Why Editors Need to be Writers

I get the impression that editors are sometimes viewed the way teachers are: if you can’t do, you teach. If you can’t write, you edit. And that, in both cases, is a disappointing perspective. I am not an editor because I’m not a good enough writer. I’m an editor because my talent lies in seeing strengths and weaknesses in another writer’s work.

I do, however, write because I enjoy it. But I also write because I think it’s an important exercise to keep in shape for my writers. Editors are more like coaches than teachers. They should be able to do some of what their writers do, but their helpfulness as a guide does not wane in the waxing light of the talent they’re molding.

Editors should be writers as well because they need to know – and be reminded of – what it feels like to:

  • Write the perfect sentence going down the highway at 70 mph and subsequently risk life and limb to find paper and pen in the glove box to get it down.
  • Spend your day writing mediocre copy that’s never acknowledged one way or the other then come home to a blank page you can’t fill because your writing soul was slowly sucked away at work.
  • Be fascinated by people’s quirks or turns of phrases because you’ll work them into a story or even build whole characters around those foibles.
  • Be rejected by dozens of strangers without comment.
  • Explain to people why you keep hand-written journals and notes instead of using a computer for everything.
  • Encounter things in the real world and automatically think about how your fictional characters would respond.

These are just some of the experiences that make editors relate, and therefore communicate, better with their prose-penning counterparts. The relationship ought to be a partnership, and editorial empathy allows it to be.

I think part of the reason editors across the publishing spectrum have a reputation for imposing, obnoxious egos is they forget the experiences of writers – the struggles, the small successes, the self-doubt, the writing walls that leave you on your rhetorical ass for days.

Editors work in the realm of exercising judgment. But to execute that judgment with respect and significance means much more than ripping a manuscript to shreds as you mock it. Your own bleeding page, left all but dead by the pen of another, is just the thing to cut that ego down.