Are You an Author or an Editor?

Each writer brings a unique balance of talents to the task before them. Some excel at the initial writings. Others are especially talented at sharpening their work after the first draft has been created.

Understanding where we fit on that spectrum of author or editor, can be very empowering. Knowing our strengths and non-strengths is a major step in becoming a better writer.

Andy Le Peau worked for four decades at InterVarsity Press. His excellent blog, Andy Unedited, explores “books, life, and writing.” Five years ago he penned a short post that I still find extremely enlightening.

In “Authors are Like Pioneers—Editors Are Like Settlers,” Le Peau uses that unusual analogy to explain a creative tension at play in the lives of most writers I know. And, once we understand this fluid dichotomy, I believe it makes us better writers.

Authors tend to come up with new ideas and push them forward. They like to move into literary territories not explored before. Creating something new is like a shot of caffeine to their systems.

Good editors see how to improve a book, make it read better, clearer. They don’t try to shape the book in their own image. Rather they see the good that is already there and find ways to make it even more effective, better organized, clearer.

Good writers are usually pretty decent editors. Not expert, but adequate enough to recognize ways in which their own work can be improved. That’s why we call the “first draft” a first draft.

Now, if you consider your initial draft a finished product, you are definitely not a settler!

C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer. He also knew a great deal about editing, as I’ve discussed here in the past. I’ve even described his astonishment with the practices of some editors.

Lewis was quite open to revising his own work, even after it was published. In 1959, he wrote to one of his publishers, “Yes, there is one chapter of Miracles that needs revision. The result of the revision will, I think, make it shorter rather than longer. I’ll get onto this job as soon as I can.”

My Perspective on the Writing Process

While I embrace the pioneer or settler symbolism, I expand the analogy by thinking about my own writing process. I tend to think of it in three categories, with

Researching – Writing – Editing

To this process, if we desire to actually share our work, should be added at its end, “Submitting/Publishing.” Submitting refers to presenting it for potential publication in various media. By publishing, I refer to skipping the proverbial middle person, and posting your work online or using one of the self-publishing options readily available today.

In my personal context, I regard researching as a semi-independent stage of the writing process.

This may be due to the fact I focus on nonfiction. (Fiction writers can devote meager attention to it, and get away with it—not that they should ever ignore it.)

There are two additional reasons researching earns its own place in my writing process. First, because it is in my innate nature to be thorough and accurate. Second, I simply love the process. I know I’m in the minority.

Most writers prefer to get on with the task as soon as possible. I, however, am enslaved by my inherent curiosity to learn as much as possible about the undertaking as I can, before embarking on the actual writing. (And, yes, I recognize this may be exaggerated by my mortal tendency to procrastinate.)

To maintain the original analogy, in the spirit of Leif Erikson, I think of it this way:

Explorer – Pioneer – Settler

This works well for me, and I hope this post offers some insight and encouragement to you, as well.

19 thoughts on “Are You an Author or an Editor?

  1. I always seem to start with an idea, begin writing, then dive into background/additional information – which usually turns out fascinating….which frequently turns the original piece in a different direction ( for better or worse ).
    It’s really difficult to be a good editor if you write, but review and revision is critical to make sure your thoughts come across as intended….even if a boring task sometimes…

    1. An interesting process… writing before researching. I suspect, though, that your approach may represent the majority perspective.

      Coming up with ideas has always been the easiest part of writing, for me. I think a large part of that is due to my fairly wide range of reading… combined with my off-the-charts intuitive (NT) nature. I have more files of ideas in my office than I would have time to explore in the remainder of my life… and I add to them almost every day.

      The review and revision you already do is what makes you an editor, as well as a writer. I distinguish between revising/editing and merely proofreading. The former I find interesting. The latter is, as you say, boring.

  2. Fascinating – as is everything in this blog. As to editors, I hope my post on William Plomer might be of interest. He was one of the wisest! advice-for-aspiring-authors-from-william-plomer

  3. I love editing. I feel it sharpens and refines my work. At times, I must discard a phrase, a sentence, or paragraph that has merit but detracts from the overall purpose of a piece. Like you, I, also, enjoy research. I believe it strengthens and enriches my work. It broadens my knowledge of the world.

    1. You identified the hardest part of editing for me. Bidding adieu to phrases and sentences that are good, but out of place.

      [This comment would have been much longer, but I pared it down since the additional sentences–brilliant though they were–did not contribute measurably to the whole.]

    1. Interesting. I edit other people, but usually work extremely hard to preserve their original voice. Occasionally I will make “suggestions” on ways I, or they, can improve it further, with more substantial editing.

  4. Hi Rob,

    I am the creative fiction author, but I know when to flip that switch. When the creative part is done, the editor starts picking at it. Though I do not catch everything, especially when the grammatical nuisances, that’s why I rely on another full on editor. Thank you for the post.

    Have a great day.


    1. It’s great that you know what works for you, Gary. As for having another editor look our work over, I believe that’s always advisable.

      Sometimes I have a difficult time restraining my self-editing while I’m in the creative/composition phase. It feels great though, when I do, and the first draft just flows…

    1. Chel, you publish a ton online. It’s not as big a step as you think to have your poetry, etc. find a place in a “traditional” publication.

      That said, perfectionism can exert a strong negative influence on ever considering something “ready.” Just remind yourself–when you read most of what a person finds in magazines (and books)–that your work is already much better what you see before you in black and white.

      1. That is very kind of you and I know you are a discerning reader (and, apparently, editor). ‘Twas quite the hurdle to click ‘Publish’ on my first blog posts, quite another to enter contests, and …we’ll consider that literal publishing hurdle to be more of a long jump at this point.

      2. I am certainly not alone in being glad that you did press “publish.” I understand how it requires courage. Sending queries can also be challenging… but having a proposal declined is much less painful than having an actual manuscript declined.

        Still… getting published requires just that sort of vulnerability. As they say, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s sort of like the person who only attends a critique group once… because they didn’t really want help in improving their writing… they simply wanted praise.

        Building relationships is a requirement, of course, for a good writing circle. However, some folks are never really capable of receiving constructive criticism (no matter how large the spoonful of sugar that accompanies it may be).

        Back to you, though. Just step out in faith again, as you did when you began your blog. Consult writing market resources and send some of your work out. You probably know, however, that almost all publications consider prior appearance on your blog as having already been published. But you are skilled. Write something new, shaped for their specific interests, and send it off with a prayer.

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