An American Editor

March 25, 2013

The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson

Physicists believe that they have discovered the subatomic particle, Higgs boson or “God particle,” that will help explain what gives all matter in the universe size and shape. For us editors, that “God particle” of editing remains elusive.

As we have discussed many times, editing is much more than looking at Chicago section 8.18 and applying the “rule” that president is lowercase unless the president is named, as in “The president boasted…” versus “Boasting about his tenure, President Smith….” So, just as physicists search for the Higgs boson of life, I search for the Higgs boson of editing. What is the essence of editing that gives it life? That gives a well-edited manuscript style? That makes editing a great and learned profession? That sets editors apart from other users of the same language?

It is true that, these days, a goodly portion of an editor’s time is spent on mechanical work. There is little genius in play when we manipulate a reference to make it conform to a set style. The genius is not in fixing those references, but in helping authors communicate their intent and meaning to readers, which is done by word choice and sentence structure.

It is true that today, for example, the meanings of since and because have so blurred and merged that they are nearly synonymous. Consequently, authors and editors often don’t choose between them — each is viewed as a 100% substitute for the other. (And I also admit that there are only a handful of us editors, like me, who still insist on the difference and who are reluctant to embrace the “new” English. The dinosaurs, perhaps, of editing.)

Yet isn’t there a subtle, oh so slight, yet meaningful difference between the two words? Doesn’t since still cast off an aura of time passing? Doesn’t because still conjure up its root in causation?

I raise the since/because issue because I see it as a good representation of the subtleties of the editorial “God particle” and the difficult search for that element. Just as we have a whisper of difference in today’s meanings of since and because, so we have just a whisper of the existence of the editorial Higgs boson.

I asked a colleague whether she ever thought about the philosophical underpinnings of editing. She looked at me as if I was from another planet and said: “No, and I don’t know of any editor who has done so.” To be truthful, neither do I know any editor who has spent even a fleeting moment thinking about the philosophy of editing. Instead, we tend to focus on the job at hand; after all, thinking about philosophy (or philosophically) pays no bills.

But as the years have passed, I have been increasingly thinking about the philosophy of editing. I know what good editing does (and perhaps why I am a good editor), which is this: Good editing enhances the communication between an author and a reader, making sure that the author says precisely what the author intends to say and that the reader understands what the author says as what the author intends it to say. Diagrammatically, the editor sits between the author and reader as the “translator,” ensuring that communication flows unerringly. But that is only what makes for good editing; it doesn’t address the loftier philosophy of editing.

The philosophy of editing seeks to answer the why questions, rather than the what or how questions — the philosophy, rather than the mechanics. Why do we choose particular structures? Why do we resist the singular their? Why does English lack…? Why is “to go boldly” not the same, or as understandable, as “to boldly go”? Why is the editor’s role more like that of a librettist than a composer (and why is it that the composer gets all the credit)? Why is it that, in editing, there are only guides and not written-in-stone rules as in other learned professions?

And on and on go the questions — the questions for which there are no style guides to provide answers or to point the searcher in a search direction. But perhaps the overarching question — the question that truly embraces the philosophy of editing concept — is this: Why does editing lack a universally accepted and applied moral and ethical code of conduct, that is, one that is universally understood and accepted by all parties to the editorial transaction and to which all parties subject themselves?

Sure, there are rogue scientists and rogue soldiers and rogue priests and rogue politicians and rogue whatevers — but there are no rogue editors, because there are no ethical and moral expectations, outside the standard, run-of-the-mill, societal expectations, that are applicable to and bind the parties of an editorial transaction. And that is because there are no editors hunting for the editorial Higgs boson.

Editing should be a serious profession. Yes, I know that we editors claim we are a serious profession, but then we act otherwise. We do little to no deep thinking about our profession. (Consider this: Nearly all professions have a “think tank” — except editing. Nearly all professions have a lobbying group to promote the their ideas and goals among policy makers and the public — except editing.) Individual writers may do little deep thinking about the philosophy of writing, but that gauntlet is picked up by those whose focus is on “literary criticism” — the H.L. Menckens and George Bernard Shaws and Michel Foucaults and Harold Blooms and Noam Chomskys who are both writers and literary critics.

Literary criticism is based on the philosophical discussion of literature’s methods and goals. The editorial Higgs boson could be defined as being “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals.” Where are the editors who focus on the philosophy of editing? Where are “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals?”

As I wrote earlier, increasingly I am thinking about the philosophy of editing and I am searching for that editorial “God particle” — that wisp of truth that will change the profession of editing at its core, that will ultimately lead to the “laws” of editing. Just as physics and chemistry and language and business have their immutable laws (Murphy’s being the most commonly invoked one that crosses all professional boundaries), so does editing — they just wait to be discovered.

Think about how a pursuit of the editorial Higgs boson could reshape the conversations that editors have amongst themselves. Instead of “What does Chicago say about xyz?” the question would become, “Why does Chicago say this about xyz?” and the discussion would be less about a supposed “this is the way it must be” to more like “should this be the way it is done?”

Such discussions might eventually lead to the creation — or perhaps more accurately, the recognition — of the Ten Editorial Commandments, which might govern all parties to the editorial transaction. At that moment in time, editing will be able to take its place in the pantheon of the great professions; the editorial Higgs boson will have been found.

What do you think? More importantly, if you were asked to contribute to the creation of the Ten Editorial Commandments, what would your contribution be?

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