Wick Communications

What is an editor?

In Editing on 31 May 2012 at 8:56 pm

Editing is hard. In fact, I can’t even describe the essence of a good editor.

Editing was the focus of a roundtable of sorts that group manager David Lewis hosted on Thursday. David gathers several of us – from Montrose, Pierre, Ontario and Half Moon Bay — for regular conference calls designed as a way for editors to share ideas. On Thursday, we talked about the nature of editing.

We talked about the benefits and limitations of editing tests for new hires. There was general agreement that standardized testing can help to ferret out those who are not cut out for the job before you make the mistake of giving them the job. There was also an understanding that 10 or 20 editing questions may be somewhat subjective and not completely indicative of someone’s ability in the real world.

We also talked about spending the time necessary to help reporters become better.

Mike Easterling, the editor of the Montrose Daily Press, boiled an editor’s job down to a single sentence: “An editor’s job is to make copy clearer, more concise, more compelling and more accurate — and to teach a reporter how to do that.” That’s pretty close to the heart of the matter, don’t you think? …

I shared my philosophy that editing is a process and hard to reduce to a test or a series of tasks. I think that editing the writing of another is a delicate kind of surgery. Bedside manner is important. First do no harm.

I mentioned a book that I’ve mentioned here before: The Subversive Copy Editor. It is written by Carol Fisher Saller, a former editor at the Chicago Manual of Style. It is a slender volume that comes with the tagline, “How to negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues and yourself.” I think she is on to something. An ongoing reporter/editor relationship is a negotiation of sorts. It requires finesse as well as a red pen.

Another short book that I turn to for inspiration is The Elements of Editing, which is brought to us by the same folks who prepare Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. One thing I like about Arthur Plotkin’s book is that it also focuses on dysfunctions in the editor. He notes that sometimes editors are overly anal, fixated on fixing – simply missing what’s right in the story in the midst of all that nitpicking.

Of course, moving the characters around on the page is a small percentage of an editor’s job. There are public relations duties, planning meetings and myriad tasks that don’t show up in the paper.

I have a hard time even discussing the topic. Editing is an elusive topic. Behind every great writer is an editor who, at the very least, knows when to leave well enough alone. How do you describe something that is best when it’s invisible?



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