Disclaimer: IANA(E2)E. I'm the editor of a successful international business magazine. I never have been and probably never will be an editor on E2. This is about professional publishing; not about E2.
I've recently come across a number of people who seem to think that an editor spends a lot of time proof-reading and correcting typos. That's a small part of what we do, but it is one of the most mechanical and least challenging aspects of the work. I'm aiming here to explain some of the more interesting tasks that fall into the editor's lap. I should also add at this stage that I'm writing mainly about factual journalism, rather than fiction or short stories.
Although many editors are also journalists and writers, I'm not going to cover those aspects of the job in this piece, because the emphasis here is on dealing with pre-written text and processing it to create a published product. I do write stuff, but that's not part of my editorial function. As editor, my job is to manage and control the content of the title for this issue, the next issue and into the future.
There. I've declared my hand: print publishing as opposed to web publishing. I've talked about this issue and subsequent issues. For a live web-based product, it's just a question of changing this bite-wise approach to a continuous one. That's a detail, it has no effect on the nature of the job.
Back to the task in hand: I don't have a formal job description, but if I had to write one, it would cover the following functions.
- The editor is responsible for the content of the publication both on a day-to-day level and on a long-term strategic level.
- The editor selects what goes in the publication and what stays out. This is also at the detailed and strategic levels.
- The editor recruits and manages staff, including permanent staff and freelancers.
- The editor plans schedules, assigns staff to stories and chases them when they fail to meet deadlines.
- The editor has to set and achieve budgets, ensuring that the readers get what they want at a price that permits the publication to retain a secure financial footing. On this note, by far the biggest expense at most magazines is staff salaries and freelance fees. Guess what is first to be cut in times of financial difficulty.
- The editor decides what equipment to buy (computers, software, cameras, and so on), who is trained on it and how it is used.
- The editor, in conjunction with other staff, selects ISP services, website designers, cartoonists, illustrators and other external services.
- The editor, in cooperation with the publisher looks to see if other publications are ripping off proprietary content.
- Also in conjunction with the publisher, the editor, looks to the long-term development of the title, by proposing conferences, award schemes, exhibitions, new markets and other ways to extend the brand and increase revenue.
- Then, of course, there's dealing with the inevitable complaints when people about whom one writes do not get what they expect. Sometimes that is justified. Often it is not. But you have to deal with it, even when it was one of your staff that triggered the complaint.
Broadly that's it. There are plenty of incidental things that help to relieve the tedium of sitting in front of a computer and chairing meetings. Editors of specialised magazines are often used as a free source of information by members of the public, generalists in the media (TV, radio etc), financial analysts and suchlike.
On the same theme, A good editor is likely to get invited to a fair few corporate events. Often these invitations seek a journalist, but sometimes they want a representative of the industry to chair meetings, speak to investors, offer opinions on the future of the industry and that kind of thing. These are fun diversions from the routine of getting the publication out on a regular basis.
SmartAlix notes that these visits present invaluable opportunities to talk with the readers, to find out what they are thinking and what their concerns might be. Of course. 100 percent. 110 percent.
A lot of these, like recruiting and planning, are standard management skills. There's nothing special about how an editor chairs a meeting, so I don't want to discuss those here. I want to focus on the tasks specific to an editor and highlight some areas where people might have grasped the wrong idea.
Editing -v- Proof-reading
Anyone who has worked in an editorial office for more than a few months gets to proof-read copy. The vast majority of people who remain in the industry for a few years acquire an almost miraculous ability to spot typos subliminally. I simply cannot look at any piece of text, anywhere, without seeing the mistakes. They somehow jump out at me. I am sure it is the same for everyone who has done this work for any length of time. You get to look through so many words with the deliberate intention of finding the errors, that your brain gets into a pattern of seeing them quickly. That's not to say I'm infallible, I'm not. No-one is.
On the other hand, I do find that there are a number of different ways to look at a piece of text. I'm going to pick three, because that's a good number to write about. Always do things in threes. That gives a beginning, a middle and an end.
The first read-through--or rather the first scan--is simply to get the sense of it. Broadly I'll do this first, without trying to find any errors: read it through, probably skimming it, to see if it has any merit. This can be done on screen or on paper and only takes a few seconds per sheet of paper. I look at a lot of material sourced from other languages, so I don't look too hard at grammar or spelling at this stage. I'm trying to understand what the piece is trying to say, and make a fast judgement about whether that justifies space in the publication, and if so how much space.
The second way of reading something is essentially proofreading. Picking up the typos, spelling errors, non-sequiteurs and disjoints that populate almost every piece of text. In the old days people would mark the text with coloured pens, using a standard set of marks for deletions, transpositions, insertions and so on. Nowadays, this is often done on screen but there's still a fair amount of marking goes on in most editorial offices. Experienced editors still find more errors in a print-out than they do on-screen. Fact of life. Although I've placed this approach to reading second, it's usually the final step of the process. To be honest, a piece usually needs to be proofed at least three times. And anyone who claims they can spot all the errors first time through is lying, or deluding themselves.
