It’s likely that you may have heard the saying “most editors are failed writers,” and this sentiment is not only untrue, but quite insulting. The idea actually came out of a parlay between T.S. Eliot and his future editor Robert Giroux. Of course, Eliot being Eliot said, “Perhaps, but so are most writers.” But, as Josh Bernoff so brilliantly put it, “writers and editors work on the same end product” and rather than see these as separate occupations, we are often tempted to “see their jobs as extensions of one another.” Instead, we should see editors and writers as being complementary to one another, and in fact, in my own experience, becoming a better editor helps you become a better writer and vice versa.
The two major points which I feel I must lift from Bernoff’s brief article are these: “Writers are builders and artists” while “Editors are…clever and versatile readers.” After all, editing is more about reading than writing, but both complement one another. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all readers can be editors, absolutely not, as Bernoff himself remarks. True editors require skill and experience at not just writing, but reading critically, understanding where pieces of writings can and do go wrong, and how to offer solutions which fix or smooth over issues in writing to make it work better.
I especially love this bit:
This is where writers and editors can be both, but one doesn’t necessarily presume that the other can be good at the other’s job. As Bernoff remarks, “not all good writers are effective editors, and not all good editors are successful writers, because they require different skills and attitudes.”
Bernoff says as a writer, you can make three choices. The first is to become the best writer you can be with your own “particular talent and approach.” The second option is to focus on the art and craft of writing as a whole and understand what allows writers to improve and refine their work; many editors limit themselves to a specific genre as a result of their specialty. The third option, as what I’ve done myself, is to do both.
It may seem like a lot of extra work to be good at both writing and editing, and it most certainly is. But, these skills are indeed complementary, despite them being quite functionally different. For years, I may have one or two people I could turn to for minor editing, but nine times out of ten, I had to be my own editor. Along the way, I’ve written a lot of crap. I’ve had clients be rather cross with me that I didn’t give them what they wanted.
But, I learned from all these things. These are all the things that got me to where I am as both a writer and editor today, and in fact, I’ve learned so much, I’ve considered writing an entire book on the subject, which I will be talking about in several articles I’m presently working on.
So, to answer the question, are most editors failed writers? The short answer is no. The somewhat longer answer is that, yes, there are editors who were not successful writers, but that by no means makes them “failed” writers. This is a topic I will be delving into in its own feature article.
Thanks to Josh Bernoff for writing this excellent post and giving me a good resource for what I was planning to write on the art of editing. I should go buy his book, Writing Without Bullshit, right now. In fact, I just did!