3 Traits of Editorial Success

MUD day 7:

Editors should be pleased by Malcolm Gladwell’s review in the latest New Yorker of Walter Isaccson’s Steve Jobs biography. In it, Gladwell argues that Jobs’s peculiar genius was not so much creative in nature as editorial. His sensibility, Gladwell writes, “was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him . . . and ruthlessly refining it.”

As I thought about the characteristics of Jobs’s genius after reading Gladwell’s review, I realized that in fact some of them are shared by successful editors. Though there may be more, here are three that came to mind immediately.

1. Trusting your own intuition more than user research. As noted in The New York Times obituary, Jobs preferred his own research and gut instinct to focus groups: “When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.'”

I learned the same lesson early in my editorial career in a seminar given by the estimable Pierce Hollingsworth. There’s no point in asking readers what they want, he said. They don’t know. It’s the editor’s job to figure that out on their behalf. Research might get you part way there, but in the end, it’s an editor’s intuition and judgment that finish the job.

2. Changing your mind. Like Emerson, Jobs believed that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. He was famous for making blanket statements like “no one wants to watch video on an iPod” only to reverse himself later. His flexibility was one reason Apple was able to dominate its industries for so long. Likewise, to be great at their craft, editors not only need strong opinions, but need to alter them when the facts prove them wrong.

3. Knowing but not worshipping the rules. In his review, Gladwell quotes Steve Jobs on the genesis of the Apple slogan, Think different:

“We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently’ wouldn’t hit the meaning for me.”

Jobs, of course, was right. People who let the rules master them would say, oh no, it should be “Think differently.” But those, like great editors, who master the rules, know better.

The parallels between the basis of Jobs’s success and that of great editors can only be taken so far. But there is, well, one more thing. As Gladwell implies, Jobs was ruthless. Though it’s not a personality trait that serves editors well, in their work, a touch of ruthlessness, a soupçon of Jobs-like jerkiness, is sometimes a necessity. Editors who aren’t willing to offend will never achieve their potential.