The Editor Wears Prada

Janet Mackenzie, a well-renowned Australian editor and the author of The Editor’s Companion, believes that there are frequent misconceptions about what the profession of editor involves. Editors are perceived as either glamorous types that canoodle with publishers, esteemed authors and other personages of prestige (reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly); or as misanthropic pedants that withdraw into cubicles, red pens in hand, attending to every miniscule detail of a double-spaced manuscript.

While both are caricatures, they do possess some factual basis. At Voiceworks, each member of the editorial committee straddles this divide—we collaboratively decide what gets into each issue, ‘schmooze’ with authors and other members of the ‘literati’, and labour over the selected pieces to improve their content. For this blog post, though, I’ll be focusing on the latter ‘face’ of the editor.

What exactly is editing?

Editors act as intermediaries between author, publisher and reader, and must attempt to:

  • realise the author’s intention for writing the text,
  • anticipate the reader’s reception of it, and
  • serve the publication’s (artistic and/or commercial) interests.

To Michael Heyward, founder of Text Publishing, editing is an investment that benefits the publisher just as much as the author: well-produced works fare better in the market and possess more longevity. Despite this, many of today’s publishing companies (especially larger ones) have decreased the time and money they are willing to allocate to the editing process. Much editing work is now outsourced to freelancers, with these freelancers often being rushed to meet (sometimes unrealistic) deadlines.

Susan Greenberg of the University of Roehampton attributes the problem to non-editors (including publishers and authors themselves) potentially being unaware of the amount of work involved in editing a text. