Editing as humility

A colleague of mine once called editing “a helping profession.” It’s a nice idea that speaks to how different the craft of editing actually is from how people imagine it. There’s a stereotype of the dictatorial editor, assigning stories they want, rejecting others, and creating a whole publication in their image. Maybe somewhere that exists but it’s not been my experience. Most editing is about trying to make someone else’s work better, and I want to share a bit here on how I came to embrace that.

When I showed up at Harvard Business Review as an associate editor in 2013 I was hungry for bylines: all I wanted to do was to write. Partly, I didn’t think much of editing since the internet made it so easy to publish. Why edit when you could, as Clay Shirky put it, “Publish then filter”? And partly I didn’t see a career path: I thought being “out there” with bylines and takes was the way to build a career in digital media. My thoughts on both of those things changed gradually. I came to appreciate the importance of editing and I found that my career was progressing just fine.

But more than that I came to see editing as a form of humility. This is perhaps tied to the kind of work I learned at HBR: editing experts, many of whom didn’t write for the public very often. Editing was a way for me to help really smart, knowledgeable people think and write even better. There was something healthy for me in doing that instead of trying to prove that mine was the smartest take–even though frankly it’s not something I would have sought out. I was brimming with overconfidence, but my work got to be questioning and tinkering and quibbling to help someone else who knew much more than I did.

I still enjoy writing but, as someone who dreamed of being a columnist, I’ve come to be thankful that I learned to be an editor instead.

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