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Must Editors Be Good Writers—A Reader’s Question

June 30, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 29, 2011

It’s time to answer another question posed at The Editor’s Blog.

I’ve not been asked this one directly, but quite a few visitors to the blog have used this question, or some variation, as a search term that’s led them here—

Does an editor have to know how to write? (Sometimes it’s asked, do editors have to write well?)

At first I was confused by the question, especially since more than one person was interested in the topic. I would have thought the answer quite obvious—

Yes, editors need to know how to write and should be better than average writers.

Yet I realized that since there are several types of editors, the question could have several possible answers.

Does a managing editor need to know how to write in order to manage her writers and direct her newspaper or magazine? Yes, she should have the skills to write and probably wouldn’t be in her position without being able to write. But do managing editors use those skills daily, as a writer would? No, not to the same degree. These editors probably spend more of their days truly managing their writers and publications.

Thus, instead of editing an article or even writing one, they may be planning issues of a magazine and looking for writers. They may deal with circulation and marketing and finances. They must know which stories will work for their publications and entertain their readers. They must understand the market and how to deliver for that market. And while they’re probably skilled as writers, they may not write often.

Of course, some managing editors may juggle many tasks and may both write and edit while at the same time managing.

And they must be able to recognize good, and bad, writing and know how to manipulate words so that that intended message is conveyed. 

An acquisitions editor at a publisher may help a writer with her manuscript but should not be writing or rewriting the story. The editor will guide and suggest but always go back to the writer for changes. On the other hand, a newspaper or magazine or even a blog editor might have the authority to rewrite passages of a story or article without approaching the author. Much of the difference has to do with the time factor. Books take much longer to go to print, and writers have time to make changes themselves. News articles and blog articles may need to be edited in an instant, even simply for space or word count. An editor who can write would be quite helpful in such instances.

If an editor couldn’t write, would a writer be able to trust his suggestions?

An acquisitions editor should be skilled at focusing the direction of a story while allowing the writer to actually write it. A skilled editor, because he does know how to write, because he knows how to craft stories and how to work all the elements of fiction, will be able to direct both story and writer through the high points and low points of a story and ultimately to a high-quality and satisfying resolution.

 An editor who couldn’t write, who didn’t know both the basics and advanced skills, wouldn’t be of much use to a writer.

And such an editor probably wouldn’t have reached a place where he could direct or influence writers, help them create stronger stories. If you don’t know how it’s done, you can’t show others.

Developmental and substantive writers most definitely need to know all the ins and outs of writing.

These editors make suggestions throughout a manuscript. They have to know how to show a writer how to accomplish what they want to accomplish, and they often use examples to make clear what they’re saying. Sometimes their words are included in a manuscript, and those words must fit the author’s style and intent.

Most editors give multiple options to their writers to give them an idea of what can be done with a passage or scene. The editor who couldn’t write well might only be able to finesse the words already on the page. A good editor, however, knows how to open the writer to possibilities and can show a number of those possibilities with examples.

Once a writer sees what can be done, he can run with his ideas. Sometimes all it takes to turn a writer in a new direction is to show him how a change in wording or character or pacing or plot event can open up a story. But an editor has to write well enough for his words to make an impact on the writer. An editor’s  well-written example or scenario can turn around a story headed the wrong direction, and it can open a writer’s eyes to unexpected possibilities.

Editors who deal with the text itself do need to know how to strengthen it. They need to know pacing and how to increase conflict. They have to know how to write dialogue and the ways dialogue can be used to advance plot and reveal character.

Editors must know the difference between showing and telling, the unfolding of scenes in comparison with exposition.

They must know grammar and punctuation and syntax.

Editors must know words.

Yes, while some editors may no longer manipulate words and phrases and paragraphs and scenes, they do need to know how. They need to be able to write. They need to be able to help other writers write.

They need to be able to see big-picture issues and the tiniest of details.

Must editors be good writers? My answer is an unqualified yes.

__________________________________

The exception
A copy editor brings a specific set of skills to a manuscript or article. Copy editors look at spelling, punctuation, and grammar. They may check story continuity. They make sure word choices are correct in terms of meaning. Did the writer mean principles rather than principals? Lend rather than borrow? Did she want seminal or Seminole?

