An American Editor

August 28, 2013

What is Editing?

Have you ever wondered what editing really is? Or about what course of study is best for preparing for an editing career?

The practical answer to the latter is that it doesn’t matter what you study because education is valuable and broadening; experience matters more. But when backed to the wall, my answer, unlike that of many of my colleagues, is that the best courses of study are philosophy and law.

The reason is because of what editing is. Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. I suppose a little context would be helpful.

The matter arose in a discussion on LinkedIn in which I suggested philosophy as the best course of study and another member suggested linguistics. Linguistics is a wonderful field and certainly of great interest to editors, but it is a structural field. True, it wonders about word origins as well as how words are used, but its focus is the structure and lineage of language.

Philosophy and law, on the other hand, focus not on structure but on how to think. Both are “argumentative” fields — Does a god exist? If I don’t see you, do you really exist? What is my place in society? — What role should/does X play in social affairs? — that require thinking about all sides of a question. The difference, I think, between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion. We all can learn to play chess and even to play it well; few of us, however, can master the advance thinking techniques required to be a grandmaster.

(Before I stray too far afield, let me reiterate that all education is good and all education can prepare a person for the intellectual challenges of editing. What we are discussing is the hierarchy.)

Much of editing is structure-oriented, such as grammar and spelling, and coding manuscript. Structure is mechanical and can be self-taught or picked up in a couple of courses on, for example, grammar. I grant that it is the rare person who develops that same depth and breadth of knowledge about the structural issues via self-learning or a couple of entry-level courses as would be obtained from the rigors of a university major in linguistics, but how much is really needed for editing, especially as editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application.

Over my 30 years as an editor, what I have most realized about some of my editor colleagues is that they are very capable of applying the “rules” of language. Where they are weak, and what I think often distinguishes the good, competent editor from the great editor, is that they are unable to “think” about what they are editing. They are unable to grasp a broader picture by, for example, putting themselves in the shoes of a variety of readers or by analyzing a text from multiple angles. To use another metaphor, most editors are like professional baseball players in that they are the better, more professional, more able players from the pool of would-be professional players, but are not the superstars who are an even more finite group. Baseball fans recall Willie Mays, for example, but how many of his teammates on the 1954 World Series team do we remember?

It is this “thinking” ability that I believe philosophy and law teach but that linguistics and other study disciplines do not. Linguistics will teach us how to ascertain the origins of all the variations of “god,” but not to think about what “god” means in the context of the manuscript and as being conveyed to the variety of hoped-for readers of the published manuscript. Linguistics doesn’t really teach the art of communication as much as it teaches the science of communication, but editing is (or should be, I think) more concerned with the art than the science.

I am not suggesting that the science of editing is unimportant. Knowing what punctuation to use where and when is very important in making sure that the author’s meaning is correctly understood (using Lynne Truss’s famous example, is it “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots, and leaves”?). Knowing whether the right word is being used to convey the intended meaning is equally important, as is choosing among the homophones (does the author mean to, too, or two?). And good editors do these tasks well and correctly. For the most part, I suspect, this is the job for which most editors are hired. And this is the job for which most education prepares us.

Yet there can be more to editing than just those tasks. And, for many of us, when we suggest rewriting a sentence or a paragraph or reordering paragraphs or chapters, we are embarking on that additional path. As we gain experience, we begin to think differently about language and its use. I know that the editing I did 30 years ago is not as good as the editing I do today; those intervening years have taught me many things and exposed me to many new ways of looking at language. The more I read and learn, the better editor I become.

But even 30 years ago I had the advantage of having been trained to think analytically. That is the legacy of a philosophy and law education: It is not what to think, but how to think. What I think about is of little importance to philosophy; the methodology of thinking about it is important.

Editing is a combination of structure and philosophy; it is not one without the other. The more accomplished one is as an editor, the more skilled one is at both prongs. Most of us begin our editing careers strong in one prong but not the other, and we build strength in both prongs as we gain experience. But if asked what is the best course of study for a wannabe editor, my answer is philosophy or law because it is learning how to think that is hardest to master.

Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.



  1. I would argue that education in a scientific discipline would give one the same analytical grounding that study of philosophy or law does.


    Comment by Paul Neate — August 28, 2013 @ 7:36 am | Reply

    • As one who studied both science and philosophy, I have to agree with you Paul. But among students of both disciplines, it is in science that you will find more people who struggle to express themselves in writing. (Less so in the behavioural side of biology/zoology, maybe.) I credit this lack of competition with getting me a foothold in science editing.

      In my first year of editing, I spent a lot of breath arguing that philosophy was even better than an English degree. (Pushing it?) Logic, primary sources, critical thinking, and (lord!) the volume of essays!!

      I will clamber over the other philosopher editors I have met, to help Rich cary the “philosophers make master editors” banner.


      Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — August 29, 2013 @ 8:31 am | Reply

  2. This is a laughable description of linguistics. I usually enjoy your posts, but not this one.


    Comment by Linda J McPhee — August 28, 2013 @ 7:55 am | Reply

  3. I agree with Linda that a lack of understanding of what the field of linguistics involves invalidates many points in the discussion. Linguistics is certainly an “argumentative field” which requires “thinking about all sides of a question” and “thinking analytically”. Like all academic subjects studied at BA level, it will be hard to excel if you don’t learn “how to think” (although, at least in Europe, my impression is that we might see “how to think” as something to be taught in the last years of secondary education. Tertiary education is for developing that ability and learning to apply it in independent study).
    I can see why, as a philosophy graduate, it might be comforting to believe that “the difference…between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion” but even a graduate of the ‘soft’ science of linguistics would know not to make such an absurd claim without any supporting evidence, especially such a self-aggrandizing one.
    I am sorry to leave a negative comment, as I have got a lot out of reading your blog.


    Comment by Gem — August 28, 2013 @ 10:59 am | Reply

  4. Sometimes editing is the art of language compromise, but the art of language consensus yields better results. I remember having a discussion with an author who finally said, “Oh, just do it your way.” I replied, “No, we need to find a way that works for both of us”–which, after further discussion, we were able to do, and the manuscript was stronger because of it. Editing isn’t about following the rules; editing is about ensuring clarity in communication. The rules exist to help with that, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

    As for education, logic would also be an excellent field for editors to study. But I always think back to something Ray Bradbury said years ago in an interview with Writer’s Digest: “I absolutely demand of you and everyone I know that they be widely read in every damn field there is: in every religion and every art form, and don’t tell me you haven’t got time! There’s plenty of time. You need all of these cross-references. You never know when your head is going to use this fuel, this food, for its purposes. Stuff yourself with serious subjects, with comic strips and motion pictures and radio and music; with symphonies, with rock, with everything!”

    That’s excellent advice for writers, but it applies to editors, too. The more we know–in every field–the better job we can do.


    Comment by EditorJack — August 28, 2013 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  5. I was the LinkedIn group member who suggested linguistics, and Linda and Gem have essentially said what I said in the LI thread: your characterization of linguistics is incorrect. Everything you say about philosophy also applies to linguistics.

    “Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with your closing sentence. I would just add that learning “how to think about language” is precisely what linguistics is about. It is *not* the “science of applying rules.”

    I, too, love your blog and agree with the vast majority of what you say… but not what you say here about linguistics.


    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) — August 28, 2013 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

  6. “Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. – Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.”

    I took these two main points away from today’s blog. As an editor that works primarily with rough drafts and novice authors, I have found that my educational background in psychology and business have provided a nice balance. I have fairly dense experience in emergency management, law enforcement and mental health.

    I appreciate the comments made concerning linguistics and felt that maybe the best point was missed using that reference. But! 🙂 I doubt this blog meant any offense or disrespect to linguists. Personally, I view a linguist as a scientist in a very important and fascinating field.

    Essentially, this blog topic supported what I have told my authors for years: your editor is not just a word-cop.

    I get frustrated at times with editorial discussions where the vanguard approach seems to be ‘perfect grammar or die’ and the importance of concept and structure and writing excellence appears falls to second place. it was refreshing to hear someone address the broader scope of editing and the importance of a wide range of education and life experiences.

    Perhaps today was just an all-to-human day in American Editor land and expansiveness won out… 🙂


    Comment by Maria D'Marco — August 28, 2013 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

    • yes – I commented while doing something else…

      …writing excellence appears to fall to second place. gack


      Comment by Maria D'Marco — August 28, 2013 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

    • I, too, work primarily with rough drafts and novice authors. I think that an educational background in psychology (such as yours) would come in VERY handy.


      Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — August 29, 2013 @ 8:37 am | Reply

  7. You’ll get no argument from me: experience–both professional and life–is critical for the well-rounded editor. But as we’re discussing what educational path to take, I would counsel the editorial aspirant to pursue an interdisciplinary curriculum, such as the humanities.

    I’m unaware of an undergrad law degree and I feel it would be counterproductive for a wannabe editor in any event. The humanities exposes the student to a variety of fields (including philosophy) and if it’s a decent program, said student will most certainly read and write her ever-lovin’ ass off, while learning to think critically and appreciate great writing.

    Further, the movement known as the “digital humanities” (or DH) is growing by leaps and bounds, and if a student specifically majors in DH, she would develop the digital chops necessary for a 21st-century editing career. New media and complementary digital technologies are altering how we think, communicate, learn, interact, and express ourselves—how we craft and share our communal story.

    What should an aspiring editor major in? DH gets my vote.


    Comment by Aden Nichols — August 28, 2013 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  8. Great post! Surely one must include the study of engineering to the list of beneficial courses.


    Comment by drashadwoods — August 29, 2013 @ 9:17 am | Reply

  9. My liberal arts education (including study of foreign languages) and my work as a library cataloguer (of materials in different languages) taught me to think analytically.
    I aprreciate this blog and the thoughtful comments.


    Comment by Katharine Wiencke — August 29, 2013 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  10. […] A few days later, Rich joined the thread. He agreed with me on the vocational issue, but suggested as a course of study philosophy or law, which “teach you to think,” as opposed to linguistics, which “focuses on structure…[which] is mechanical.” He expanded his thoughts in a recent post to An American Editor, What Is Editing? […]


    Pingback by What Is Linguistics? A Rebuttal | An American Editor — September 2, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  11. […] has done a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and […]


    Pingback by What I do | Grasp the subject, the words will follow — October 10, 2013 @ 11:03 am | Reply

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