An American Editor

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: