By Richard Babcock
I wanted to be a writer because that’s where the glory is, but at the mid-sized newspaper where I started out, I kept getting pushed into editing. I don’t think it was simply because my sentences were unimpressive. Rather, the higher-ups were acting on the dubious logic that because I had a law degree, I must know useful “things”—what sort of things was never quite clear, but reason suggested that I must have learned something useful in that expensive three-year professional education. No amount of argument (or malfeasance) would dissuade the bosses, so I became an editor.
Now, four decades later, when I occasionally teach journalism, I realize that there was a limited truth to their reasoning. Many of the essential skills we were taught in law school are the same skills at play in good editing: spotting issues; recognizing necessary facts; seeing all 360 degrees around a dispute; presenting information and arguments in logical order; sensing what’s missing; writing with clarity.
Most of the editors I know collected that toolbox of skills by osmosis—many starting when they were reporters. And, in fact, the skills probably represent essentials for effective people in most walks of life. With an editor, however, they are quite visibly on display.
Of course, that toolbox only counts for the story-editing side of the job—what might be called the technical side. The other side (the people side? the blowhard side?) calls on a whole different box of skills, and I suspect that collection is what separates most writers from editors. A writer is a lone ranger, out tracking the story in isolation. Sure, he or she can blame the editor for lousing up a story or a career, but that’s a tired excuse. In a fundamental way the writer operates alone. The editor, on the other hand, has to live in the crowded world.
I know it’s unseemly to quote yourself, but the protagonist of my last novel is a disgruntled book editor who briefly considers finding another occupation. Eventually, he realizes: “Being an editor is the perfect job for him. Coaxing, nitpicking, spotting holes, cutting excess, sharpening logic, recognizing talent, turning cynicism into something productive, acting like a [fucking] know-it-all. Editing is what he was born to do.” (I put “fucking” in brackets because my excellent book editor took it out.)
Though I have continued to do some writing, that list of activities probably describes my professional life over the last 35 years. And I’ve enjoyed it top to bottom. So I guess those higher-ups at my first newspaper knew what they were doing.
Richard Babcock was a top editor at New York magazine and then the long-time editor in chief at Chicago magazine until stepping down in 2011. His most recent novel is Are You Happy Now?
Also see Tom Shroder‘s story of how he became an editor. If you have a story about becoming an editor, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.