October 2010


Many people have felt the need to reassert the value of editors lately – granted, mostly editors themselves. Not only is the book publishing industry busy changing paradigms and laying off editors left and right, but media professionals find themselves expected to do their job with less money, maintain a blog, and keep a Twitter account on top of that. Amidst this exploding world of content (with less editors on the company payroll), it seems that one take is that professional writers should know their grammar, and if you find yourself in need of an editor constantly, hire a better writer. While those of us who are editors might bristle at that statement, I think it’s smart to reevaluate the value of an editor as new publishing paradigms & contexts are being established. Surely the value of an editor is greatly dependent on the context and medium. For example:

  1. Technical or scientific subjects. We can’t all be good at everything, and very often folks who have brilliant scientific and technical insights just aren’t writers. Partnering with a good editor is key to making sure these insights have their best effect.
  2. Long works, fiction or nonfiction. I’m working on a novel now, and I can tell you that the writing process, be it fiction or nonfiction, is a completely different animal than editing. In fact, although my grammar is almost always right on, that’s not why I will need an editor when I’m done. I need not just a fresh pair of eyes to see where I repeated myself several times over 300 pages (the writing brain simply should not keep up with such details when it’s writing), but someone with searing honesty who can tell me what parts to cut and what parts to expand – the things I never would have seen even if I reread it a thousand times. Producing a long work, even just the manuscript, requires a team.
  3. Newspaper or print magazine articles with tight deadlines. Here is where many noneditors want to define editing as superfluous, but I would still say that the reporter who has to get the content down fast and in a rhythm (which is how I did my best journalistic writing, early in my career – I had to write fast and all at once before that rhythm disappeared) shouldn’t have to make sure every comma’s in the right spot. Let them get on with their job and start the next story. Copyeditors need to be the moat around the substance of the piece. Or perhaps the knight in shining armor. Because when all the armchair grammarians see your piece the next day, they will focus on the mistakes and not the substance, and that’s what the letters to the editor will be about. And it’s too late to fix it.
  4. Blogs, online articles easily changed, and otherwise ephemeral content that is here today and gone tomorrow. At the risk of stating the obvious, I doubt an editing budget is necessary here, in that it should be enough for a good writer or separate pair of noneditor eyes to catch mistakes. Editing is still a necessary process, just like anyone would check their work before they shared it publicly in any context, but not one that would require solely designated staff. If something’s caught after it’s posted, it’s easily changed. Also, sometimes the BEST writing isn’t necessary for this context, particularly when its primary value is not literary longevity but the social network bolstered, the seed of a thought planted, the breaking news shared. But this primarily has to do with the easy changeability of the medium rather than the quality of content.
  5. An exception to #4 is marketing copy (often online) that has to earn its keep, where every reader missed is money lost. In the article link above, the author cited a study at IBM that showed edited web copy was 30% more effective than unedited – thus concluding that editors are vital in this context. But I have to respectfully disagree with the point of the author in this limited sense – if the marketing web copy isn’t as measurably effective, I’d say you do need a better copywriter. A marketing copywriter’s job is to come up with audience-catching copy. If there are just simple grammar errors that keep it from being effective, however, hopefully a good read from a fellow copywriter will catch those kinds of mistakes. But most good writers I know don’t make many of those, unless they’re over-rushed. That’s a different problem altogether, and hiring another specialized staffperson isn’t going to solve what is likely a core company problem. 

Bottom line: the more lasting value the writing project has (with the exception of web copy above, which I think is in its own category), the more you need an editor. No thoughtful editor truly believes she’s required in every context.

