Do You Have to Be a Good Writer to Be a Good Editor?

It’s not as easy to become a professional editor as it might seem.

Even though this blog will continue posting as normal about the usual topics during this time, I just want you to know that no matter who you are, even if I don’t know you, you matter to me. I’m doing everything I can to amplify the voices that need to be heard right now on the appropriate platforms. Stay safe. Keep going. And take care of yourself.

And please consider being part of the solution.

Not all writers become editors (beyond the self-editing we all do to ourselves). But all editors do start out as writers. And there are plenty of good reasons for that.

Let’s be honest: the title of “editor” just sounds cool, doesn’t it? It implies, rightfully so, that you know what you’re doing. You’re in charge of other writers’ content, to a certain degree. You’re movin’ on up, as they say. I don’t know who “they” is, but they sure say it a lot, don’t they?

Don’t get me wrong: Editing is a GREAT job. If you’re truly passionate about being an editor, it shows, and you’ll come to tolerate the various behind-the-screens parts of it you might not love in favor of the parts you do.

But it’s not as easy to become a professional editor as it might seem.

It’s going to take some work. And a whole lot of writing.

Learning what “good” writing looks like, at an advanced level, takes a long time. The editors you’ve worked with or will work with in the future usually either have degrees and advanced knowledge about writing and storytelling or an equivalent amount of writing experience, each of which take years to earn.

A lot of writers want to get into editing because it’s often depicted as the “next logical step” above writing. Which is true in some circumstances, I suppose. But in the real world, you don’t just go from being a staff writer at a magazine, for example, to the section editor of that entire magazine in a matter of months.

Editors are chosen for a variety of reasons, ranging from their management experience or potential (even if you don’t manage an entire team, working with writers does require similar skills) to having an expert grasp on a specific form of storytelling.

Any writer can become an editor if they want to. But it takes years of practice and patience and improvement to get to that level. And that’s a good thing. Because editing isn’t nearly as easy as it might seem from the outside.

Editors do more than fix spelling and grammar errors. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when I’m searching for editing work or even talking with family and/or friends about my work as an editor. Labeling a job title as something like “senior editor” whose only responsibility is to copyedit as a baseline level isn’t just misleading — it’s borderline disrespectful.

Not that there’s anything wrong with copy editing. We all do it to some degree. And if that’s the kind of editing you’re into, by all means, go after that dream with all your energy.

But the reason editing is usually considered an advanced skill set is that in many cases, you’re not just fixing grammar mistakes or style errors. You’re rearranging paragraphs. Tweaking an article to align with the needs of a specific audience. Evaluating writers not just through their writing skills but also their ability to communicate unique ideas and their willingness to learn and grow. And so on.

That’s just something a writer learns to do over time … by writing. You’re not just there to make a piece of writing look good. You’re there to make sure it’s the best it can be in every way possible.

Editing will make you a better writer — but it’s not for beginners. This isn’t to say you aren’t knowledgeable or that you can’t edit your own work, or even recognize changes that can be made to improve the work of other writers. But there’s a reason companies don’t hire beginning writers as editors.

It’s not because they don’t want you to learn or be successful — it’s nothing personal. But even though editing does teach you a lot about writing in general, before you can get to that point, you have to put a lot of hours and effort into coming to the gate with as much writing experience as possible.

When people hire editors, it’s because they’re specifically looking to make the content they publish as close to perfect as possible. There just isn’t room for even the smallest mistakes that less experienced writers might make.

But if you have your heart set on becoming an editor someday, my best advice for you is to decide what kind of content you want to edit, consume massive amounts of that content, and write even more of that content on your own time.

It will take time. But you CAN get there. I believe in you!

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.

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4 thoughts on “Do You Have to Be a Good Writer to Be a Good Editor?

  1. I’m pretty unforgiving of myself for typos, commas that shouldn’t be there and etc.. So i go over my stories again and again, trying to get them perfect. eventually I bow to Michelangelo’s “Great works of art are never finished, but simply abandoned,” and move on. I’ve found that I tarting to do that in my reading. I’ll sit down with a book I’ve read before and I’ll come across a comma that didn’t need to be there or a misspell, and somehow that makes me feel better.

  2. Loved this. I myself would much rather prefer being a writer my entire career, because the extra responsibilities are just a tad much, but thanks for this primer on what editors do.

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