If you have an editor on staff as part of your content team, you might be curious as to what they actually do. After all, you write an article, and what comes out the other end of the process looks pretty much like what you put in. If you’re running a business and hire this person who calls themself an editor, you have the right to ask, “what am I paying this joker for?”
Problem is, people still think editors are important. For example, I was reading this interview with marketing guru Seth Godin a few months later than everyone else this year, and among the many gems of wisdom he passed on, one in particular stood out. Not just to me, but to the folks who wrote it too, because it inspired their headline. It was one of those statements that seems to answer a lot of questions at first but is actually more loaded than it first looks.
What Seth said was:
I think what kills brands who try to be interesting is to have meetings where they’re not saying to senior management, “How can we be more interesting?” Instead, they’re saying, “How can we play this more safely?” … You need editors, not brand managers, who will push the envelope to make the thing go forward.
I absolutely agree. But what secret tools of the editor’s trade makes them better than a brand manager when it comes to putting together your content?
I’ve worked as an editor for about 20 years, but more importantly, I’ve worked for and with some truly great editors, and have had the chance to watch and learn from them.
The first, important thing to note: most editors are NOT like what you see on TV or in popular culture. I’ve never worked for one who was chomping on a cigar, yelling for people to “hold the front page” or “stop the presses”, and none were surrounded by scurrying assistants.
In reality, the best editing is invisible. A well-edited page looks exactly the way it’s meant to, and reads so seamlessly that you don’t even know you’re reading at all. If you reach the end of an article without realising you were getting there, it’s as much due to good editing as good writing.
This is the way an editor achieves that effect:
An editor turns the vision for a publication into reality
That doesn’t mean he or she actually has the vision—they’re just the ones who are responsible for making it work. They do that by deciding what tone they would like the articles to be (serious and thoughtful, or light-hearted, or gossipy, or earnest); what mix of stories they want to have; how many stories they need; and most importantly, what they want the stories to be about.
This doesn’t mean the editor has to come up with every story idea (although some editors do). But the editor has to know the readers and the publication well enough that when someone else suggests a story idea, they know almost immediately whether it’s right for them.
An editor commissions writers
It’s quite difficult to have a ‘big picture’ view of a magazine or a blog and also do the fine-detail work of actually writing articles, which is why an editor will often commission other writers to do articles for them. Often, when they do commission writers, they will give them an idea of the angle they want on a story, and the type of story they want it to be (for an overview of different story types, check out this article).
An editor writes things like headlines, sub-headings, etc
All those extra things you see around an article are the responsibility of the editor. They have to picture what the final version of the article will look like on the page or screen, and add those elements that sell it to a reader. Sometimes a writer will come up with their own headlines, and sometimes the editor will use them—but really, it’s the editor’s job to decide which headline best sells the story to readers.
An editor is responsible for typos
No-one can proofread their own work perfectly. And any editor will tell you, don’t trust a spell-check in Word to check it either. With the help of sub-editors and proofreaders, a good editor approaches an article as a reader would, but with an eye for any of those little mistakes, like typos or missing words, that will pull a reader out of a story and back to reality.
An editor is responsible for hitting the publish button
Not just legally responsible, but responsible for shepherding all the articles through the publishing process until the very end. That’s why, when you come to the end of the publishing process, the editor frequently looks slightly nervous. They are doing last-minute reads of articles they’ve read a dozen times before, questioning their headlines, checking the call-to-action boxes and more.
Now you know why you’re paying for something that doesn’t look productive, and is hard to put a price on. But above and beyond all those day-to-day jobs an editor does, there is one, unexpected role your editor plays.
An editor is your best salesperson.
Why, you may ask?
Because they have the power to say no.