Three Ways a Good Editor Makes Journalism Better

The best editors are mostly warm-blooded—supportive and encouraging—but also capable of being cold-blooded enough to kill stories and fire someone when it has to be done. Ruth Whitney, the legendary editor of Glamour, once told me she didn’t like to get to know her writers too well because it made it too hard “to play lord high executioner.”

The best editors are inner-directed (by an internal gyroscope), not other-directed (taking cues from other people). (See The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman.). The job of the editor is to work for the reader. Some editors, and many writers, are too other-directed and try too hard to impress other journalists at the expense of the reader.

Fast-thinking—now the driving force in digital journalism and cable television—is often wrong. In his brilliant book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows there are two ways of thinking: Fast thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Slow thinking gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of fast thinking. A good editor can make journalism better by bringing more thoughtfulness, more slow-thinking, to it.

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