The Editor's Creed
By Dan Kois, Laura Helmuth, and Jennifer Lai
Last year Slate’s science and health editor Laura Helmuth wrote about editing for the Open Notebook, advocating that an editor subordinate her voice to a writer’s. Dan Kois, a culture editor at Slate, has strong feelings on the matter. So he asked to debate Laura about editing on Slate Plus.
Dan Kois: Ready to explain how you CODDLE WRITERS, Laura?
Laura Helmuth: Hello, Kois. Have you made anybody cry today?
Kois: Laura advocates for a gentle editorial experience, in which the editor's job is facilitating the author’s voice as unobtrusively as possible. I remember being very intimidated by that piece of Laura’s because my approach is the exact opposite. I view my job as facilitating the author’s voice ... but in the crispest, cleanest, Slate-iest way, and that entails a LOT of detail-oriented conceptual and line editing.
Helmuth: Ah, sure, so your editing style is: Write it like I, Dan Kois, would have written it if I, Dan Kois, had written the story.
Kois: Hahaha no, like an amazing version of Dan Kois + my genius author. Laura, you don’t EVER just wade in and rewrite a lede that isn’t working? You don’t ever add a joke or kill a whole paragraph that is lame?
Helmuth: I call it trimming to keep the focus on the main point, which (I tell the writer) is ever so much more interesting than this also-interesting but slightly less intuitive little bit here ... see, now, it didn’t even hurt and now it’s gone. You and I both work with a lot of freelancers—probably more than any other editors here do, since we don’t have a lot of books (for you) or science (for me) writers on staff.
Kois: Correct. I probably edit 15 pieces by freelancers a month.
Helmuth: And freelancers are delicate creatures. They don’t get paid much, they usually work alone (which can be a little crazy-making), and they don’t have a long experience with any one editor. So every piece they write for a new publication is like going on a blind date.
Kois: As a longtime freelancer, I sympathize with the freelancer’s plight! But nevertheless, my two primary concerns are not the freelancer’s feelings—they are a) getting the piece as good as it can be, and b) making that happen as efficiently (though politely!) as possible.
Helmuth: Our different strategies might have something to do with our beats: It seems like books people are much more thick-skinned and used to criticizing one another than science people are. Science writers usually stick to a new study or mountains of evidence. They don’t often make an argument or express opinions—I mean, they do at the bar or sometimes on blogs, but it takes some coaxing to get them to say what they REALLY think to a big and sophisticated audience like Slate’s.
Kois: You are dealing with people who are authorities on their subjects, and are not used to being edited closely?
Helmuth: Oh, yes, sometimes that makes it tricky. But then I resort to the “help the rest of us understand” approach. Not questioning their expertise, but getting them to talk to the non-experts in an entertaining way. A lot of what I do is ask people to sharpen their arguments—which maybe isn’t something you have to ask for in a book review?
Kois: I do sometimes have to get people to sharpen their arguments. Not as often, probably, as you do. (Book critics are argumentative people.)
Jennifer Lai: So where do these different editing styles come from? Was it a deliberate choice you made when you came into your position (in terms of managing people), or is it a function of how you write yourself or have been edited by others?
Kois: I learned my editorial style COMPLETELY from ... being edited by editors at Slate. Slate was one of the first places that ever paid me to write anything, and it was definitely the first place I was ever seriously edited. I remember the first time I ever filed a piece to Slate—a Culturebox to Julia Turner about iTunes celebrity playlists. It was my first experience with Track Changes, and when Julia sent it back to me and I opened it up, I almost barfed. There was so much red on the page it looked like a crime scene.
Lai: But you kind of liked it?
Kois: She was right about everything! Every cut she made, every wording change she suggested, was more efficient and elegant and BETTER than what I had. I was like, Oh, so this is what editing is.
Helmuth: Tip for freelance writers: Set your Word preferences so that the cuts are in green or purple or something less aggressive. Because CUT is mostly what editors do. … And I don’t think any of us lie about the fact that we love what we didn’t cut or change!
