Why editors matter more than ever

By Caitlin Kelly




Although you might not assume so, this post has been multiply edited, if only by me — albeit a career journalist, writing teacher and writing coach. (Here’s my professional website, if of interest.)

The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed. 

Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!

That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.

At worst, all of these.

We all need editors!

When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise,  and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.

Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.


malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011


I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…

I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.

There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.

“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.

Revision city, kids.



Every book goes through an editor — usually several!


Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.

A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.

Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.

The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.

And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.


Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?

I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.

Details here and here.



22 thoughts on “Why editors matter more than ever

  1. Julia

    Everyone needs a good editor and the ability to revise text (and correct grammar though I know you are way beyond correcting grammar). Good editors can shape stories.

  2. Jan Jasper

    I can’t imagine why the New York Times thinks it can do with fewer editors – it’s scary. I think the problem began in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s when people began to own personal computers and with it, word processing software. (Does anyone besides me remember the Tandy color computer, then Leading Edge PCs, and Word Perfect software?) Anyone who owned a word processer thought they could write. Yikes. People would use 17 fonts in a document…..because they could. Blogs were a good ways off in the future, but I think this is what began this pestilence of people conflating typing with writing.

    1. Access certainly made it easier to create and publish — which made it a much more welcoming world for the aspiring writer (a good thing) but has subjected us to some truly awful stuff.

      The NYT is now focused on digital all the way (after realizing video wasn’t working all that well) — so anyone who isn’t a “digital native” (i.e. over the age of about 35) is toast. Unless you are a HUGE star, but those are the writers they want; editors don’t tend to garner that kind of rep beyond the world of book publishing.

  3. Yeah, editors are good to have. Even after I do a draft of a novel three or four times, I make sure someone else looks at it before I try to get it published. Otherwise, how badly edited the novel was is all I hear in the reviews!

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  5. I heard about the NYT layoffs — it’s such a shame. I’m a regular reader of The Guardian and I spot so many typos and poorly edited pieces. I saw one recently where the last sentence of an op-ed was missing. Editors — and proofreaders — matter!

    Unfortunately, it’s very hard nowadays to earn a living as a freelance editor or proofreader working solely for publishers. According to the industry organization of which I’m a member, publishers are increasingly cutting editorial budgets and outsourcing copy-editing and proofreading work, often to companies based in India.

    By the way, I spotted Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in one of the photos illustrating this post. Have you read it yet? I’m on the last few chapters and it’s a brilliant but very emotionally intense read (even had me reaching for the tissues).

    1. I hate seeing so many errors in the press. As a reader, it annoys the hell out of me — and as someone who writes for the NYT, it scares me to have less and less scrutiny for my own copy. It’s exhausting being heavily edited by 3 or more (!) people, but that’s over now.

      A Little Life is AMAZING. It’s one of the toughest books I’ve ever read in my life but I loved it; I read it on my trip through Europe and it helped fill several very long train journeys. The writer is a NYT editor (!) in charge of T magazine there.

  6. all writers can use a good editor, or three. i am seeing more and more mistakes in print these days ,and it tends to leave me, the reader, less apt to put faith in the source of information. the writer/publication loses a level of credibility in this exercise.

    1. Exactly!

      Sometimes — really annoying — the mistake is edited IN to something we write, which is why the NYT, with freelancers at least, sends us a “playback” of every single version with every single change before publication.

      I will say that digital publishing is a blessing in this regard — millions of people can now email within seconds of reading your story and make a correction (good) and it can be very quickly changed on-line.

  7. May I ask how you managed to write 100,000 words in nine months? I’ve been writing my memoir for, literally, years and the end result is just under 50,000 words. I’m worried. Does 50,000 words seem too short? I don’t know what else I can possibly add, especially as I’m in the process of cutting and trimming ! Oy vay …

    1. Because I’d already lived most of the story. Because I took detailed notes, including dialogue verbatim, in the store. Because I hired and paid several assistants to help me with research.

      Because my background as a newspaper reporter taught me to write well and quickly.
      Because the advance (paid in quarters) did not allow me to live on it for very long without doing other paid work.

      50,000 words is not enough.

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  9. Authors are always their own worst editors! I self-edit my blog posts, but the principle of leaving the words in the metaphorical desk drawer for a few days after drafting always applies. I guess the tendency to avoid the necessary editorial steps is a symptom of the current age of ‘instant’, and I gather a lot of the books self-pubbed on Amazon fall into this category. They also fall into the abyss of obscurity. The amount of work mainstream publishers still put into books (even after editorial cut-backs) is still pretty high – I’ve had multiple hands-on experience of it with my own titles. And it’s necessary if the output is to have any kind of quality.

  10. It’s incredibly jarring for me to find typos or errors in major magazines or papers. It used to be a bit of a treasure hunt when I was younger, to stumble across a rare, small mistake, but I find a couple at least every time I pick a new glossy or spend some proper time going through a paper these days. I think it’s weird because I know how many sets of eyes it had to go past to get to print. To hear that numbers are going down does NOT fill me with confidence…

  11. I’m behind in reading all my blogs.

    It’s sad that even the NYT is cutting back on editors. I think it’s needed more in journalism now to guide, support and help reporters during these very turbulent times.

    On a somewhat related note, I’m taking a creative writing course. My instructor spends time in each class talking about the importance of editing and rewriting. Question each sentence… each word. They all must be carrying their load. Each word must have a purpose. If they aren’t – get rid of it. I’m about to reread Zinsser’s On Writing Well again. One of these days, I’ll get it.

    I also saw this on my Twitter. https://twitter.com/NCSox/status/924710809963548673

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