Dylan Tweney

What does an editor actually do?

It's a lot more than just fixing grammar. The best editors know how to improve the copy and the writer at the same time.
Dylan Tweney 7 min read
What does an editor actually do?
Newspaper editing in 1940. Source: NYPL Digital Collections

A few weeks ago, I used an image in this newsletter that I wish I hadn’t.

It was a picture of a little sign on someone’s desk that said, “Write without fear. Edit without mercy.”

I kind of regret using that image because editing without mercy is not my style. I can be blunt, yes — but I also try to be kind.

I’d rather say something like, “Write without fear. Edit with clear-eyed compassion.”

The goal of an edit is to improve the copy — and, ideally, to improve the writer in the process. You can’t do that if you’re merciless, because while you might be making the words better, it’s entirely possible that you’re hurting the person behind them.

The best editors know how to improve copy and writer at the same time. That takes a clear understanding of how language works, what the rules are, and which rules you can get away with bending or breaking. It also requires compassionate insight into the writer and an understanding of how they might benefit from your feedback.

By the way, that applies whether you’re editing someone else’s work or your own. Revise your own words with the clear eyes of an editor, but be compassionate to your writing self while you’re doing it.

Why we edit

Editing is an essential component of any writing process, whether it involves one person or a dozen.

Editing is crucial because it’s the quality-control phase: It eliminates errors, strengthens weak copy, reduces inconsistencies, and ensures that the copy aligns with the client’s goals, tone, and expectations for excellence.

Editing is also important because it frees up the writer (or writers) to simply write. Write first, then edit. Separating creation from optimization is, it turns out, an extremely useful step in facilitating easier and less painful writing. When you can turn off your internal editor, it becomes easier to let the words flow, knowing that you or your editor can catch and correct any problems later.

Editing is also an art. And in a team of people creating content — whether that’s a newsroom on deadline or a marketing team building out materials for a new campaign — editing is never merely about making the copy better.

At its best, editing is also about developing individual writers (or other editors), helping them realize their best selves, and shaping a team of writers and editors into a functional unit capable of creating excellent content over and over again.

After years of working in dysfunctional newsrooms, where edits were aimed at fixing the copy ASAP, and reporters were left to tend to their own feelings, I became a newsroom leader myself and vowed to try a different approach. As the editor-in-chief of VentureBeat, I had a very limited budget, so most of our hires were reporters still early in their careers. Knowing they needed training, I worked with our managing editor, Jolie O’Dell, to create a training guide for new reporters. We built a simple private website with different pages outlining our approach to various aspects of the craft. We created a two-week “Boot Camp” training program using the content on this site, and guided every new writer through that program. Even after their training was over, we repeatedly referred writers to the guidelines on this site as we made edits to their stories, turning every edit into an opportunity to reinforce our approach and the VentureBeat style.

I think it worked. Over the course of three years, we increased VentureBeat’s traffic by more than 5X. We published increasingly impactful features and news scoops, and the tech world noticed. While our competitor, TechCrunch, always had a larger profile and more traffic than we did, we earned respect for our approach and gave the reporters at TechCrunch a run for their money.

More importantly, in my opinion, that newsroom helped launch many careers. Reporters who worked under me there have gone on to long-term, fulfilling roles at CNBC, Fast Company, Axios, Engadget, and more. Another is a book author and freelance journalist for many big publications, and yet another became a venture capitalist after several years at CNBC. Helping launch those journalists into the big time is one of the highlights of my own career.

Roles of an editor

One of the reasons people are often confused about what an editor does is because the title encompasses so many different roles.

It can be helpful to think of the editor’s job in terms of what things they’re responsible for and to whom they’re responsible. With that in mind, here are some of the primary roles of a team editor.

Quality control chief. An editor is primarily responsible for the quality of the content product that the team is creating.

In this case, their responsibility is to the client.

In business relationships, it’s a best practice to make a single person responsible for the output of a team. This manager, leader, or project manager is the point person for those who interact with the team, making decisions when needed to resolve differences of opinion between team members but also providing a single point of accountability to whatever other parts of the organization, or external clients, are interacting with them. In Silicon Valley lingo, that person is a “single throat to choke” when things go awry — the individual who will take the client’s call and assume responsibility for making things right.

