Why Good Writers Are Usually Bad Editors

By Jack Limpert

“One thing that drives me crazy, and this is especially true in newspapers, is the notion that you should take your best writer and ‘promote’ him to be an editor. This is idiotic, and it happens all the time, and nine times out of ten you lose a good writer and end up with a mediocre editor. You can no more ‘promote’ a writer to be an editor than you can ‘promote’ a plumber to be a gardener. Totally different skill sets.”

—From an interview with Charles Pierce, who often writes for Esquire.
Two totally different skill sets?

To understand I’d go back to a book, Frames of Mind, by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, that helped me try to figure out the differences between editors and writers. Gardner proposed that there are eight intelligences: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

I usually found that good writers were strong on verbal-linguistic, while good editors were more logical-mathematical. That distinction fit me: math was my strongest subject in school and I drifted from majoring in chemical engineering in college to life as an editor.

I always thought that really good writers have that something special, what Gardner calls verbal-linguistic intelligence, that you’re born with. It separates the very good writers from the many okay writers—I saw the difference hundreds of times and I never thought as an editor I could do very much to make an okay writer into a great writer.

There are, of course, lots of different skill sets among writers and one thing an editor does is to try to keep the writer focused on what he or she does best. I had one writer who was a good reporter, a natural at getting people to talk, who came in one day and said he needed a break from the hard work of reporting and wanted to write think pieces. Not your skill set, I tried to gently tell him—but that urge has caused lots of good reporters to become tiresome columnists.

I had writers who were good at logic and analysis—they’re good at explanatory pieces. And I had writers who were bad at logic and analysis but good at feature writing—they needed an editor to help with structure but they were a pleasure to read.

What good editors mostly bring to journalism is clarity, helping writers to say things clearly. A good  editor also helps with not boring the reader. Make it clear and keep the story moving.

Charles Pierce is right—the skill sets are different.

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