Editing has always been a fundamental component of writing as well as a separate function, but as self-publishing, online and in print, has become ubiquitous, it’s important for writers to realize the distinction. A discussion of the differences may also help you confirm where your strength lies.
It is common for people to double up as editors and writers; I am among the many who do it. But most people feel more adept in one role or the other. I’ve written news and feature articles and opinion pieces and other content for newspapers and other media, as well as these posts — I’ll have written nearly a thousand of them by the end of this year — but although I enjoy writing, I actually prefer editing.
Writing is a proactive process: Whether one is given a topic or comes up with one, writing is an act of creation in which the writer calls forth the idea, the scope, the tone, and the structure of the work. It is also a challenge, in that it is the writer’s responsibility to produce a complete piece of content. Editing, by contrast, is reactive: One is assigned a piece of content, and one’s task is to refine the writer’s effort, helping him or her achieve the goal he or she was reaching for. This assistance may be minimal, or it may amount to intermittent or wholesale rewriting, but it is a response to the initial product. The challenge, too, lies not in completing the creative act but in carefully, consistently, and thoroughly evaluating and amending the piece.
Writing is, or should be, a smoothly flowing process; it’s tempting to frequently circle back and polish one’s prose, but the most efficient procedure is to produce the whole and then review it, replacing flat words with more vivid ones, reshaping descriptions, and rebuilding phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs.
How does this review differ from editing? It doesn’t, except for an advantage the editor has that is key to the success of the content: The writer is generally emotionally invested in the work. It is his or her idea, or an expression of or a response to another’s idea, and it often is marked with the writer’s name. It belongs to the writer. The editor, on the other hand, is dispassionate — more or less interested in, perhaps even enthusiastic about, the topic, but not possessive. The manuscript is a puzzle to work out. The editor has professional pride and a desire to enhance the writer’s efforts and make the piece the best that it can be, but this is done at an intellectual remove.
Writers should be dedicated to careful crafting of the content, following rules and conventions ranging in complexity from comma placement to narrative organization. Editors must be dedicated to this task, because although their name may never appear, they have been entrusted with the care of the manuscript. Whether one is a copy editor, attending to the mechanics and the form, or a developmental editor, shaping and finessing the whole, the writer’s brainchild is in one’s hands, and that is a responsibility as grave as the writer’s charge to produce his or her best possible work.