what editors do and why they’re more useful than ever

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


Today, if you aren’t writing fiction, every single word you put down has to do something for you, or have the potential to do something.

We write our diary entries in public on Facebook. We send letters to our friends on Medium. Our culture tells us that it’s somehow silly or wasteful to put words down in any form without the possibility, however slim, of achieving something grand with them. There has to be an agenda, right? “You never know.”

Because stuff can happen. You write a blog post and get a book deal. You make a joke on Twitter and someone hires you to write on a sitcom. You take a stand on LinkedIn about “values” and a big corporation appoints you their Chief Humanity Officer.

One day soon, Ken in Minnesota will demonstrate such wit and curatorial savvy on his Facebook-enabled grocery list app that Whole Foods will appoint him their “aisle ambassador.”

Every time one of us sits down to write words, anywhere, even in the description field on Instagram, deep down we’re profoundly aware of the potential and the danger of those words, even if only subconsciously. With the “right” words, a VIP in our industry might reach out and forge a career-altering connection with us. The “wrong” words, and we might become an object of national ridicule. Or a leading Republican Presidential candidate. Or both.

Why is this important? Because it’s destroying our writing.

In reality, the odds of either extreme are small, but things like this can and do happen, and that’s terrifying. We fear, and that fear makes us soften and exaggerate and imitate as we write what in the past would have been our diaries and personal correspondence, the places where we used to be able to express our most truthful and authentic selves.

Writing is our most powerful tool for thinking, so as our writing becomes distorted our thinking does as well. We start to believe the crap we write to make friends and influence people. Fear does this. And as we all know…

"Fear is the mindkiller."—Frank Herbert, Dune

I raise this because people ask me (a lot) what I’m trying to accomplish with my online writing. They sound exasperated.

“What are you doing, Dave? Is it to bring in new clients? Build a platform? Is it a side-hustle? Who’s your intended audience and what is it that you want them to do?”

Because whatever this is…they’re not too sure about. “I mean, are people subscribing?”

I simply don’t believe in modifying your writing based on audience feedback, on subscribes or unsubscribes, on conversion. Whether it’s a comment from an individual reader or a Google Analytics report, I think listening to your online audience as a writer is death. In the words of Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody.

But not everybody everybody. I have a long path of improvement ahead (don’t roll your eyes and mouth the word “obviously,” to yourself—no one can see you) and without critical, constructive feedback, how can I possibly elevate my work?

Reading books about how to write better won’t do it. They may elevate the fit and finish, but I’m talking about purpose, not punctuation.

What I really need is an editor. As a book editor at publishing houses, I cherished the unique relationship I had with my authors. Nowhere else do you see a collaboration like this, except maybe between godfather and consigliere. The editor at a publishing house is not providing a service. In many ways, she has more power over the fate of the book than the author. And while that might at first seem like a drawback—who actually wants to relinquish any control of their own work?—it’s actually the most valuable part of the traditional book publishing process. That friction.

Speaking from a good amount of experience with the breed, writers are their own worst enemy. All of us are too close to our own writing to understand what it’s actually doing or why we’re even doing it. Without that collaborator on the other side of the table, someone with the actual ability to say “no, that’s not going to work,” the idea will never be properly expressed.

We’re never going to go back to private diaries and one-on-one letters. Not completely. So we need editors for this new writing, editors with real collaborative power, to improve our craft, clarify our purpose and help us achieve it. Editors for our blog posts and newsletters. Not as service providers but as collaborators with their finger on the switch somehow.

This way we can muddle through the difficult process of figuring out what we’re trying to say with the help of a trusted pair of eyes instead of by spiraling away into fantasy (or analytics) about who “out there” might read what we wrote and what they might do about it.

Maybe the solution is a writer’s circle. A group of trusted colleagues and friends who all run their writing through at least two other members of the circle before releasing it to the world.

I decided to take my own suggestion on this newsletter and run it by Josh Bernoff, a writer and editor with a hell of a lot of experience. His smock got a little bloody, and I may have lost consciousness at one point, but this is in much better shape as a result—I actually know what I was trying to say now!