The third way of looking at a piece of text is the most interesting. It's to see how it can be improved. A simplistic approach to this is to chop out the superfluous. Beyond that, however, sometimes the author wrote the words in a haphazard fashion, jumping from idea to idea, so the editor needs to put the various paragraphs in a more readable sequence, introducing ideas and arguments only when necessary. Sometimes you need to remove a whole chunk and put it into a box as a sidebar to the main piece. That way the piece looks better on a page, and becomes easier to understand.
Often, if the piece has been written really badly it is quicker and more effective to totally re-write the piece, keeping only the odd phrase from the original author's words, and replacing the rest with clean, re-written text in a easy-to-read sequence. Note at this stage that the editor is not even thinking about the sweat, blood and tears an author might have put into their work. The over-riding goal is to make the readers' lives easier.
Re-writing and heavy editing are both far easier to do on screen than on paper. You can shift a chunk of text, see how it looks and how it reads. If it works, move onto the next chunk. If not, then it is easy to flip back to the original and see if it fits somewhere else. In the old days of marking up galleys, you had one shot at it, and it had to be right. Nowadays, it is much easier to get a good structure. Unfortunately, time is often a big limitation, and this step can be time-consuming.
One of the key skills for an editor, however, is to see what is missing. In my opinion, this is the most critical skill of a good editor.
Anyone can see the superfluous*. Anyone can proof-read*. A lot of people can re-shuffle a set of paragraphs and move some of them to a sidebar. Relatively few people can see what facts and arguments are missing from a piece. Even fewer can see what stories are needed to complete a collection of semi-random articles. I want to address this in more detail a bit later.
*This is not true. It is not even true among those in the publishing business, nor among those with an education. It may be true among professional editors, but I wouldn't bet on it. So when I talked about recruitment in that list above, it is vital to give candidates practical proof-reading and sub-editing tests. I am continually astonished at the number of candidates who say they have a history in the publishing business, yet can neither spell nor re-write a simple story. I don't care about a person's qualifications. I will base my recruitment decision on how well they handle a simple practical test.
So while all good editors have learned to proof-read, the skills are not interchangeable. A good proof-reader will not always make a good editor.
Filling in the gaps
Most editors have far more copy available than their readers want, or have time to read. It is easy to fill pages with text. It is easy to get the words to fill gigabytes of web pages. Because of this, editors sometimes concentrate a bit too much on cutting existing material to suit the space available. Editors can get a bit trigger-happy, if they don't keep an eye on the bigger picture.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to show how an editor might identify gaps in the coverage. It's surprisingly difficult to illustrate this, but the most simplistic example might be when an author submits a piece of text that lacks a suitable introduction, or that misses a key element in an argument, then the editor has to first identify that omission, and then find a way of filling it. That could mean writing a fill-in paragraph, or requesting a re-write from the author. As I said, this is the most simplistic level, but it serves to illustrate the problem. The editor has to read the piece, understand it and see where the author has gone wrong.
The next level up could be where an author has missed the most obvious example, or a generalist author, writing for a specialist audience has chosen examples unfamilar to the audience. The editor has to ensure the readers identify with the piece, rather than reject it as irrelevant to their needs because of poor choice of examples. That means finding relevant examples to replace the initial selection.
Moving on from there, many publications use themes in their various issues. The editor needs to make sure all the different features show readers a coherent picture and that every aspect of the chosen theme has been covered. Not only that, but if there is a particular hot topic in the industry, then it is vital to make sure that hot topic has been covered adequately. Readers who are interested in that topic will expect the important areas to be properly addressed, and if the editor misses a trick here, the readers will start to lose faith.
And now we get to the heart of the matter. A good editor has to control what goes in the publication. Cutting out the crap is the easy bit. A much harder part is seeking out and providing the articles that the readers want. These--almost by definition--will not exist in the mass of articles sitting on the editor's desk. In a business magazine, you have to know what the hot topics are, and then get articles that resolve issues, explain technicalities and advise on future actions. In a general purpose publication, things are perhaps a bit easier: but in every type of publication, the editor has to lead by selecting good, relevant, useful stories.
Being an editor is not about simply cutting and correcting typos. It's about leading the readers and leading the publication. As an editor, I have commissioned plenty of surveys, and the results support accepted industry wisdom. Readers want a number of things. At the most basic level, they want the births marriages and deaths: they want to hear about themselves and their friends. They want names, and dates and colleagues and allies. And yes, they want the news and they want the facts, but these are not the most important ingredient.
The thing readers value above everything else is reading opinions that express that which they have not yet thought. The most important part of being an editor (IMHO) is crystallising the part-formed ideas that the readers have not yet realised they are thinking.
This is emphatically not about telling people what to think. No journalist or editor has that power. We have the power to express what people are already thinking, but have not yet vocalised or clarified. We have the power to put words to their half-formed thoughts. We have the power to lead people in the direction they want to go.
We do not have the power to push people down a path they are not already headed. We do not have the power to direct their thoughts or opinions. Readers will resist preaching or proselytising. They will embrace our ideas when we tell then what they are already thinking, but they will hate us for imposing our opinions on them.
This, then is the core of the editor's job: to put into words the views, ideas and opinions of the readers.
We do that by giving them the articles and stories that help them down that path. We do that by writing op-eds that put words to their half-formed ideas. We do that by commissioning (and writing) articles that keep them informed. We do that by thinking and caring.
And that’s why proof-reading is such a small part of an editor's job.