An American Editor

February 17, 2014

If There Were Only One

A while ago I was speaking with some local students and I was asked to name the one print periodical that I think every editor should subscribe to and read. This was a difficult question. I subscribe to a number of print and electronic periodicals and read books constantly because I like to broaden my general knowledge base. But I gave the question some serious thought.

In the end, I had to nominate two print periodicals — one just wouldn’t cover the bases for me. The two I named were The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

Let me say that the newspaper doesn’t need to be the Times; it does need to be a newspaper of similar scope. Reading the Times lets me keep abreast of what is happening in numerous fields, especially with its specialized weekly sections, like “Science,” and with its broad coverage of world and local news. In comparison, my local newspaper barely provides coverage of local news outside of sports. I think the necessity of keeping abreast of what is happening in the world around us as part of our education is self-evident. A more detailed discussion in this regard can be found in Ruth Thaler-Carter’s “On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process,” which previously appeared on An American Editor.

The choice that requires more explanation is The New York Review of Books (NYRB).

I subscribe to a wide variety of periodicals and I also read some more specialized material in electronic form. But of all the periodicals I read, none provides as broad an insight into my editing world as the NYRB. The NYRB is not just about books. It discusses films, politics, science, economics, poetry, art, music, photography, among other culture-oriented items. It is true that other periodicals also discuss some of these things, but none seem to approach the topics like the NYRB.

When the NYRB reviews a book, for example, I learn about similar books, about the author of the book, and about the book. If the book is nonfiction, for example, about a battle that occurred in World War II, the review invariably discusses other books that address the battle and distinguishes among the books, their approaches, the qualifications of the authors, and all the things that make for a great learning experience.

When an art exhibit is under discussion, the reader is educated about the artist, the period in which the artist lived and painted, and how the artist’s works are perceived. It is almost like being in an art appreciation class in college.

Importantly, the reviews are written in the analytical manner that a good developmental editor would mimic. The review builds. The reviews are also instructive for the copyeditor. I have found that many of the things that I look for today as a copyeditor are things that I learned to look for by reading the high-quality reviews of the NYRB.

There is only so much time I can spend outside work reading for educational purposes. My life cannot be solely about work. Consequently, it is important to gain as much exposure as I can to as many topics as I can so that I can be a better editor and ask more incisive questions of authors. Because of its wide range of topics, I have found the NYRB to be, especially in combination with a daily reading of The New York Times, to be an excellent platform for giving me sufficient background to ask questions of authors. Just one example —

I recently edited a book that had a discussion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Between what I had learned from the Times and the NYRB, I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the Act to query the authors about a couple of points. The one thing I — and I would suspect many of my colleagues — do not want to do is make a query that makes me look as if I have no understanding of the topic I am editing. For example, if an author wrote “Affordable Care Act,” I would feel foolish (and look foolish) if I were to ask: “Do you mean Obamacare?” And considering that the term “Obamacare” is laden with political meaning, I would want to be careful about suggesting that “Obamacare” be substituted for “Affordable Care Act” under the guise that readers would more quickly identify what is meant.

(I suspect most of you are saying you would never make such a query. Let me assure you that I know of a few “professional” editors who have asked such a question of an author.)

A good editor is very aware of, and knowledgeable about, more than a specialty subject area. I understand that I could be a great medical editor and also be very knowledgeable about quilting patterns, but it is not evident to me how I could put my quilting knowledge to use in my editing work. A publication like the NYRB, which provides a wide spectrum of information as part of its primary function of review, can provide me with foundational knowledge that is usable in multiple fields.

As I noted earlier, the NYRB also acts as a constant tutor for me on editing. I read the reviews carefully, looking at how they are structured, what kinds of questions I would ask if I were editing the review, and are those questions subsequently answered. I also consider word choices: Did the editor and author choose the best word to convey the particular meaning? “Intellectual” periodicals like the NYRB should be held to a higher editorial standard than, for example, the daily newspaper. By applying that higher standard, the periodical can be used as a learning device to improve my own editing.

Although I have focused on the NYRB, I am certain there are similar publications in other countries. For example, I know that the London Review of Books has a similar approach. The key is to find the one or two publications that can provide you with both a broad and current knowledge base that is transferable to your daily work. For me, it is the Times and the NYRB. What one (or two) periodical(s) fulfill these functions for you? How would you have answered the original question?

(Disclaimer: I have no interest in either the Times or the NYRB except for being a long-time subscriber and reader of both.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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