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.

January 4, 2010

Louis Brandeis: A Life

I am currently reading the biography of one of our greatest U.S. Supreme Court justices and lawyers, Louis Brandeis. Melvin Urofsky’s Louis Brandeis: A Life is available in both print and ebook form. This is the biography to read if you want to discover what a lawyer should be.

Brandeis didn’t grow up poor, so this isn’t a rags-to-riches story like the story of current justice Clarence Thomas. But it is the story of a man of principle, a lawyer who was often the lawyer of the situation rather than of the person. It is also the story of a man whose introduction to law occurred as how to learn law was on the cusp of changing, and of a man who introduced a different form of advocacy — a form that lawyers today do not practice, that is, being lawyer to the situation — which if they did, would enhance our society greatly.

Brandeis was a man of great intellect with a burning desire to understand both sides fully, something that we cannot always claim for our current justices. It was not that Brandeis didn’t have blind spots, but that he had a sense of society and a person’s role in it. For example, he was opposed to monopolies not because they were monopolies but because they were big, which he believed lead to inefficiency and thus societal harm. Brandeis combined great intellect, a devotion to detail, and a sense of social good in his law practice and when sitting as a justice. Brandeis wanted and needed to understand relationships in depth, not just the surface understanding that is so common today.

If you read but two biographies in your lifetime, this should be one of them (the other should be Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame). Brandeis lived in a time of dynamic change, the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and was a great contributor to the life subsequent generations enjoyed. His efforts and his approach to law practice made him unique among Americans, especially at a time of economic upheavel. Urofsky’s well-written biography makes Brandeis approachable by readers; no knowledge of law required.

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