One thing that has a huge impact on the sustainability of anything is how much margin you have – how much space remains in your life once your obligations are met. You can have margins of time, of money, of energy, of love – anything that can be measured, and anything you can be either stingy or generous with. The opposite of having margin is living on the razor’s edge, where you have to be at the top of your game constantly just to keep up with your obligations. We’ve all been there, and I’ve certainly been there more often than not, in terms of time, money, energy, love – you name it. But our family’s new commitment is to build margin in every area so we have the freedom to pursue new but risky ideas, enjoy our relationships more, be more generous, and be capable of sacrificing when the long-term reward is worth it – all the things that make life worth living. We’ve carved out margin in our finances and in our health, and our current challenge is carving out margin in our time. My husband and I are notoriously overcommitted, and we’ve discovered that we usually have no one to blame but ourselves. More than that, overcommitting ourselves is like knocking over that first domino – it sends our margins of energy, health, household management, and ultimately finances (I’m just too tired to go after that next client) flying.

So how do we keep ourselves from making those commitments that seem like such good opportunities in the moment? Lots of time-management and personal productivity experts can help with the specifics of tracking commitments (our favorite is David Allen’s Getting Things Done), but I’ve found one thing that helps more than anything else in creating margin – and anyone who knows me knows what I’m going to say next – practicing the spiritual disciplines. These practices have been tested by time to help us discern and invest in what is real, what is eternal, what is life-giving, what we have been specifically created to do, and what is worth doing at all. The practice that’s helped me most in maintaining a margin with commitments (i.e., time) is the simple discipline of carving out a margin of time in the morning, before anyone gets up, and sitting quietly and listening. To God, to my relentless list of commitments racing through my head, to whatever’s speaking inside me. And then, if I can sit still and listen long enough (thirty minutes or so), everything seems to settle down into proper priority and wisdom speaks, helping me intuit what is most important (both eternally and temporally), what is secondary, and what will take care of itself without my help. Then I know what to do for the day, thus creating a margin of time on a daily basis, because I now know when I can stop for the day. Historically, of course, this has been known as the practice of meditation, and different religions expect different things from it, but right now its greatest gift to me is the margin of time.

Here’s to working with margin in all the valuable resources of our lives!

Two updates on the pursuit of sustainable communication through digital tools:

1. The folks at The Wealthy Freelancer did a fantastic job linking together freelancers from all over the world – at the same time – for the first annual International Freelancers’ Day. (Their eponymous book is equally fantastic – highly practical, energetic, and encouraging – and I strongly recommend it for any solo professional. Order it through their site and you get some great freebies.) Despite some technical difficulties at the beginning, Ed Gandia, Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage, and their team provided valuable free practical advice on developing and growing your solo business (i.e., the Freemium model that has been successful in media lately) and established themselves as the go-to advisors for freelancers, in my mind. Their content was mainly delivered by separate podcasts, scheduled at certain times (but archived so participants could access them for up to a month afterwards), which I thought was an ideal venue, particularly if presenters shuffled in their power point slides within the podcast. A great example of virtual communication at its best – professionals who persevered through technical difficulties (the tools don’t always work perfectly, no matter how far in advance we test them out), who provided several places for attendees to network in real-time (chat, Facebook page, blog) and stayed personally connected, and who provided lots of lasting resources for entrepreneurial empowerment. Bravo!

2. On the opposite end is the publishing industry’s current frenetic focus on the tool (e-readers, enhanced e-books, etc.) and not the content delivered. We’ve all been enamored with the cool new smart phones, iPads, and e-readers as different ways to receive our information and read our books. Yes, I still differentiate between the two experiences – reading books is still a particular, immersive experience for me, one that I can replicate on my Kindle but not so far on my Droid. [This has more to do with the length of books rather than the act of reading per se – I just need to settle in differently when the ideas presented are complicated enough to unfold slowly. Common sense, really.] 

Our friends at Digital Book World have been pointing this out, particularly through Guy LeCharles’ post On Digital Natives, Analog Marketing, and Branding. That said, I also have lots of patience for our friends in production – they need to master these tools, and they don’t need us breathing down their necks while they do so. More important, this current, frenetic focus on the surface tool in the publishing industry shouldn’t distract those of us who “produce content” (formerly known as writers and editors) – valuable content that lasts can only be produced by people who deeply experience tangible life, take lots of time to listen to and dwell deep in ideas, take risks to learn, and aren’t shy about speaking their mind, even when it’s not popular. That’s sustainable communication – words that last, ideas that live. If we don’t produce it, who will?