Should you be a writer or an editor?

A beginning freelancer asked me today whether he should be a writer or an editor — and whether he could do both.

At the end of the conversation, he decided what he wanted to do, but I’ve heard the question several times, so I’ll post my answer here.

Editing and writing are two completely different jobs, and appeal to different types of people. Sure, they both involve words, and grammar. But that’s about it for similarities.

Before you decide what you want to do, ask yourself a few questions.

Do you like finding things out?

Finding things out — and tracking down the right people who know those things — is one of the fun things about being a reporter. Editors, for the most part, sit back while someone else has all the fun. If you agree with this, then you probably won’t be happy sitting on the editing desk.

Do you like helping people and watching them grow?

Editors get to teach writers, train them, mold them in the publication’s preferred image. If you enjoy watching people develop their professional skills, if you have patience with newcomers, then you’ll probably enjoy editing. But if you’re the kind of person who can’t tolerate stupidity and incompetence, if you get frustrated when people don’t listen to you and don’t do what they tell you, if you get sick and tired when people make the same mistake over and over again, then maybe you won’t be happy as an editor.

Do you like seeing your name in print?

Writers get to take credit for their work. Editors are named on the masthead, in an acknowledgments section, or, if they’re lucky, in an “edited by” credit at the bottom of an article. If that’s too much anonymity for you, and you get upset when other people get credit for all your hard work, then editing might not be for you.

Do you like doing something different every day?

Reporters are encouraged to try new things — track down new story ideas, talk to new people, experiment with their writing. Editors are supposed to take all this experimentation and mold it down into something that will fit in the publication. An editor’s job is pretty much the same, day to day. Yell at writers for missing deadlines. Clean up style and grammar. Yell at writers some more. Work on story budgets and other administrative tasks. Yell at some more writers. If you like predictability, be an editor. If you like variety, be a writer.

Are you a big picture person or a detail guy?

A writer gets to look at a mass of confusing information, interview transcripts and research notes and distill it into a coherent idea that ties everything together — then writes that idea up into a coherent narrative that flows smoothly from point to point, making things ever clear and more understandable to the reader. An editor takes this finished masterpiece and pokes holes in it, looking for every place where the argument doesn’t hang together, where the paragraphs are too long, where the sentences are too awkward, where the commas are misplaced, and where names are misspelled. Only you know whether you are frustrated in the details — or find your calling in them.

Are you a team player or a loner?

Reporters are, for the most part, lone wolves. They go out on the hunt, and bring back the story. Editors spend their time working with others — with writers, with other editors, with their bosses. Editors have to nurture the writers they work with, massage their egos. Writers do, occasionally, have to be nice to sources — but only long enough to get the interview. They’re allowed to — even encouraged to — savage those same sources in print.

Are you shy or outgoing?

Editors do have to work well with others, but they are not required to have a large, aggressive personality. They can by shy and polite and do very well. Reporters, on the other hand, are supposed to get out there and push everyone else aside so they can get the story. A shy reporter isn’t going to last long.

Plenty of people make the jump from reporter to editor — and vice versa. Often, however, it’s a painful process and many wind up going back when they discover their personality isn’t suited for the new job.

Others stick it out, in misery, because the need the job, the money, or the better working hours that they get as a result of the change.

But, if you are a writer, there are plenty of ways to advance in your career without becoming an editor.

They include:

  • Moving to a larger market
  • Writing books
  • TV or radio appearances
  • Getting an “editor” title while actually continuing a reporting job
  • Becoming a columnist
  • Writing your own newsletter