I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers. –T.S. Elliot
An acquaintance of mine recently lamented that we now live in a "first draft society." To protect the bottom line, newspapers have slashed editorial roles the same way that the folks who formerly filled those roles slashed unnecessary commas and participial phrases. As a result of these cutbacks, my friend is noticing more mistakes in his daily fish wrap.
Writers–especially beginning writers–can be a sensitive lot. Often we display an aversion to constructive crticism that causes us to dismiss it out-of-hand. Why have an editor when you have a non-judgemental word processor that has built-in spell-check and built-in grammar-check? Why pay someone to catch a misplaced comma that only the most pucker-mouthed of English PhDs would ever notice?
The answer is simple: editors are the writer’s conscience and voice of reason. They’re not there to simply bleed red ink (or Track Changes comments), cutting up our work in a fashion similar to the way Sweeney Todd gives a shave. They see our mistakes in logic. They point out paths we started and never followed. They see the obvious forest in our work that we often cannot because we are so entrenched among the trees.
When you’re trying to get a newspaper out the door to the printer, it’s important to have someone examining that forest. Otherwise, that scandalous front-page story about a well-respected politician could be received by readers in a way different from the way you intended because beneath the most shocking of the story’s accompanying photographs will be these two words: cutline TK.
For those who don’t know, cutline is another word for a photo caption. TK is an editorial abbreviation that means "to come." If you see cutline TK anywhere in a newspaper, the subtext of what you’re reading is this: "I don’t have enough information to finish this cutline right now and there are other things on my plate that have to get done before we can send the paper out the door. I’ll just type cutline TK here and move on to my other duties. Hopefully, someone will notice it before we go to press and call me after I’ve forgotten about it and headed down the street to pound a few beers."
Sure, editors won’t catch everything. And many, many times writers will disagree and argue with them over trivial things. But they’re an important bridge between the information the writer is attempting to communicate and the audience for whom that information is intended. Without an editor, a writer’s best work is perpetually TK.