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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

We are all imposters

The Baltimore Sun

A couple of weeks ago, as some colleagues were in online discussions about dealing with the imposter syndrome, another colleague called me a “master editor.” I cringed.

I do not have the skills and experience that Carol Saller brings to book editing, the expertise in dealing with technical scientific and medical subjects that Katharine O’Moore-Klopf has developed in an extensive freelancing career, the depth of linguistic knowledge that James Harbeck can summon up while talking on his feet.

No, I am a newspaper copy editor, a member of a once-despised class now nearly extinct. I spend my workday dealing with low-grade-to-moderate-grade prose, attempting to transmute the first into the second. I have read a few books by people who are smarter than I am and have echoed what they say in a blog. So when someone says “master editor,” I feel that I should issue an immediate disclaimer. I stand among the imposters.

All of us who edit are to some degree imposters. None of us have read enough. None of us know enough. None of us will ever know enough. All of us are mortal, as prone to misjudgment and oversight as the people whose work we are presumptuous enough to take in hand and alter.

The imposter syndrome is real, as real for editors who pick up a text and wonder whether they are up to it, as it is for writers who stare at the empty page or blank screen and wonder the same thing. If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by that sense of inadequacy, we will do our writers no good. But at the same time, we need to allow enough of it to remain in our heads to stay humble before the task.

Please do not take this as some bid to extract reassurance or compliments from you, dear reader. I know my limits and labor to get beyond them. I just wanted to point out that Linus is right when he says in a Peanuts cartoon, “Editors are sort of human, too, you know!”

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