to it. No matter how much you look something over, you will still cling to your pet sentences, even if they aren’t very good.

You may be saying, that’s okay for journalism. Journalism is nonfiction. In nonfiction facts, accuracy and credibility matter. Because it’s about events that are true. “Denise, I write fiction so I don’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”

But even fiction is about the truth. Fiction is about a higher Truth. Fiction is a story about the soul of humanity. It’s even more important to get it right.

Credibility matters. You win credibility by spelling your words correctly, by getting your grammar and sentence structure correct. Grammarly doesn’t cut it. A machine may be good, and cheaper, but can never be as good as a human.

Some writers seem almost entitled about their ability to write well without an editor. They’re proud of it. They don’t need an editor. An editor is for bad writers. But I wonder if they’re simply afraid of criticism. They’re afraid to find out their story isn’t the Great American Novel. If it’s a negative reader review, they can dismiss it because readers will always be negative. If it’s an editor looking over a draft, it’s a different animal entirely.

I’ve read several self-published books now. I dismissed them in the past because I stigmatized them. But I think people like to gloss over the fact that self published books do have a quality problem. People on Twitter say as a counter-argument, “I would read a book anyway, even if it has mistakes in it, if the writing is good.” I have read books anyway, books that I edit as I go in my head because in my day job I proofread documents and I can’t help it. I think, “If only this author had hired an editor, their ideas could have shone even brighter.”

In a newsroom, look how many layers of editors are looking over the copy before it goes out the door. And it still gets published with mistakes in it. An editor may seem like an intimidating investment, but editors are there to team up with an author. The relationship may seem like a power dynamic, with the editor in a God role, but the best writing-editing relationships are on a more level playing field. Good editors are on an author’s side and rooting for them to succeed. Good editors will make you a better writer. Beta readers will tell you an example reader’s general reaction to a book, but they aren’t there to line edit. They aren’t your writing coach.

And isn’t that what we want, anyway? To always learn and grow? To become better at the craft? Writing may be a solitary act, but it is not done in a vacuum. It takes a community to write a novel. It takes a community to become a better writer.


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One thought on “Why Editors Matter

  1. Totally agreed! I worked in a place where every writer was responsible for their own work, and the editor barely read anything that went through (only coordinated the month’s stories), and you can imagine the pile of dung we put out on the regular.

    Thanks for bringing up an important point. I enjoyed your writing Denise.


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