Thank you for editing: the importance of an invisible editor

Editors are the unsung heroes of publishing, the gatekeepers between good content that is published and bad content that is published—and they are sadly and quietly disappearing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2012 that in a 10-year period, jobs for editors would decrease by 2 percent.

Two percent sounds very little (and it is in a field of about 115,300 editors competing against one another), but that’s still 2,800 editors making sure that a publication is running smoothly. Unless it is a one-woman or one-man blog, there will be an impact, but perhaps not in the way people may think.

The naive may assume an editor’s sole responsibility is to spell check and fact check, scouring for typos and dangling modifiers. The cynical may assume an editor is just a bureaucratic agent standing in the way of a writer’s mission. Yet writers and editors need one another.

Every team needs good players and coaches: same with publications. Writers need editors and editors need writers. We forget that editors are responsible for so much more than changing tense. It is only when editors fail that their responsibilities remind us why they are important.

The New York Times blunder of the now infamous “Angry Black Woman” post by Alessandra Stanley was overseen by several editors before approval to post. Here, editors’ work is called into question. Editors are like counter-terrorism agents or goalies: their work is only visible when something goes wrong.

Then, immediately the blame is pushed onto the editors. Where were the editors when they published? They need to be fired! Gather the pitchforks! We don’t need editors for this!

Yet is the absence of editors really that much better? Not at all.

Need proof? Here are some worst-case scenarios of what happens without editors. Take recent millennial blog Thought Catalogue as a prime example. According to a recent story by The Washington Post, the company operates with very few editors and an “anything goes” publishing policy. It’s led to some pretty terribly thought-out content, from pieces like “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural” or “Is It OK To Make Fun Of Asians?” peppered into the usual “25 Things I Learned At 25” posts.

Good editors are there to make judgment calls on behalf of the publication: should we publish this? Should we axe that?

5 reasons why writers and publishers need an editor

  1. A second pair of eyes can catch typos, misspellings, grammar mishaps, dangling modifiers, etc.
  2. More importantly, an editor has a second, objective mind. This mind can see the flaws in arguments and offer logical solutions.
  3. Editors offer an illusion of professionalism.
  4. Editors are collaborators more than anything and encourage the writers to take their suggestions to make the piece stronger.
  5. Great editing is invisible and thankless. The selection of which pieces to run, the careful phrasing, and the encouragement it takes to deal with neurotic writers is a lot of work for one person.

So writers and publishers today, please thank your editors for their invisible hand at guiding your work. And if you don’t have an editor, hire one.

Famous Publishing Editors

By Emily E. Steck

A writer is only as good as his or her's editor. These are some of the all-time greats.

  • Maxwell Perkins

    By Emily E. Steck

    A prolific editor for the likes of F. Scott Fizgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, he is perhaps the most famous literary editor of all time.

  • Michael Pietsch

    By Emily E. Steck

    The CEO of Hachette Book Group was also the editor of David Foster Wallace's great books, as well as Wallace's posthumous book The Pale King which Pietsch assembled after Wallace's suicide.

  • Max Brod

    By Emily E. Steck

    Best friends with Franz Kafka, Brod was instructed to burn everything Kafka had ever written while Kafka was on his deathbed. Instead, Brod edited and published his friend's lifelong work.

  • Rufus Wilmot Griswold

    By Emily E. Steck

    Though he and author Edgar Allen Poe not-so-secretly hated each other, but professionally elevate each other's work. 

  • Ezra Pound

    By Emily E. Steck

    A major figure of the early modernist movement, Pound worked with legendary writers like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.

  • Gordon Lish

    By Emily E. Steck

    The editor to Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford and more is most famous for his very extensive and controversial edits on behalf of his authors.

  • Jim Nelson

    By Emily E. Steck

    The editor-in-chief of Condé Naste's GQ was a former TV news writer and then writer's assistant in a Hollywood sitcom, of which [he wrote]( about his experiences. 

  • Dean Baquet

    By Emily E. Steck

    The executive editor of The New York Times runs one of the most respected newspapers in the country. Notably, he replaced Jill Abramson after she was [abruptly fired in mid-2014](

  • Dan Roth

    By Emily E. Steck

    Critics will argue that social networking site LinkedIn is not a publisher, but executive editor Dan Roth has proved it is one of the [most powerful places in publishing](

  • David Remnick

    By Emily E. Steck

    The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998. 

  • Anna Wintour

    By Emily E. Steck

    The editor-in-chief of the American Vogue is allegedly the inspiration for the book and film The Devil Wears Prada. 

Image: Laura Ritchie/Flickr

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