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.