About Editing

Why Does Someone Become an Editor? Because It’s Too Hard to be a Writer?

By Jack Limpert

I’ve been an editor for almost 50 years and I know lots of editors and I’ve never asked any of them, “Why did you become an editor?”

I became an editor in 1964 not because of any desire to edit copy but because it was the best job offer at the time. After dropping out of law school, I’d spent four years with UPI in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Detroit and UPI wanted to move me to Chicago. I was being moved too much and wanted to settle down so looked for a job in Detroit. The daily paper in Mt. Clemens, just north of the city, was looking for someone to edit a weekly they owned in Warren, a fast-growing Detroit suburb. The money was decent and I’d be able to report and write and learn to be an editor.

A vivid memory: My first week as an editor I went to the printing plant in Mt. Clemens to lay out my first newspaper front page. I’d been in lots of newspapers as a UPI staffer but had never spent time in composing rooms. I was taken into the busy, noisy composing room of the Mt. Clemens daily and stood next to a guy who was there to help me lay out the front page. As we got started, I picked up a piece of headline type and asked, “Why don’t we put this here?” The composing room went silent. Then my co-worker quietly said, “You do not touch the type.” Those were the days when the  unions could shut down a paper for any number of reasons.

I learned to cover city council meetings and enjoyed the political battles but was baffled by so much time being spent on okaying water and sewer lines. Why would readers care about that? Well, a zoning lawyer told me, that kind of stuff may not sell papers but it did decide who among the developers was going to an instant multimillionaire.

Then on to San Jose, California, to edit a group of six weeklies (all offset, no hot type, no unions). In 1967, a move to Washington, D.C., to start a weekly paper, the DC Examiner,  followed by a fellowship and then a 40-year career editing the Washingtonian.

Why did I become an editor? It just happened—maybe that’s the way it is for most editors.

Last week Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine, published a piece, “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” that explored how he put aside his grand writing ambitions and ended up an editor. Here are a few excerpts:

“…as I began to do all right as an editor, I naively discounted it as something I never intended to stick with. A respectable occupation, I thought, while preparing myself for the Masterwork of Spectacular Brilliance that would eventually define me.”…

“…I was becoming an editor. I won’t lie. For a long time, I considered this an unacceptable outcome. I don’t know if anyone ever told me, ‘Those who can’t write, edit,’ or if I made that up on my own, but that little aphorism haunted me.”…

“Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution. The more I experienced this frustration firsthand, the more I came to appreciate how naturally suited I am to the job I used to think I never wanted to have when I grew up. Magazines give me a healthy, satisfying amount of creative license, as well as a very defined responsibility. Journalism keeps my imagination from flying off into the ether. At the core of everything is reporting, a real event. And editing allows me to collaborate with people whose talents make up for my weaknesses, especially writers who don’t seize up at the sight of a blinking cursor.”

A good explanation of how someone becomes and may stay an editor

I asked several other longtime journalists how they became an editor. Here, from Tom Shroder, former editor of the Washington Post Magazine,  is one answer:

I only ever wanted to write. First I wanted to write fiction, but I discovered I never actually WROTE fiction unless I had a hard deadline for a class. So I went in search of deadlines and joined the college newspaper, where I discovered that I actually preferred finding stories in real-life sets of facts to making stories up out of my head. I was lucky enough to get paid for that, and ten years later I was writing long-form enterprise stories for the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was a good gig, but I wanted to go to a bigger, more ambitious and accomplished paper.

I applied to the Miami Herald feature section, and was disappointed not to get the job. A few months later I got a call from Gene Weingarten, then the number two editor at the Herald’s magazine, Tropic. Weingarten said that the feature editor there had shown him the clips of all the applicants for the feature job and asked his opinion. He said he told them there was no contest: they should hire me. They had ignored his advice, but now he was going to be promoted to Tropic editor, and he needed a number two, and he wanted me to apply.

I told him the only editing I had done had been in college, and he said he didn’t care. He said what he really needed in an editor was someone who could write a magazine story himself, who understood what narrative nonfiction required and could take manuscripts from good reporters who didn’t understand that and make them over into full-fledged magazine stories. He said that if I took the job, he would be satisfied only if every story I edited turned out as fully formed as if I had written it myself.

I had always admired Tropic, and Gene’s goal intrigued me. So with some regret at “giving up” writing, I took the job. Within a month I realized that not only was editing for a magazine in many ways as creatively challenging, and satisfying, as writing, it was going to improve my own writing in the bargain. Instead of writing a handful of major narrative projects a year, I was managing the creation of scores of them, from the conception to the reporting to the mapping out and final execution. I was, in effect, getting hundreds of reps for the key writing muscles, as well as benefiting from the more elevated perspective that is the inherent luxury of being an editor— intimate with the guts of the story, but at one remove, a general surveying the gory battle from a hilltop bunker, above the smoke and clamor and fog of war that engulfs the infantry.

In the end, I believe, that after editing for almost 30 years now, I am a better writer than I would have been if I had only been a writer. Also, I may have learned something about editing.

For those who read Gene Weingarten’s humor columns, you may recall Gene’s occasional references to his editor, a man he calls “Tom the Butcher.” Here is how Tom the Butcher describes himself: Tom Shroder was editor of the Washington Post Magazine from 2001 to 2009. He was the editor of Tropic magazine of the Miami Herald from 1987 to 1998. He is the author of three books, and the editor of a dozen. He is currently working on a book about the renaissance of psychedelic-drug assisted psychotherapy, to be published by Blue Rider Press in 2014. He can be contacted at tomshroder.com.

Have you worked as an editor? If so and you’d like to write something on how or why you became an editor, please drop me a note at [email protected].

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