Most of what you hear about editors essentially falls into a small handful of categories: the brilliant, the mysterious, the macho.
Each of them comes with a catalog of stories of wisdom, weirdness, and derring-do: the bravado, the cool head under pressure, magnetic, charismatic, the swearing, the drinking. Probably the swearing and the drinking.
It’s Ben Bradlee, whose balls of steel helped take down a president.
It’s Anna Wintour, whose fiery Gaze of Disdain burns through even the blackest sunglasses and directly into the souls of fledgling fashionistas.
Or it’s Cary Grant in His Girl Friday; the mischiefer-in-chief, the crazy hustler, the smooth talker.
Yes, that one’s fictional. But His Girl Friday is to editors what the Velvet Underground is to depressed young indie guitar bands.
Anyway, I’ve been doing this editing thing for a little while, and it seems to me that the profession is the victim of at least two myths.
Editors don’t really do anything (or at least, nobody can really define what they do.) What does the job involve besides cracking the whip on writers, looking for mistakes and making pompous declarations in the form of a memo?
Not true: Good editing is an art, but it remains mysterious partly because great editing is kind-of-invisible, and partly because editors themselves don’t talk much about what they do.
Whatever an editor actually does do, it’s really all about instinct, innate brilliance, the ability to inspire.
That may be true for the most luminous ones, but it also has the honor of being complete bullshit at the same time.
The fact is that editing (I’m talking mainly about editing in news media, magazines, and perhaps books?) is built on a very particular set of skills, but those skills aren’t often discussed outside of the day-to-day work environment.
Editors themselves propagate both of these myths, either by not wanting to expose their guts to the world, or because they’d like to think they are just as brilliant as their heroes.
But the reality is that editing is a trade — something you have to learn on the job. And when you’re learning on the job, you need teachers: you don’t get better without help.
Now, that help doesn’t have to be secret, but for the most part it is. That means that knowledge and expertise mainly gets passed along person to person.
So, lucky you if you get to be an apprentice at a great place with time and money and ambition. If you don’t?
That’s a big reason why newsrooms look so white, so male, so different from the real world. It’s a big reason media makes mistakes.
We’ve talked a lot about the good and bad of editors over the past few years, particularly around the way that news gets propagated and distributed.
But the fact is that as the media industry changes, the number of editors contracts, their skill base drops, and the amount of time they have to pass on what they know falls. So the number of opportunities for learning keeps diminishing, and even if we encourage more people into the industry, we’re not giving them the tools to succeed.
I think that’s kind of dumb.
There are scads of great books out there that can help you with being a good writer, and an even larger number of terrible tomes that pretend they can help you be a good writer, but in fact turn you into a hack.
But there isn’t a lot of literature on editing, and there is certainly only a tiny amount that talks about what a good editor does.
So, tonight, over a little drink, I thought… why can’t we share this a little more broadly?
And then, like I suppose any good human being does from time to time, I sat there amid the mulch and the detritus and work, and looked at myself and thought what the hell do I know?
I know a little bit. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and from some great teachers. I’ve done some good work, and plenty of bad, I try to think a lot now about why I do things and how.
I’ve made so many mistakes that I’m embarrassed about, both as a writer and as an editor. I’ve still got a long, long way to go.
But I do know that I want more people to learn, and more people to talk about what being an editor really means. I want to write more regularly about what good editing requires, and I hope other people will talk about their experiences and ideas too.
So that’s what this is.