Never work for an editor who has not been a professional writer first
There are some professions you must do from the ground up
When I graduated from college, the only thing I wanted to do was write fiction novels and be on the NY Times Best Sellers list. Was that goal a bit overzealous? Absolutely. Did it happen? Not even close. What did happen for me, though, was I learned a lesson more valuable than that list could have ever taught me. There is no better way to learn the publishing industry than to fully comprehend how it works at all levels.
Recommended Series: “Book Bumps” featured in Better Marketing
My first corporate job fresh out of college — after realizing I was a terrible receptionist and a decent photographer who grew very bored working in retail photo departments — was as an Assistant Copy Editor for an adult education finance company. I hate math and the material was dry, but I just needed to get my foot in the door of the publishing industry. The Managing Editor thought I had potential, and I did pretty well on the initial editing test. But once I got into that position, I realized just how much I did not know. At one point, I sat in a conference room looking at all the mistakes I made and barely fought back tears.
It is a cold world when you find out you are not as good at something as you have convinced yourself you are. (My biggest flaw was that I would catch an error in one spot and ignore it on the next three pages. I was looking at the big picture and ignoring the small details.) But here’s the beauty in it all. The more practice I had and the more training I got in this assistant role, the better I became at production deadlines, structured editing and style guides, print and online layout, and story pacing. Even more importantly, I became a far better writer after being an editor — because I understood the entire process, not just me throwing words on a page.
There are some professions that need to involve working from the ground up. I’ve worked for many veteran editors over the years, primarily in print newsrooms. They are all much smarter than me with loads of talent, and I like it that way. There are already a million articles on the Internet from people who took issue with working for someone who was under-qualified. I, too, was one of those under-qualified workers. The difference was that I was purposely hired at a particular rank (Assistant Copy Editor) to learn the ropes before I was ever given any kind of mid-level job or upper management position.
An editor who cannot write wants perfect content so they then don’t have to do any writing. That makes as much sense as a plumber only wanting to work on new appliances.
Although I have (un)fortunately only worked for two editors who had no real experience as writers, those two were enough. One of the reasons that editors should always have a background in writing — even if they’re more passionate at “fixing” rather than “creating” — is not so much that they won’t understand your content. It’s that they will understand the publishing process overall.
Here’s a real example from a prior job. After working for several newspapers, which are usually relentless when it comes to meeting deadlines because they have printers and clocks working against them, timeliness was beaten into my brain. I was already a reasonably punctual person, but my attention span would drift off when I wasn’t interested in the content. In production, it doesn’t matter how tedious the job is. You need to get it done so the next person can do theirs.
When you waste an interviewee’s time, their memory is long. Don’t ever expect to get the opportunity for a follow-up interview later.
However, one of the two editors I previously worked for had a writing background that only consisted of a bunch of college newspaper clips. That’s excellent training, but it’s simply not the same in the real world. If the college newspaper doesn’t come out on time, big deal. The college students aren’t going to riot. Tuition will still be paid. Life goes on. In the real world, some serious money is going into this — from both readers and on the manufacturing end.
Her procrastination on editing content would leave me making work enemies on a regular basis:
- the freelance writers who wondered why she hadn’t seen their content yet (she had but just didn’t feel like editing it yet — as in, five months later and hadn’t touched it)
- the graphics department who was missing their deadlines and had no idea what to create because they had no words to put on the page
- the interviewees who wondered why I insisted that we do the interview “as soon as possible” only to not be able to tell them when the piece would be published — months later
That editor’s attitude at the time was to shrug and say, “They’re not the boss of me. We control the schedule.” Not true. At all. When you waste an interviewee’s time, their memory is long. Don’t ever expect to get the opportunity for a follow-up interview later.
About the only way to get this editor to finally work on the project was because she knew that the company would be charged extra for rush jobs at the printer. That left an entire writing and graphics team of people all rushing during evenings — and sometimes weekends — to create graphic art from last-minute edited posts and rewrites from her edits.
But a writer or journalist — an established one, not just someone who has college newspaper clips — has already had an editor on her/his ass to meet deadlines before. Although far less violent, it’s a wee bit like hazing. Professional writers and editors are fully aware of how procrastination leads to a domino effect for the rest of the team. She understands why not taking into account the rest of the team matters.
In addition to editing making a writer better at writing, an editor who does not understand how to write well will do a writer a disservice to edit her content. One of the more common things I’ve observed is editors who cannot write tend to become easily frustrated trying to “fix” content. They’re not used to learning how to make words dance on a page or why one sentence being removed can make an entire post better. An editor who cannot write wants perfect content so they then don’t have to do any writing. This request is about as odd as a plumber only wanting to work on new appliances.
While editors are often looked at as a frenemy of a writer — and may develop a reputation for taking an ax to their work to create a better read — their goal is to make sure the writer has the best work she can offer for that assignment. But editors who don’t already have a strong background in writing make about as much sense as hiring an electrician who has only screwed in a few light bulbs. They can probably guess their way around, but don’t be surprised when you end up paying for a shoddy job.
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