Kois: Yes! It’s not a bunch of lies! If I didn’t have good feelings about the piece I would just kill it. I remember her email itself was very encouraging—“This is a good draft, there’s a lot that works”—I think she actually told me not to be intimidated by all the red, and that she was happy with where it was going.
Helmuth: The “this is great” email memo to a writer is an important part of the job.
Kois: So that’s what I try to do now. I almost always follow that model—extremely detailed edit, chipper cover note.
Helmuth: Have you ever gotten payback? Has Julia ever written a review for you that you slice up into a million pieces? Like, “You have such great material here”?
Kois: She is a much, much better writer than age-28 me. So it’s not as violent.
Helmuth: Ha! Were you ever edited by Plotz? Dude is cruel shoes.
Kois: Thank God, no.
Helmuth: David Plotz’s editing instincts are perfect, but he is NOT concerned with the thickness of his writer’s skin. This doesn’t bother me when he edits me. (I’m pretty thick-skinned.) He once eliminated several paragraphs of an introduction by telling me: BORING.
Helmuth: But I definitely edit his edits. When Emily Bazelon wrote this fantastic, deep story about the Nazi origins of modern anatomy, I was the first editor and Plotz was the top editor. He had some great suggestions, but there was one paragraph he didn’t like. So he highlighted it and typed: BLAH BLAH BLAH. I DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS. When I sent the story back to Emily (Emily, do not read this), I took out that line and said something like “David thought we could probably cut this part.”
Kois: That is awesome.
Helmuth: But Dan, don’t you worry that by rewriting things for the writers, you’re squelching their voices? Kois-ifying it too much?
Kois: I try to steer away from edits where in looking over it, I realize, “Oh this is just me trying to be clever.” But part of my job is not to Kois-ify necessarily but to Slate-ify—or in my case to Slate Book Review–ify. There is a certain level of prose elegance and argumentative flair we want out of these pieces, and sometimes it’s easier to just give writers examples rather than try to drag it out of them.
Helmuth: Yes, examples are good. Sometimes they just take the examples you give them, and sometimes they’re inspired to try something different but get what you’re looking for by looking at the editor’s “here’s how you might try it” suggestions. Hm, that doesn't sound mean enough to be coming from you. It’s a good strategy!
Kois: I want writers to walk away bruised but invigorated and wanting more. Like they just ran Tough Mudder or something.
Helmuth: Ha! They’ll be limping for days but paradoxically feeling victorious. You probably don’t have to worry too much about one of my main editorial challenges: Making complicated things simple.
Kois: I am usually trying to get my writers to stop making simple things complicated.
Helmuth: Whether it’s a scientist writing or a science writer who has done a lot of reporting on a given subject, I think it’s really tricky for the writer to know what our audience doesn’t (and doesn’t need to!) know. One of my most common edits is to ask people to clarify, simplify, or remove jargon and technical details. If they’re interesting, great. But usually they get in the way. Also, I try to be easily confused—I’m always looking for ways that a smart but nonscience reader could misunderstand something.
Lai: What advice would you give young journalists?
Helmuth: The first advice journalists get (or should get) is “Don’t take editing personally.” But of course they do. How could they not?
Kois: Every time I get an edit on a piece I wrote, I still have to remind myself not to take it personally.
Helmuth: And you have to be willing to try again. Almost nobody can write the perfect piece for Slate the first or second time. It’s a learning process.
Kois: Thankfully when you’re learning with Laura, she’ll send you a carton of chocolates along with your gentle edit.
Helmuth: SHUT UP KOIS.
Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s culture department. He is writing a book called How to Be a Family and co-writing, with Isaac Butler, an oral history of Angels in America.
Laura Helmuth is the health, science, and environment editor at the Washington Post. From 2012–2016, she was Slate’s science and health editor. Follow her on Twitter.
Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate.