Being an editor is, for the most part, terrible.
It’s akin to being a bass player or an offensive lineman—albeit with infinitely fewer groupies and significantly less compensation.
Editing for a living is a thankless lot, measured by such thrilling success metrics as spelling someone’s name correctly or replacing a semicolon with an em dash. While the writers of the world bask in glory like so many coddled quarterbacks or lead guitarists, editors toil in obscurity, attempting to parse fact from fiction in whatever the writer has recklessly scribbled.
No one knows who you are unless you miss an obvious typo or mess something else up. Everybody hates you, because you’re constantly tinkering with their work. You sit and look at a screen most of the day like a schlump.
The days are full of gray-area judgment calls, covertly Googling grammar questions that for some reason still give you fits. (Can we just invent a new word to make “lay versus lie” less confusing?) There’s conflict and anxiety, as you’re constantly anguishing over minute details that are utterly inconsequential to an overwhelming majority of humankind.
Another issue that editors face is explaining to family, friends and peers the breadth of what we do and the weight we carry daily.
Most people know that editors exist to prevent such horrors as this or this from happening, and to make sure all the sentences are copacetic, but what else do editors do? Are they pulling their weight? What are they doing in there all day?
Here is a sampling of how editors prevent disaster every day and keep the world from spinning off its axis:
Catching things that could in any way be perceived as perverted or offensive. This is a tough one to stay on top of—see what I mean?—because lingo changes over time. It also doesn’t help that the world is full of miserable people who have nothing better to do than tweet out your publication’s latest snafu or unfortunately worded sentence.
As a rule, I delete words such as “touching” upon sight, just to be safe. Editors have to
bone up on keep abreast of constantly be on the lookout for anything unintentionally untoward.
Preventing wars and societal chaos. Every day, editors preserve the peace by preventing the spread of misinformation and by removing unnecessarily inflammatory content.
Making sure no embarrassing words, phrases or terrorist group acronyms can be formed via anagram or through word jumble-esque combinations of adjacent letters. You’ve thoroughly edited a brochure. You reworked several sentences, cut out needless words and triple-checked all the information. The layout looks good; the graphics are fine. You sign your approval.
Uh-oh, did you check to make sure that the first letters of those bold-faced bullet points don’t spell out anything terrible?
Deleting words that might be innocuous in English, but mean something really awful in Portuguese. Elite editors should know bad words in every major language, just in case.
Verifying all the world’s information. Whether you work at an ad agency, newspaper, magazine, website, online publisher or corporation, editors are gatekeepers who have to know all things—or at least be able to verify all things—to make sure no errors or falsehoods get out into the world. A heavy burden indeed.
With that said, I was only kidding earlier—mostly. Being an editor isn’t so bad. Like postal workers, we control information. We are in the business of trying to make stuff better (or at least shorter), which is a fun challenge—and, dare I say, a noble calling.
In a world careening toward grammatical lawlessness and linguistic chaos, we editors preserve the last vestiges of a civilized society (etymologically speaking, at least). In that sense, we really do carry the weight of the world.
Sigh, I should have been a cowboy.
This post originally appeared in 2016, but was updated to include recent, hilarious typos.