« Oh dear, and in The New Yorker, too | Main | Mommy dearest »

Editors are worth something after all

When the boss says something like “We don’t need editors; we all have spell-check,” you face the uncomfortable realization that the boss is an ignoramus. You are working for someone who (a) doesn’t understand how spell-check functions and what its limitations are, and (b) has no more understanding of what is involved in editing than he does of Akkadian cuneiform.

So you might want to refer him to this article by James Mathewson, the editor in chief at, which summarizes a little experiment:

Because editors are often seen as unnecessary, we at IBM conducted a study to demonstrate their value for some of our marketing pages. We took a sample of unedited pages with high traffic from across our various business units and ran them through Dave Harlan, the editing lead for the group that creates a lot of our marketing content. We then ran an A/B test, where we served the unedited versions to a random sample of users and the edited versions to the rest of the users. We then measured engagement (defined as clicks to desired links on the page) on those pages over the course of a month.

The results were astonishing.

The mean difference in engagement was 30 percent across the set of pages. And the standard deviation was one percent–we got a 30 percent improvement on the desired call to action for the pages across the board.

I’m fairly sure that to achieve such results, Mr. Harlan and his team did more than run the spell-check and fix the commas. They must have done honest-to-God, get-to-the-point, don’t-waste-my-time editing. That means establishing a focus up front, pruning verbiage, clarifying the organization, looking for meaning beneath jargon, and thinking more about the reader’s needs than the writer’s preferences.

Mr. Mathewson is careful not to make extravagant claims. He says that additional studies ought to be conducted to see whether this experiment was a fluke or an indication that editing indeed produces substantial benefits.

I, however, am under no such constraints. Editing, proper editing, adds value. There.

If your boss is interested in having readers pay attention to what you turn out, he might want to think about engaging a couple of editors and getting out of their way.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (3)


I've known a lot of editors in my life. A few were priceless. Some were a threat to the language. One was known for finding the single spark in a story and stamping it out. What writers want from an editor is approval -- no praise is too extravagent. What they need is helpful criticism. Even John, whose blog is presumably unedited, has a typo from time to time.

A few days ago, one of John's entries was about the word "often." I wrote a comment about the word "soften." My mind burped. I needed an editor.

I love this study. It confirms all my preconceptions.

Certainly, editors that robotically homogenise everything they work on are atrocious, however technically competent. The art is to imagine, from the point of view of the reader, which of the writer's idiosyncrasies are appealing and which aren't.

By all means discuss changes with the writer where appropriate, but in the end the reader is the god to whom you're both making an offering.

Some people who post comments STILL need an editor. We all do! Even editors!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected