Reporters are an insecure bunch. Great editors embrace how needy we are, and make us feel good about ourselves and our story … especially before they scrap it and rewrite it entirely. The worst words you can hear from an editor when you file a story are, “There’s a lot of good stuff here. …” That means the “good stuff” is there, but will subsequently be moved around and shuffled until the remnants of your story are no longer recognizable.
But the beauty of the process is that an editor’s eyes and expertise make all that “good stuff” infinitely better. A strong editor can read 3,000 words and immediately home in on the one salacious detail buried in paragraph 17 that readers will remember and talk about months after the story runs. We will move that detail higher up in the story, or make it the lead. And sure enough, Twitter goes crazy over that detail.
A great editor is smarter than me. This is, of course, not a terribly difficult qualification to meet. But it makes a difference. A great editor knows the difference between fixing problems with a story and rewriting the story the way he or she would have written it.
A great editor so fully understands the quirks and expectations of the editors further along in the process that the experience is like shooting the rapids with somebody who knows where all the rocks are: Things happen very quickly and disaster is avoided with a flick of the oar at just the right moment. A great editor knows that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but still wants the story to be better.
A great editor remembers that every reporter is deeply insecure, but doesn’t abuse that knowledge. A great editor kicks your butt when your butt needs kicking. A great editor asks about your kids and actually cares about your answer.
Media columnist and reporter
Editors create fine stories by typing on a keyboard composed of human beings. Knowing which key to hit when and how hard to press it is both art and craft. The greats manage to be both collegial and decisive.
At bottom, editing is an act of assertion. This is good, this is bad, this is fine. A good editor is right most of the time, making copy better every time she or he touches it. The greats do the same for the people who produce that copy.
A good editor is the enemy of clichés and tropes, but not the overburdened writer who occasionally resorts to them. Judgment, a good bedside manner and an ability to conjure occasional magic in the space between writer and editor is rare, but can produce treasure.
A great editor is like a great meatloaf. By which I mean: There is a multitude of kinds, and all get the job done, deploying different recipes for the same result, which is your nourishment. A meatloaf is going to have nonnegotiable elements: meat and an egg or two and bread crumbs and probably onions. A great editor is also sure to have a certain foundation of ingredients, which I’ll hereby list.
A great editor revels in your best moments often enough to soften the mentions of your worst ones. A great editor knows when to push you a little harder and when that will only sow frustration. A great editor makes you feel safe and supported enough to take chances, but pipes up when you’re taking a truly stupid one. A great editor tells you to get to the point faster, because most of us don’t get to the point fast enough. A great editor remembers that you’ve used a joke twice before and that it was only funny the first time, and only marginally so then. A great editor picks up the bar tab. That last part is the most important of all.
Business columnist and reporter
The best editor is the person who can take a modest story and make it big, broad and powerful. Believe it or not, some editors take big stories and make them small. But the great editor is one who pushes a reporter to widen a story’s scope or one who recognizes an impact in the story that the reporter might not have seen initially.
Another crucial characteristic of the great editor: She or he stands behind the reporter throughout any firestorm that ensues. A spine of steel is imperative.
There comes a moment in every reporting project when I realize it was the biggest mistake ever, there is no story here, it has been a colossal waste of everybody’s time. It doesn’t matter that I can recognize this as a pattern. It doesn’t matter that many longish-form writers I admire also come to this moment. I know that this time, it is for real. It is at this moment that only my editor stands between me and the depths of despair.
Great editors have the courage of their convictions, even when their reporters’ courage wavers. A great editor can convince you, in the face of the overwhelming evidence you supply to the contrary, that the story matters. The preparation for this moment is extensive. Great editors engage in your story, conceptually but also in the details, suffer through multiple bad drafts and know your characters almost as well as you do. Only then can they talk you back from the brink — and persuade you that you better file the damn thing and get on with your life.
Every writer needs an editor, and anyone who says he doesn’t has a fool for a muse. A great editor is honest – no saying one thing and meaning the other. A great editor has a deft touch, the ability to hack and slice and make it seem like minor surgery. They channel your voice, rather than grafting theirs onto your piece. But whether it’s a book editor or a newspaper one, the greatest share this quality: They ask the right question. Genius starts with, “What if…?”