Wednesday Write #49: A Taxonomy Of Editors

Note to Brilliant readers: A little less than a year from now, my book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter will be published. Each Wednesday between now and then I’ll be posting here on my blog about the writing and publishing process—a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the journey of a book from manuscript to publication.

I’ve labeled this post number 49 because I’ll be counting down each week from 52 to (gulp) 0, Pub Day (you can read #52 here, #51 here, and #50 here). As the manuscript of Brilliant becomes a book, I’d like to take you along—and I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we go.—Annie

Over the course of a nearly 20-year career in journalism, I’ve worked with a lot of editors: good, bad, and indifferent (indifferent as in: I’m not sure they even read what I wrote before sending it on to production—see “The Out-To-Luncher,” below).

Of course, every editor has his or her own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but I’ve been at this long enough to recognize that they fall into a few general categories. Herewith, a taxonomy of editors (and I hope Brilliant readers who are also writers will add their own classifications in the comments section):

The Good

The Mentor. Most writers have an editor who, early on, gave them the support and the confidence that every beginning scribbler needs to believe that maybe “being a writer” isn’t such a preposterous dream after all. These mentor figures may also provide the crucial nuts-and-bolts advice about writing that is hard to get any other way. My first editor, a crusty veteran of newsmagazines, taught me a technique I still use today, what he called “reverse outlining.” Usually, of course, you outline a story first and then write it. But sometimes you get so hopelessly tangled in your own storyline that you need to outline what you’ve already written: make the structure visible so you can see its weak spots, its missing connections. Every writer should be lucky enough to have an editor-mentor.

The Friend. This is the editor you call, not because you have an issue with the piece you’re working on, but because you just want to talk with her. She’s warm, funny, candid; writing for her is a pleasure. I had an editor like this who I still remember fondly; we haven’t worked together in years, but we still keep in touch, exchanging stories about our kids and our vacations.

The Craftsman. This is my favorite kind of editor to work with. The Craftsman is an expert at what he does. He knows how a story or book works, how the parts fit together, and how to fix a piece of writing when something has gone wrong. He gets so inside your writing that he understands it better than you do; he makes changes and suggestions that immediately (or not so immediately, but inevitably) make perfect sense. The Craftsman, if you’re fortunate enough to work with one, will make your writing far better than you could make it on your own.

The Bad

The Unicorn Hunter. This is the editor who dreams up the (often far-fetched) idea for an article first, then assigns you to go out and find its counterpart in the real world. Protests that you have looked high and low but can’t locate the precise phenomenon this editor wants to feature are met with a distinct lack of sympathy: “It’s out there! Find it!”  I’ve learned from hard experience that even if you manage to produce a unicorn, this editor will tell you it’s the wrong color.

The Screamer. This is the editor that writers trade stories about: “You think that’s nasty? Listen to what she said to me!” Somehow, these editors keep their jobs even as they alienate every writer they work with. I remember one editor I worked with who would start screaming as soon as I answered the phone; I would hold the phone away from my ear for a while and then try to answer her complaints as calmly as I could. These editors should come with a high-blood-pressure alert.

The Would-Be Writer. This is the editor who, you suspect, would really rather be writing your story than editing it. He inserts his own artful turns of phrase, his own colorful descriptions of scenes he’s never witnessed, his own chin-stroking insights and conclusions (which may or may not reflect the reporting you’ve done). Sometimes his contributions are welcome, but more often they introduce errors, or make your own piece feel like it was written by someone else.

The Indifferent

The Out-To-Luncher. This is the editor who’s barely there, who doesn’t return emails or phone calls, who always seems to be in meetings or on trips or yes, out to lunch. A well-known magazine writer and book author once told me about turning in a manuscript over which he had slaved for years, only to get it back in the mail a few days later with a brief note from his editor: “Fine as is.” “’Fine as is!’” he fumed, still outraged long after the incident. “’Fine as is’ is a sign you put on a wobbly stool at a yard sale, not feedback on a book manuscript.”

As I write this, I’m well aware that editors could come up with their own typologies of writers (I’ve worked as an editor, too, and I know that writers also come in different flavors—the deadline-missing flake, the clear-as-mud academic, the pro who nails it every time). Wary of each other though they may be, editors and writers need each other, and at its best this relationship produces the thing we’re all after: great writing.

Writers (and editors)—what are some of the types you’ve encountered?

Wednesday Write #52: Coming Out Of My Writer’s Cave

Wednesday Write #51: In Defense Of Self-Help

Wednesday Write #50: Can You Be A Writer If You Don’t Live In New York?





5 Responses to “Wednesday Write #49: A Taxonomy Of Editors”

  1. Matt Renwick says:

    I really liked this post Annie. The experience you have in the writing profession invaluable. Thank you for giving readers a window into your process. As a fledgling writer myself, I appreciate your willingness to share. The tip about reverse outlining was especially helpful. I am fortunate in my early publications that my experience with editors has been very positive.

    Looking forward to your future Wednesday Writes.


  2. Matt Renwick says:

    “is” invaluable, sorry…

  3. Thanks for this post! So much information. But I loved the out-to-luncher! HA!


  4. Great taxonomy! Totally agree about the value and joy of connecting with the best craftsmen (and craftswomen.) They’ve been a great boon over the years, and I’m grateful.

    Your description of the screamer was dead on. Some don’t even need to shout. They just radiate contempt or envy for what writers do, all the time. Frightening people to be around!

    Well said about the unicorn hunters. It’s worth noting that the worst ones show no ability to buy into a slightly different theme that, as Henry Kissinger once said, “has the added advantage of being true.” The better ones will budge … and in fact it’s possible to develop a decent working rapport by regarding their initial suggestions as “neighborhoods,” not addresses of specific destinations.

    Looking forward to the book. Go get ‘em!

  5. George says:

    Oh, that we all have a mentor. Especially in the early phase of our wanderings and wonderings.
    Well thought and well expressed and well worth reading. Thanks!

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