• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Editing: Video vs. Text

It isn't the most glamorous role. Someone else—the writer, the director, the fresh-faced spokesperson—usually gets the spotlight. But the work of an editor is as vital as it is invisible.


Most of my professional work is as an editor of text. But over the past year, I've started picking up some work as a video editor. I happen to be married to someone who does video production for a living, so I took advantage of having an in-home teacher and learned the ropes of video editing software.


Once I got the key commands down, the work itself started to feel very familiar. At its core, editing a promo video is not all that different from editing an essay or a speech. Expanding into this new medium has actually made it easier for me to explain what, exactly, an editor does. So what does an editor do?


An editor listens


The first job of the editor is to listen. This happens in two parts:

  1. Listening to the client: An editor must understand and own the vision for the project to be able to do their job well. Who is the audience? When and where will this piece be read or seen? What essential idea is the client hoping to communicate?

  2. Listening to the material: On the first pass through the material (raw footage or a written draft), I try to stave off my desire to suggest a transition or lop off a boring intro. I need to hear the voice(s) of the material. I pay attention to what moves me, where I lose the train of thought, or when I crack a smile.

This getting-to-know-you phase is essential for being able to return something to the client that is in line with their expectations and that capitalizes on the best of what was in the original material.


An editor organizes


As I begin to wade into a piece, I am looking for the through-line. In writing, one of the main things that my clients ask me to help with is organization. They have all these great ideas on the page, but they feel like they are talking in circles or wandering off on a tangent. They need someone else to redirect them and hold them on course.


I am finding that in video editing, this need for organization is even more pronounced. For my first serious editing project, I was working with footage from an in-person conference (pre-pandemic) and several Zoom events. The conference speakers had no idea that their presentations were going to be edited together with anyone else's words. The material that came to me was anything but focused and cohesive. It was my job to tell a story by bringing these disparate parts together.


So much of editing is about "story." Even if I'm editing an academic dissertation, there's a story: Here is a question of great importance. Many have tried to answer it but have not done so. Here are the difficulties in answering this question. Here is how I tried to answer it. Here is the answer. I am always looking for the thread of ideas that follows (with allowable bends) from beginning to end.


Whether on a small scale (of a single paragraph or a single juxtaposition) or a large scale (of the entire text/video), the principle remains the same: find the connections. How does one idea prepare us for the next? What in this statement links to the one that follows? Where are we going? If there is an idea that doesn't connect or that dead-ends, it goes.


I find that I am enjoying the purity of organization in video editing. Compared to writing, I have fewer tools to finesse the logical connections between quotations. The visual medium of video can provide some of these bridges (with b-roll or graphics or what have you), but unless I am empowered to request additional footage from the client, I have mostly had to content myself with what is already in the can. I have to find the story that's already there.


An editor keeps tempo


Rhythm is a subtle but effective tool of communication. So much of the mood of a piece is wrapped up in its rhythm. This is where the "listening" portion of editing comes in handy. If the piece is meant to be contemplative, full of tenderness and philosophy, perhaps choppy sentences or quick edits are not appropriate. I might leave that pause at the end of the thought, linger on that quiet smile.


But if a piece is meant to energize the reader/viewer, then I want a driving pace. No digressions. No indulgences. Every word must earn its keep. Every second, the same.


Each medium has its tools for this. In writing, it is all about the language. I'll hunt down synonyms that better fit the pacing. I'll suggest breaking up or combining sentences. In video, I learned that I can bring in b-roll to mask a series of quick edits that compress the rhythm of a speaker's statement. And there's music, of course. That helps, too.


An editor cleans up


Everyone knows that an editor will catch your passive voice and fix your subject-verb agreement. But you may not know that this is the last step, not the first. Why spend your time polishing up language that is going to be cut? At least, this is true in writing.


I am finding that in video editing, some of the analogous clean-up comes mid-way through. Especially if I am editing to music, I can't wait too long to take out the pauses and the restarts of a sentence, because the seconds matter too much. Still, the meticulous editing doesn't start the process. Story first, then finesse.


Admittedly, the clean-up is one of my favorite steps. It's terribly satisfying—like blowing the sawdust off of a precision cut. But it isn't the whole story.

Editing is more than just cutting and correcting. Editing is about understanding the vision and the voice of the client and shaping a finished product that reflects those things. It's a good gig, I have to say.