How Law School Prepared Me for Life as an Editor

By Richard Babcock

At the newspaper where I started out, I kept getting pushed into editing. The higher-ups were acting on the dubious logic that because I had a law degree I must know useful things about editing.

Now, decades later, 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.

But that toolbox only counts for the story-editing side of the editing job—what might be called the technical side. The other side—the people side—calls on a whole different box of skills, and I suspect that collection of skills is what separates most editors from writers. A writer is often a lone ranger, out tracking the story. In a fundamental way the writer operates alone. The editor has to live in the crowded world.

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 know-it-all. Editing is what he was born to do.”
Richard Babcock was a top editor at New York magazine and then the long-time editor in chief at Chicago magazine.

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