Effective editorial teams

There are many aspects to an editor’s job, but how do we create teams of these passionate, determined, focused people?

The days when editors could take half-day lunches are long-gone, and most now work long hours for relatively little financial reward. Editors are usually well-educated, intelligent and very able, so there must be good reasons why they choose a relatively low-paid and high-stress job.

The reasons vary, of course, but they will change how we build our teams.

I’ve found that a lot of the classic advice doesn’t necessarily apply – it’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s addressed to the wrong situation. A classic example was the exercise in ‘how to motivate your team to work longer hours’, when the problem I actually had was that my team already worked very long hours and I needed to stop them before they burned out!

So here, then, are a few thoughts from my experience – things that I’ve found to enthuse editors and that can help to build a team from a group of individuals.

Skills

Here, standard management techniques apply. If you’re going to have an effective team then you need one that can do its job well. So, you need to recruit people with the right skills, train them to get better and make sure that you provide ongoing opportunities to keep developing new skills.

There’s one area that should go without saying: editors need the basic skills of clear communication. A copyeditor who can’t spell or a commissioning editor who can’t write a clear email are unlikely to be effective.

The reason I mention this is that it’s become fashionable to deprecate the core editorial skills in favour of digital skills. The reasoning goes that you should hire people who understand the digital world and then teach then to be good editors. The problem with this is that anyone can learn to understand the digital world, but not everyone has the basic mindset to become an editor.

‘Knowing digital’ really means being knowing your way round a computer, the internet and whatever platform is trendy today. Fundamentally, it means being quick to pick things up, because ‘digital’ changes fast. And most educated people can do this. Being an editor, however, generally means that you really care about the details and stress about a line break in the wrong place or a paragraph that’s not clear enough.

You can’t teach this. It’s a character trait – not always an attractive one in the wide world but essential for a good editor!

So I would start with the aptitudes and skills of an editor when hiring, and only then filter based on digital skills.

Support

This is, to me, one of the keys to good teams. When I took on my first management job, I said in the first meeting that I saw my role as supporting the team in doing their jobs. And I still believe this to be the central (possibly only) role for line managers.

The team are the ones actually delivering the core business value. Management’s job is to enable them to do so as effectively as possible. This includes simple things like making meetings productive and, as far as possible, pleasurable. (One of my favourite hacks for this is providing cakes – it may not be a big thing but it puts a smile on people’s faces!) It also means being on top of their workload, knowing who’s struggling and why, and helping to sort it out. It means planning ahead and ensuring that higher tiers of management don’t have unrealistic expectations of what your team can deliver.

However, there’s a second aspect to support. It’s not just about the team leader but about you, too. In a good team, the members support each other. This means sharing your experience and even your time when needed. Most importantly, I believe, it means making sure that you share the highs and the lows with your peers – especially the lows.

One of the biggest problems many of us face is the fear that we’re suffering alone. Learning that other people have the same problems is liberating – “it’s not just me”! More than this, unless you share with your peers, you won’t realise that certain issues are systematic problems rather than local issues.

Sharing successes is just as important. If you’ve successfully put a project to bed, or calmed a difficult author, or finally agreed that awkward text design, let your peers know. It’ll make you feel good to share, and ought to make them feel good, too.

Spirit

You may have heard it said that ‘happy people are productive people‘, and I’ve certainly found it to be true. People who love what they do, who are passionate and genuinely care about the products they are involved with, will put in the work needed. They have spirit, passion, drive.

And this is where publishing businesses win big, because most editors are in the game because they love it. They care about the content they produce, whether they’re novels or dictionary entries, academic journals or cookery books. This is the answer to the problem we started with – why do editors work long hours for little money?

If you want to create a genuine team then starting with people who care about the game is a great place to start. Give those people common goals and values, and they’ll pull together with much less ‘management’ than you might think. Which means that team leaders should take the time to know and understand their teams – and try to direct their passions in the same direction.

But getting those common goals and values agreed takes care and thought. You can’t impose them. The team needs to understand how the company’s goals are compatible with their own passion – and how the company’s values fit alongside their own.

This means taking it slowly and not giving a corporate presentation to ‘the staff’, and thinking that the job is done. Because the danger of passion and of staff who care is that they will react poorly if they perceive their values being over-ridden. If you lose the spirit of your team then you lose the one thing that kept them working hard for you.

And you lose your team.

Posted on 12 May 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.