Copy editors also check titles and headings and figures in charts. They make sure the details of the details are right.

But true copy editors do not read for broad-picture elements. They’re not looking to see if conclusions have been justified in non-fiction and if story threads play out in fiction. They’re not editing for style issues (unless we’re talking a publisher’s style sheet). Copy editors aren’t looking at pacing issues and whether a plot makes sense. They don’t analyze dialogue to see that it accomplishes a purpose.

They’re not going to be searching for a theme to see if it’s been hinted at throughout the manuscript. They won’t be making sure that each character is necessary and that scenes advance the story and that sense details have been included.

Their scope is narrow and they are the one group of editors to focus on specific parts of a story or article while not being concerned with other elements.

So a copy editor may be the one type of editor who does not need the same writing skills that other editors need. While what they bring to a manuscript or article is vital, they can do their jobs without a writer’s in-depth knowledge. Thus a copy editor would not necessarily need to know how to write well, not in the same way that novel writers and other editors would.

You can be a successful and skilled copy editor without having written a book and without being well-versed in the elements of fiction.

*******

If you’ve had a similar question about editors but for a reason I’ve not covered here, please let us know. If there’s a nuance or a specific that I’ve overlooked, I’d be happy to consider that question as well. But if you’re wondering about the profession, wondering if you need strong writing skills to be a good editor, my answer is yes, you do, unless you’re a copy editor. And even then you do need skills. Just not all those a writer or a different type of editor would bring to a project.

Not only must you, as an editor, be able to write, but you must be able to show others what can be done to make their writing stronger. Two different sets of skills, but both required for the successful editor.

Keep the questions coming.

***

Tags:     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., For Editors

7 Responses to “Must Editors Be Good Writers—A Reader’s Question”

  1. I’ll be honest, it never occurred to me that any editor (other than a copy editor as you point out) wouldn’t know how to write. Who wants to advise on something they’re not skilled in?

  2. Sarah, I’m guessing that’s what the questions have been about, copy editors. But if not, I’d love for someone to jump in, maybe let us know what they’re asking about if I didn’t address the true question.

  3. lady says:

    I’ve run up against some editors who made me wonder how many can write. Some who seem to have no clue or patience for story telling. It is strange because you’d think there would be a fondness for fiction there, but in some cases there was not, or so it seemed. Not having a head for fiction or story telling seems to be problematic when an editor spends too much time being technical about writing, and then they lose sight of the focus of the project.

  4. Lady, I agree that an interest in both storytelling and mechanics is important for editors. Over-emphasis on one, or a neglect of one, can lead to a poorer story. A good tale should be good in terms of both story (plot and character) and construction. If it’s not, readers won’t want to read it.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  5. Elise says:

    Hello Beth,

    Interesting blog post.

    Well, I can write, but I don’t enjoy it. I’m much happier working as a copyeditor helping authors with their work.

    I’ve struggled with the assumption that copyeditors have to be good writers to be good editors. It certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s required, especially not when working with some types of writing (e.g., technical documents). Rules are rules. However, (I might get in trouble here), I do think copyeditors who write well might better understand subtle nuances, such as voice. I also think it’s important for editors to know their limits; I don’t dare edit fiction, because I find it much more difficult than the biomedical research papers I edit!

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Thank you,
    ~elise

  6. Elise, thanks for sharing your experience. As writers have different strengths, so too do editors. Knowing our limits—and stretching them—is great for all of us.

  7. I am a young girl (early teen) who loves to read. Lately, I’ve been trying to write a half-decent book, but have failed. I have been wondering whether I have been wrong in my passion, that perhaps I should be an editor instead, due to the fact that they read over people’s books- what do you think? I know that I am young and don’t have much life experience, but I do have a way with words (which I hope you are able to see) I have also helped my friends with their short story, simply working off what they have written and adding helpful bits – so, in a way, I suppose I am already an editor – but I still want to write. Is it possible to be an author and an editor? Is it possible to be your own editor? I know this hasn’t related much to this recent blog, but I simply found this site and thought it was a good place to ask such questions and seek advice.
    ~Aspiring

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