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Best Personality Traits to Look For in Editors

Posted on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at 11:50 PM

Considerations for hiring editors or for self-assessing your own on-the-job strengths.

By William Dunkerley

"Write drunk, edit sober" is a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Some claim he never said that. But the line popped up in a recent Harvard Business Review article titled "Drunk People Are Better at Creative Problem Solving." Reading that article led me to reflect on the role of creativity in the jobs of editors.

Creativity is a trait that can be instrumental, if not essential, in many respects. We're often confronted with a manuscript that needs help if it is to make good sense to readers. The ability to come up with a creative solution can be a real asset.

We also employ creativity in setting the editorial menu for each new issue. Many editors write copy for their publications too. Surely creativity comes into play there as well.

I'm not suggesting that we must down a few beers or sip a sherry before embarking on a creative task. But if the HBR premise is correct, perhaps we can we learn something by deconstructing the notion.

Pushing Past Inhibitions

It is widely accepted that one effect of inebriation is a diminishment of inhibitions. That accounts for some of the outlandish behavior often seen in drunks. They behave in ways they would avoid if the normal inhibiting functions in their brains were performing effectively.

Normal acceptable behavior is controlled by what brain scientists refer to as "executive function." It inhibits impulses. Those impulses, though, can be key to creativity. They promote the kind of divergent thinking needed to think outside the box and develop creative ideas and creative solutions.

The HBR article describes an experiment that was conducted by professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University and his colleagues. Jarosz reported:

"We gave participants 15 questions from a creative problem-solving assessment called the Remote Associates Test, or RAT: For example, 'What word relates to these three: duck, dollar, fold?'; the answer to which is 'bill.' We found that the tipsy people solved two to three more problems than folks who stayed sober. They also submitted their answers more quickly within the one-minute-per-question time limit, which is maybe even more surprising."

Another testament to the value of relaxed inhibitions comes from the owner of an "escape room" adventure facility. For those not familiar with escape room entertainment, it goes something like this: A group of people are locked together in a room. Clues for finding the key to the door are hidden in various places. Putting the clues together requires creative, nontraditional thinking. In short, getting out of the room depends upon the successful use of outside-the-box thinking.

The owner of that escape room facility claims that children perform better than adults in putting together the clues and making an escape. The adults are burdened by their brain's executive function, something not yet fully developed in children.

Adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are said also to have underdeveloped executive function. That's what makes them vulnerable to acting on impulses rather than inhibiting them. It may also make them good candidates for editorial jobs requiring an extra measure of creativity.

Assessing Creativity

But the underlying factor is not whether one is a drunk, a child, or an ADHD sufferer. It is whether a person performing a job requiring creativity has an aptitude for it. Professor Jarosz used the Remote Associates Test. There may be other assessment tools available as well. I suggest you make use of some objective measure in assessing job applicants or in testing the related traits of editorial staff members -- or even of yourself.

Editors with low creativity scores are not necessarily out of luck. The aptitude for creativity is malleable to an extent. We've seen that ingesting a relaxing substance can be of value. Others may be able to relax inhibitions through meditation, yoga, or simply engaging in enjoyable conversation with someone.

Creativity emerges when inhibitions recede.

Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking

Keep in mind that creativity and divergent thinking are not necessarily assets for all editorial jobs. Take proofreading, for example. That's a job in which convergent thinking is more useful than divergent thinking. A proofreader's job is to assure that a manuscript or proof copy conforms to rules of spelling, grammar, and style. That's a different skill set.

In practice, many editors must perform tasks that require both divergent and convergent thinking. If you postulate them as opposite poles on a continuum, you may conclude that being good at both is unlikely. Fortunately that is not the case. Think of divergence and convergence as independent controls on a stereo sound system: one for left volume, one for right volume. That means some people can run at high volume on both channels. Others may reflect a different mix.

Dr. Donald P. LaSalle has long been an outspoken proponent of divergent-convergent thinking. He is a noted science educator and Talcott Mountain Science Center founder. The idea is that by combining both approaches you get the best of both. Divergent thinking promotes the exploration of new possibilities that otherwise might be overlooked. Convergent thinking allows you to choose the best way forward and gives focus to getting there.

Put those concepts into action at your publication and you'll have The Compleat Editor.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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"When screening editors for various positions, I have always used a 13-point basics checklist as part of the process. Its key function is as a tie-breaker when several extremely promising finalists are being considered. That list includes (1) on time for interview; (2) first impression; (3) describes possible organized approach to new job; (4) story-telling portfolio; (5) previous longevity; (6) efficient traveler; (7) test score; (8) capable photographer; (9) looks like "somebody"; (10) graphics grasp; (11) related experience; (12) online technical know-how; (13) enthusiasm. Scoring range per factor is 0-3 points. However, it's also possible to apply a wider score range that takes key factors into account." --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, www.editsol.com.

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