Why modesty in an editor is a recipe for disaster

Good afternoon! After an unplanned three-and-a-half month hiatus from blogging, I am back, thanks to a post on the Editors’ Association of Earth page of Facebook linking to a blog post by Molly McCowan titled “Being an Editor Doesn’t Mean You Know Everything . . . Even When You Think You Do.”

Why talk about what you don't know when every knowledge gap is an opportunity to learn? Spin your expertise as a complement to someone else's. Photo from baruch.cuny.edu.

Why talk about what you don’t know when every knowledge gap is an opportunity to learn? Spin your expertise as a complement to someone else’s. Photo from baruch.cuny.edu.

The title, for starters, makes one big assumption about editors: that they think they know everything. I’ve met my share of cocky editors over the past 15 years, but I can say with absolute certainty that less than 1 percent of them are as cocky as 95 percent of the veteran reporters I’ve encountered over the years. The know-everythingness of some non-word people is an entirely separate issue.

McCowan’s general line of thought aligns quite closely with my own. As editors, we are word specialists and everything-else generalists. We have to have keen instincts regarding when to look something up or ask someone else about it. As with any avid readers, we collect bits of knowledge everywhere that influence how we work. These bits of knowledge are invaluable, but they aren’t necessarily enough to be considered expertise.

(And don’t forget — many editors do have other areas of expertise. We aren’t all simply dictionary nerds.)

I disagree with McCowan largely in her assertion that we need to know when to stop pitching ourselves as experts. “Be honest with a client if you don’t know the answer, or if you need to research it more fully,” she says.

In a business climate that’s perfectly willing to sacrifice editing amid time and budget constraints, “I don’t know” is not a productive answer to any question. As editors, we need to be our own strongest advocates, which means we have to illustrate our value in terms that are forceful, sometimes creative, and always relevant to the needs of our business partners.

Yes, you may need to research a topic more fully, or even ask the client to clarify/elaborate so you can offer appropriate recommendations. Don’t ever pitch this need as “I don’t know.” Editors are partners, an important piece of an ever-more-complex puzzle. Editors who ask questions are collaborators, not rubber-stamping automatons. Editing with finesse involves using your client’s expertise in concert with your own. No lies, no guessing. Just smart communication with the people you’re serving so that what you commit to paper reflects the value of the service.

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