Should Book Editors Be Writers?

One of our long-term veteran editors, Linda Doll (and my coauthor of Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength.), used to tell interns and employees alike in the editorial department that if you wanted to be a writer you came to the wrong place. A book editor’s job is to edit. If you want to write, fine–do that on your own time. But don’t expect to have your cravings, yearnings, desires and dreams for writing fulfilled at the office. A harsh dose of reality? Perhaps. But reality nonetheless.

So was she contradicting Jim Sire, one of Linda’s long-time colleagues here at InterVarsity Press, when he would say to prospective editors, “If you do not like to write, stay away from editing”?

They are both right, I think, because they aren’t talking about exactly the same thing. Linda is saying that book editors aren’t paid to write books. They are paid to edit books. If your focused ambition is to write, and that ambition has been frustrated, editing may be as close as you can get to it. But as an editor you have to care about what other people write and help them to get their writing in the best shape possible–rather than make an author say what you want to say the way you want to say it.

At the same time, editing can involve, as Jim Sire says, rewriting. And editors (not just copyeditors) need from time to time to be able to do that. And if you don’t like writing, if you don’t like playing with words, if you don’t like to journal or write letters or emails or something of that sort, editing may not be for you. (Unless perhaps you are or want to be purely an acquisitions editor, but that is a topic for another post.)

Neither is being a published writer necessarily a good path into editing. It may be, but it doesn’t guarantee it. One of my other long-time colleagues, Jim Hoover, often notes that writing involves initiating while editing involves responding. Both can be creative, but one begins something new and the other reacts to it, making it better. Some people are good at and enjoy both initiating and responding. But most can only do one or the other well. So if you don’t enjoy reacting to or improving writing or ideas, editing is probably not for you.

Working at magazines and newspapers can be very different in this regard because they will sometimes hire writers or expect editors to offer editorials or opinion columns or blogs. Even book publishers like IVP have started blogs by editors, such as this one and this one. So the landscape is changing a bit.

But in general, what Jim Sire and Linda Doll say still stands: if you want to write, don’t expect to get your fix through editing. But if you can’t or don’t like to write, editing probably isn’t for you.