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Thoughts on EBW (Editing Before Writing)

October 13, 2014



A couple of months ago, Hamilton Nolan published a righteous, 1,200-word screed against editors on Gawker. In it he argues that prestigious magazines and newspapers employ too few writers and far too many editors, who tinker with and sometimes ruin perfectly good stories to justify their own existence. Most editors are either talented former writers who had to accept a promotion to pay the bills, he says, thereby depriving us of their true gifts (bad), or total fuckwits with tin ears who relish being middle managers (worse).

As an editor myself, I can spot the genre of Nolan’s piece: Hyperbolic Internet Rant. So I won’t take everything he asserts at face value. Such as that writing and editing are “completely different skills” (as different as brain surgery and rock climbing?) and that writing is so much harder than editing. Perhaps that last claim is true if you’re talking about the New Yorker or The Atlantic or any publication where an editor can take her pick of pitches from brilliant writers with great access who will labor for months on small masterpieces.

At trade or nonprofit or specialty publications, you still get great pitches sometimes, and you still get to work with terrific writers, but it’s never enough: You’ve got to come up with X pages of content a month or Y posts per week, so you’d better make some calls and generate a lineup, fast. Often, it’s easier to just write one or two of the damn stories yourself.

But Nolan did get me thinking about the two-step structure of most journalism careers. Usually, people start as writers and go on to become editors. I did it the other way around. Right now I have a foot in both camps, editing a series for a web publication while freelancing for other outlets. Here’s how I think my “flipped” career path—editing before writing—has benefited me and how it’s had drawbacks, too.


Before I wrote, I read a lot. I had a false-start career in academia, and wrote a fair bit of turgid prose in grad school—but as for journalism, I had only a few book reviews to my name when I landed my first internship at the age of 25. My job was fact-checking feature articles for a national magazine. Fact-checking is the most anal job ever, and it’s driven many a writer crazy (“Can you verify that the sky over Boston was blue that afternoon? The Weather Channel archives say ‘partly sunny'”). But it forces you to reverse-engineer a story, to report it backwards, and see how the writer put together the constituent parts. In other words, it’s ideal training for being a writer.

When I graduated to an associate editor position, I was editing reported features and essays by prominent writers. An editor is the most attentive reader there is, so I was able to learn how different story structures worked (or didn’t) and attune my ear to the use and misuse of voice.

I internalized that writers are just people. Phillip Lopate is an essayist of great renown. He’s also a human being, one who sends emails about deadlines to his editors and writes his pieces in Microsoft Word, the same way you or I would, but with more memorable results.

I only worked with Lopate once or twice, but it brought home to me that the best, most celebrated writers aren’t remote beings who exist on some higher intellectual plane—they’re just people who have become very good at what they do. And they’re not infallible. Every great writer is tripped up by something a 10th-grader might find dumb: the correct spelling of “embarrassed” or a misguided belief that San Francisco is California’s capital. (Hold these moments close, to remember later when you’re beset by self-doubt.)

A few times I’ve gone toe to toe with writers about story structure or word choice. Doing so gave me confidence I didn’t have before. I still regret the times I got it wrong, like when I inserted outré into a piece shortly before publication and the writer fumed that he would never, EVER use that word. But almost all of the writers I’ve edited still talk to me, and some are even friends. (Including the outré guy.)

I learned how busy editors are. Go ahead, laugh, Hamilton Nolan. But it’s true: Most editors today are slammed. Their ranks have been thinned by the recession. They get upwards of a hundred pitches each day from freelancers and PRs. They have to go to asinine corporate meetings as well as editorial ones. If their publication is tethered to an events business, or has some other revenue-generating arm, they’re expected to moderate panels, court new sponsors, brainstorm programming, and so on. I know this from experience, which means that now, as a freelancer, I don’t panic when an editor doesn’t read my first draft or respond to a pitch for a while.

I appreciate a good edit of my own work. Instead of freaking out about cuts or changes, I’m grateful to an editor who can tighten my argument and make me sound smarter. Best of all is when an editor pushes me to really own my convictions. Recently, I wrote a draft that looped back on itself as I nervously tried to present every angle and nuance. My editor was having none of it. He cut an unnecessary rebuttal section, noting that this person had already had his say—he didn’t need to have it again. He was right, and the final piece was much stronger.


All those strong voices made me feel cowed. Working among writers at the top of their game can be as discouraging to a young, unformed writer as it is exhilarating. You set yourself impossibly high standards; you don’t allow yourself to experiment because the results seem so bad. For years, I was such a slow, hesitant, plodding writer, I could never have made a career of it. My internal editor was a tyrant. I’m not sure how I broke through that, except by sheer force of will, and lots of practice, in my thirties.

I didn’t get much writing practice early on. When I was in college in the UK, I kept applying to the university paper and hearing nothing back; unlike semi-professional American college papers, it was a tabloid run casually by a clique of people I didn’t know. At that time, the UK didn’t have an internship culture, either—and crucially, it was before the Internet.

Today, it’s a more competitive field than ever, but there are so many platforms where a writer can start testing his or her voice, formulating ideas, building an audience. I would have loved that as a junior editor on my way to being a writer, too.

Image by Denise Krebs/Flickr 

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