Editors Can’t Be Writers

Some editors can be writers.A notion exists that editors can’t be writers. Why, though, can’t editors be writers? Some people try to explain the impossibility by stating that editing other people’s work all day results in a weariness that precludes the writer from writing. It’s a valid point, but it’s worth pondering whether a person who writes professional copy or repairs automobiles all day can go home and write poetry or fiction. Can that person? Usually, people say yes. Why, then, can’t the same be said of editors?

Perhaps it’s the changing of mindset that seems impossible. Editors view writing from a different perspective than writers. It’s true, but what of it? Writers have to be able to revise and edit their own work, too. They may need the aid of an editor at some point, but they should be able to make critical decisions on their own. Dean Young, in The Art of Recklessness, puts it this way:

But the greatest trauma, the necessary wounding that any poet must undergo, is the detachment from her own work…We must risk a loss of passionate connection to distance ourselves from our work, to grow a little cold to it in order to revise, in order to look at a poem as a series of decisions. Why this and not that? We must develop an ability to read our work skeptically.

How are those questions not the ones the editor asks of a writer? If those are the questions, why not let a writer be an editor? The writer knows the questions she asks of her own work, and she knows she must ask them of other writers.

Then again, editors may think they can’t be writers because, for some strange reason, an idea of the full-time creative writer persists. It’s an odd myth; very few fiction writers and even fewer poets write novels, short stories, memoirs, or poems full-time. They didn’t in the past, and they rarely do now. Novelists and poets have jobs. They have lives. Their living and their livelihood often are essential to their creative pursuits. Without those things, their well runs dry. They encounter the blank page more and more often.

Maybe, though, editors can’t be writers because of fear. It takes strength of character to edit the work of another person and not succumb to pettiness or to fear about one’s own writing. The editor might be tempted to stop writing or to stop helping other writers. To give into that temptation is to lose both those things; Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, “…the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Is it true that editors can’t be writers? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s also true that editors can be writers. The statement “editors can’t be writers” isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s a general statement that may or may not be applicable.

Image: Mad African! (CC BY NC 2.0)


  1. It’s an interesting question, Erin. I know that I get so tired from editing (not “of,” I love editing), I physically can’t write, though mentally my mind is whirring with blog post ideas. If only I could find a way to capture that in real time…

    • Shonali Editing is exhausting! I’m editing a book for someone, and it’s tiring. I love the work, but it’s mentally intensive. I tend to keep the two activities separate. I can edit later in the day. I write, too, since I don’t have much of a choice with my schedule, but I write better in the morning.
      Hugh Lindgren from the NYTimes got me started on this idea. He had an article about editing and writing a few weeks ago.

  2. In advertising, creative directors learn to be good editors. Copy must usually be concise and to the point, and the point has to be strategic, not random. 
    I think editing is probably a much different task for longer forms, especially fiction. Our pal Brian Meeks is writing a novel day by day on his blog http://extremelyaverage.com. It’s easy to send him a note about typos and fact checking. But to get into the flow of the storytelling, development of characters and such is a much different job. 
    I guess a good editor is more like a writing coach and less like a critic. My guess is that being a good writer is a requirement for being an editor, even if you’re not good at a particular type of writing.

    • barrettrossie Editing for longer form is different. You have to keep track of a lot of details and think of how those details fit into the big picture. I’ve often compared it to working on a puzzle. You have all the pieces; you just have to help the writer figure out how they fit together. Unfortunately, some puzzle pieces belong in another puzzle…
      You could let me edit something. Then you’ll know if an editor is more like a coach than a critic. 🙂 Of course, we could ask extremelyaverage when he returns from his zombified state, too. He’s worked with several editors. He probably has perspective on what makes a good one.

  3. I’m both. I can edit other people’s works, but I can’t edit mine unless there is some distance between me and the piece.  Otherwise, I am blind to my own errors.