Are You a Specialist or a Generalist Editor?

Strict editorial boundaries have never really suited me. I’ve been a writer, a developmental editor, and a copy editor, and in all three roles I can’t help but wear all three hats. When I work with a piece of writing, whether or not the byline is mine, I allow every editorial detail to enter my brain simultaneously. That unfiltered receptivity, though it may seem indiscriminate, enhances the value of each decision I make, large or small. If I censor myself, even temporarily, something vital gets lost, and I end up treating the piece as if it’s a machine being assembled rather than an organic creature being nourished.

The advantage of discrete editorial roles is, of course, that each specialist in the process has the space to focus on her assigned job without distraction and is empowered to make judgment calls in the area she knows best. But what also tends to happen is that individual specialists cater, sometimes without realizing it, to separate internal constituencies instead of a common, external audience. To be sure, specialist expertise can be essential to an editorial endeavor, and the need for it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If, however, the default arrangement is that every editorial role is specialized, it can be very hard to work out all the kinks and truly unify the final product.

I often wonder whether more editors should instead behave as generalists, simultaneously attending to the forest, the trees, and everything else in the editorial ecosystem as they produce, shape, and refine the whole — while bringing a writer’s sensibility to bear at every twist and turn. That doesn’t mean I long for a world without editorial collaboration, where one person does it all. I firmly believe that nearly anything worth publishing is best produced through collective effort, and I consider the basic need for both a writer and an editor to be fundamental. But I prefer to collaborate with people who can operate expertly and without inhibition in all domains at once yet who appreciate the value of a second — and a third — set of equally unencumbered eyes and ears.

My sense, though, is that I’m an outlier in that regard, and that to most people in editorial arenas the advantages of specialization far outweigh the drawbacks. If you’re a writer, an editor, or both, where do you come down on the specialist/generalist question? I’m all eyes and ears.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

3 Responses to Are You a Specialist or a Generalist Editor?

  1. Barb says:

    Steve, you are really on to something here. So often nowadays editors are so focused on the particular role they play in the editorial process that they get bound by strict rules that sometimes damage the whole. Often I think it’s that people want to prove they are doing their job, so for example the copy editor will focus so much on house style that more important elements are compromised.

    But it happens at all levels of editing. A content editor can try to sandwich in so much information that the point is lost. And developmental editors acn focus so much on the language that they lose sight of facts.

    Great observations.

  2. Ebbe says:

    I am definitely a specialist editor, but it can be mind-numbing. Unfortunately, once you are pigeonholed into a certain type of work, it’s hard to break free of that. One type of work begets more work of the same type. I feel a bit stuck, to be honest. You had another post about pigeonholed skill sets, and I think it complements this one.

  3. Ann says:

    I think it is really worthwhile to explore this topic and I agree with both these comments; specialization can harm the product and be mind-numbing for the editor. Our entrenched ways of working aren’t necessarily doing anybody much good, yet we rarely challenge or question them. I suppose one reason I’m freelancing at the moment is that I found it dreary to work full-time in editing jobs. In an office, you’re expected to edit continuously for 7-8 hours; the work offers very little variety. During hours one to three of the workday, I would usually feel pretty sharp and do a good job. But by hours five and six, my eyelids would be drooping, my lower back starting to ache, and the quality of my work declining. At least as a freelancer, I can pace myself, get some fresh air whenever I want, do some yoga, and try to incorporate other interests into my day. But it’s a shame that so little thought is put into job design. Thanks for this posting.

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