The Content Series | If You Write Online, You Need an Editor

If you are a writer, you need an editor.

Why Writers Need Editors

You might be saying “but my document is fine. It says what I want to say. I don’t need or want to change it.” You might be saying “but I AM an editor. If I can edit other people’s work, why do I need to hire anybody to edit mine?” You might even be saying “but I’ve edited my own work for twenty years, and I’m a successful professional. What do I need anyone else for?”

You may be right. There are plenty of proudly editor-less writers who aren’t, people who overestimate their ability, who confuse idiosyncrasy with style, who complain that readers who don’t understand the work are simply deficient in understanding. But there are also plenty of writers who really do a pretty good job on their own. You might be one of them. I’m not saying you aren’t.

But let me ask you this; when you write and edit a piece, do you become a better writer? Do you become a better thinker? A better person?

I suspect most people think editing basically means proofreading, that is, finding and fixing mistakes in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting. Such fixes are mostly unambiguous since they involve the application of clear and consistent rules. Any competent editor will apply these fixes in more or less the same way. Unless the text is so twisted that the writer’s intent is not clear, the editor can receive the text, work on it, and not talk to the writer again until the editing’s done.

No relationship between writer and editor is necessary. Nothing remarkable happens. Polishing a document is rather like polishing a car, and indeed some writers say “I’m going to have my book edited” in much the same  way they might say “I’m going to get my car detailed.”

But you can polish a car all day and all night, and if the timing belt’s missing you’re still not going anywhere.

There are other forms of editing besides proofreading. They go beyond getting the document presentable and instead focus on making sure the document works—all the pieces are in place, in good repair, and attached to each other properly. These forms have names such as line editing and developmental editing. When working on a book, it’s important to know which is which so the writer and editor can be clear with each other about what the writer really needs done.

For short articles, all the forms of editing are likely to bleed together, and the editor may even do a certain amount of rewriting (if the writer is OK with that). The point is that with the exception of proofreading, editing is almost as much a matter of judgment as writing is, and no two editors are going to do it exactly alike. The editor may need to talk with the writer, to engage in some back-and-forth. The process becomes collaborative. It’s teamwork. And it makes documents move that previously just sat there.

Proofreading one’s own work is harder since writers tend not to see their own mistakes clearly, but it’s possible. Sometimes it’s necessary. Hiring an editor for every little piece is seldom practical. Self-editing beyond proofreading is also possible, but only to a point. A good proof-reader can self-proof-read at a professional level, with a little extra care and effort, but although all writers have to do some of their own editing and revisions before calling in someone else, and many must do without an editor for practical reasons, there is no substitute for having a second mind on the project.

If you’re a talented and experienced writer, you can, all by yourself, turn out content that’s pretty good. Good enough to get published, anyway. But your work will only be good. It will not be great.

Because that second mind is critical. It’s that second mind who can see the weaknesses and the possibilities the writer can’t—not because the editor is better than the writer, but simply because theirs is a different perspective. And from a different perspective, it’s possible to see different stuff.

Editing, at its best, is about getting out of your assumptions, your habits, and your self-indulgences. It’s about escaping the prison of your comfort zone. Once you’ve been shown that which you could not previously see, your abilities and possibilities expand—and stay expanded forever.

It’s about excellence. It’s about transformation. It’s about growth.

And no one can do that alone.

Why Writers Need Trust

While I stand by what I say above, it occurs to me that some of you won’t believe me.

You’re saying “my writing is just fine. You just don’t get it.” I know. I thought the same thing about my writing, once.

I knew I still had more to learn (who doesn’t?), but I figured I was basically on the right track, and that people who thought otherwise must just not know as much about the craft as I did.

And then my friend and teacher, Charles Curtin, a man I already admired to the moon and back, offered to help me improve my writing.

He had proven his insight and his judgment to me many times over.

Had he told me to jump, I would indeed have only asked how high, not out of obedience but because I’d learned he never said anything without a good reason.

I trusted him (I still do). So when he told me I had to fix some things, I had to pay attention.

Charles taught me a great deal about writing, mostly things I hadn’t known I needed to learn—the “unknown unknowns,” as they say.

He is a good writer and an excellent editor, but there are other writers and editors of equal or greater skill whose feedback I had ignored.

What made Charles a great writing teacher was not how much he knows but the fact that I was willing to listen to him.

I let him tell me what I did not want to hear.

Since learning from him the limits of my own perspective, I can deliberately give my trust to other editors, too.

I do not trust thoughtlessly, for I know not all editors are right about all things. In fact, I’m quite picky about whom I let do anything more involved than a proofread.

But I have learned the value of following a guide into territory where I do not know my footing or my way, and I no longer require exceptional circumstances with exceptional people to get me to pull the cotton out of my ears and listen.

I’ve learned that for an editor to tell me what I don’t want to hear, what I do not believe to be true, is perhaps the most valuable gift I can receive as a writer. It’s then I can grow.

I cannot grow as a writer (or as a human being) if I do not allow somebody somewhere to surprise me and challenge me.

So yes, you need an editor, even if you are convinced you don’t need an editor, even if you and your writing have been doing just fine all this time on your own. You just need one you can trust.

And if you can trust, you can grow.

The Necessity of Editors 

When I first started having my articles edited, I was deeply offended. I felt like I was back in school, just as defensive as teenage-me often was. And then I saw it—editors are a necessity!

I suppose the trauma of being yelled at and screamed at by teachers in middle school made me wary, even into adulthood. It would be much easier to restrict my writing to email only and not risk being told everything I do is wrong. But, as it turns out, some of those yelling teachers were alcoholics (true story) who were abusive and angry. The teachers’ behavior was a “them problem.” We students were merely the easy targets. So we can’t allow past abuse to stop us from writing or from speaking up.

That’s why I write. And that’s why I hired an editor to help me write better.

I quickly came to value my relationship with my editor more than I ever thought possible. And the wild thing is, she tells me what I do wrong. It was quite uncomfortable for a time. But now I look for criticism and the opportunity to learn. I’m like, tell me how bad it is. Tell me where I messed up. And I’ll say this when she compliments a piece, it matters that much more.

Now at our company, we help others write—both employees and our clients. And it’s not uncommon to see those we’re working with get offended by the editor’s critique. And I am always like “oh we got them right where we want them. It’s stage one of editing grief!”

Eventually, they come around to it. Although sometimes they don’t. And that’s okay. I will fully admit, having your writings critiqued, changed, and edited by someone else is not the most comfortable thing. But creating content wasn’t meant to be comfortable. As they say, “you don’t grow when you’re comfortable, you grow when you’re uncomfortable.” And that line works in content creation and especially writing.

The path to better content starts with being honest with yourself, exploring feedback, discovering ways to get better, and then taking the step. Because you can’t edit a piece forever. Eventually, you and the editor need to, as Seth Godin says, “ship it.

In the meantime, write. And eventually, have that writing edited. It’s worth it. I promise.

Ready for an editor? Let’s talk. (because as they say, writers need editors)

We write a lot. Here are more of our writings.

This article “If You Write Online, You Need an Editor” is a collaboration piece by SE’s editor Caroline Ailanthus and SE’s founder Eric Kasimov.