In Favor of Editors: Two Writer/Editors Discuss Desperately Wanting More Editors


Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan thinks the world needs fewer editors. In his piece today, “Against Editors,” Nolan argued that the two-tier system of advancement in journalism—in which there are writers and editors, and editors are in charge of writing—privileges middle managers over the people producing actual writing.

But a central problem with Nolan’s article is that it ignores that the collapse of those two functions—writer and editor—is really more about resources than it is about editors “justifying their existence.” In Nolan’s perspective, every piece goes through the hands of too many editors, thus diluting it and making it worse. But overediting, though problematic, is all kinds of luxurious. In most cases, the problem is not too many editors; it’s too few. Most places don’t have many layers between writing and pressing publish, which is a far greater problem—just look at the comments section.

At Brooklyn, I’m an associate editor, which really means “staff writer who has some production responsibilities,” not editor in the truest sense of the word.  At most online publications, the distinction between the two fields is collapsed out of necessity. I talked about it with our managing editor, Kristin Iversen, whose job translates to “staff writer plus wrangler of other writers plus person who does anything else editorially that needs doing.” Kristin?

Kristin: First of all, Margaret, how dare you expose my actual job responsibilities to the world at large. How dare you. But also, yeah, one thing you learn pretty quickly is that, at many media companies, titles are sort of meaningless and that there is most definitely an all hands on deck kind of mentality no matter what your assumed job responsibilities or how long you’ve been there. In fact, a lot of the time, seniority is only achieved by saying yes to doing more than what was in your initial job description, and it’s maintained by continuing to do all those things. Like, forever and ever. So maybe you start out as just a writer, but when you become an editor, you’re also still writing. Plus editing! Plus writer wrangling! Plus so many other things! Which means that, yeah, there are very few pure editors out there right now, at least in small- to mid-size media companies, because most of the people who hold the job of “editor” got there based on their writing, even when they don’t get the chance to write as much anymore. And, yeah, I do think most online writing suffers from a deficiency of editors.

Margaret: Right! To me, it is boggling to complain about editing, particularly since it’s very rare that anyone has time to actually do a serious, multi-level edit of your writing anymore. We’re all doing a hundred things, and we’re all pressed for time. A couple of the places that I’ve written before didn’t have editors so much as web producers, who mostly worried about things like tweaking SEO and putting in the right video content, and only much later would be able to comment on the quality of your writing. Plus, you need fresh eyes on your work. If you spend long enough with anything, it becomes difficult to see the holes in it. You need someone to hold it up to the light and say, well, that sentence would be better if you rearranged it or “um, Margaret, ‘twistening’ is not a real word.”

Being edited by someone smart, particularly someone who invests real time in it, is a pleasure. Because when it comes down to it, good editors are good readers, and good readers are who you want to be writing for in the first place. If anything, when I read this I was like, NO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD MORE EDITORS. Plus, that example he gave with giving the New Yorker article around to ten different editors was ridiculous.

Kristin: Yeah, totally. If only because it betrays a complete lack of understanding about editing and good editors and, well, writing, which is that there is no platonic ideal of any piece of writing, and that, yes, every editor will try to make his or her mark on a piece, but not because they’re assholes or bad at their jobs, but because they want to make you better at yours. Look, there are definitely shitty editors out there who over-edit, but, well, there are a lot more editors—or, rather,
editors”—who don’t edit enough or at all! And I don’t know a single good writer who doesn’t love being edited. First, every writer wants their work to be better, and knows that they’re incapable of having real perspective on it after awhile. And second, once writers get past the point of thinking each word of theirs is precious (which should happen pretty damn quickly if you’re any good), writers relish having someone else taking their work seriously.

Sadly, though, it’s usually only writers at a place like The New Yorker or the New York Times who get the full attention of really great editors for their work. Because most working writers are primarily writing online these days, meaning that money is usually scarce and certainly isn’t allocated to hiring people with one skill, like editors. It’s all about the money and the numbers. As someone who works at Gawker surely knows! Which is why it’s hilarious that Nolan says that if writers like editors, they should go into something which aligns more with their “numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales.” Haha. What.

Margaret: The whole thing actually felt like a massive sub-article against an unnamed editor at some fancy magazine that is stalling his article for no reason, right? Also this:

 The “new” online media, happily, tends to be less editor-heavy than the big legacy media outlets that have sprouted entire ecosystems of editors and sub-editors over the course of decades. This is partly because the stark economics of online journalism make clear just how wasteful all those extra editors are.

I think online media tends to be less editor-heavy because it moves faster, and is more cash-strapped, not due to this secret glut of wasteful editors. And lack of editors, even as understood even simply as “someone else who will read this before you put it up,” often leads to the most disastrous tone-deaf garbage. I mean just check out Thought Catalog’s recent debacle. This whole screed read more like a jab at old media than anything.

Kristin: Ha. Yes. “Who killed Hamilton Nolan’s darlings?” is the real subtext here. And also, yeah, a lot of new media companies might be editor-light, but other than Nolan, I have yet to know of any writer who thinks this is a good thing. And, in fact, most writers I know would happily relinquish many of their “editing” duties (which aren’t usually about edits at all), in order to focus more on writing. But that could easily also mean relinquishing their jobs. So!

In conclusion, I’m not going to say that Nolan’s article would be better if he had a better editor because that’s what he wants everyone to say and also I think it’d be more like Nolan’s article wouldn’t exist if he had an editor who wasn’t just interested in getting media Twitter talking about something other than the Kim Kardashian game or Ferguson, but I will say that this is so clearly not an editors vs writers issue at all, as Nolan makes it out to be, and rather just an issue of money and people who don’t want to spend it on getting quality work, and instead care more about quantity. I’m going to go listen to the president now. And probably get mad in a million different ways.

Margaret: Agreed. But we’re just wannabe carpet saleswomen, Kristin. What do we know?

Follow Margaret Eby and Kristin Iversen on Twitter @margareteby and @kmiversen.

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  1. “But we’re just wannabe carpet saleswomen, Kristin. What do we know?”

    Oh, cut the false modesty. Although I admire Hamilton greatly, you two have the better of this argument, I think. Every smart writer knows she benefits from a good editor. My own feeling is that even a not-so-good editor is almost always better than no editor.

    Otherwise a lot of the time you will end up with writing on the level of this and other comments.