On a content team, that point person is the editor.

In other words, the team’s editor should be putting their stamp of approval on whatever the team produces, knowing that if the client has any problems with it, it’s the editor who will be taking the call and taking responsibility for correcting things.

To that end, the editor needs to review any copy that the team produces, ensuring that it conforms with their quality controls: grammatical correctness, orthodox spelling, AP Style, and the company’s own writing style guide.

Project manager. An editor also oversees the project, ensuring that the timeline is realistic, that people know their individual responsibilities and meet their deadlines, and that whatever deliverable has been promised to the client actually gets delivered on time.

As Paul Ford wrote years ago, in an essay I return to repeatedly, real editors ship.

As the project manager, the editor has a dual responsibility to the client and to the content team.

Balancing those two responsibilities is often a question of preparation: Helping to scope the project fully, building out a realistic timeline, ensuring that all the pieces needed to create the deliverable are available and in the hands of each individual contributor, and ensuring that communication is happening smoothly among all involved.

It's no surprise, then, that an editor in the role of a project manager will pay a lot of attention to process: spelling out how things are supposed to happen, documenting answers to common questions, providing templates for work-back timelines, editorial calendars, and the like.

Note the dual responsibility of this role, which puts the editor in a position of some tension. They’ve got to deliver what the client wants in a timely way — but they are also responsible for making sure that the content team doesn’t get overwhelmed and burn out. That means sometimes the editor’s job is to exhort the content creators to work smarter, faster, or better. (Here, my internal image is J. Jonah Jameson, my fictional role model of a demanding editor, yelling at Peter Parker.)

But sometimes the editor’s job is to push back on the client, letting them know that their expectations are unrealistic (they are not going to get the content piece on the date they want because it’s impossible to create it that quickly) or unreasonable (the team has already delivered six revisions, due to the client’s constantly changing priorities, and further revisions are not going to happen without an adjustment to the project budget).

In journalistic contexts, the second half of this responsibility often gets short shrift. Most media organizations have never devoted much time or effort to training editors to be good managers. Good management is even less of a priority now that the media business is doing so poorly overall: Who is going to carve out the budget for management training when the organization is barely able to stay solvent? The top priority in journalism has always been getting the story, hitting the deadline, publishing quickly, and moving on to the next story. This puts pressure on the writers, who are already underpaid and overworked. But, given the glamour and excitement of the job, there are almost always more young upstarts eager to take over when a reporter gets burnt out and moves on.

In business contexts, the tension can make the job of the editor particularly stressful. While there may be more resources for management training and more interest in keeping the writing team happy than there is in journalism, balancing client and team needs is still a challenge. There are often few clear guidelines for editors on how to gracefully push back against problem clients, and even when the organization is supportive, pushing back usually takes a back seat to keeping the client happy.

That leaves the editor in the tricky position of trying to please both sides, delivering what an unreasonable client has demanded while trying to minimize the damage to the team or, at a minimum, providing a sympathetic ear when team members need to blow off steam. It’s not easy.

Coach and mentor. In this role, the editor is responsible for the growth and well-being of their team members.

Keeping the team from burning out is Level One of the editor’s job as manager. Helping them grow and develop as individuals and as a team is Next Level editing.

If you can manage your team in such a way that you’re not only able to keep the team performing well but also create conditions for individual team members to learn new things and to stretch to accomplish new goals, then you’re a rare bird among editors.

This level of editing and, frankly, care is worth striving for. Helping the team increase its performance is obviously good for the team and the organization overall, of course. Helping individual members of the team with their careers benefits them and the organization. And this kind of work is profoundly satisfying for you as an editor as well.

Editing provides a powerful opportunity to have an impact on other, often younger writers and editors. As I learned at VentureBeat, this can be incredibly satisfying.

Outside journalism, helping people write better and more clearly has more of an effect on their careers—whether they remain content creators or not—than almost any other management intervention I know of.

Knowing that you have played a significant, beneficial role in the careers of others is one of the greatest rewards of the editing role.

MORE: The collaborative writing series

This post is part of a 12-part series. Click here to see the rest: A short course on collaborative writing
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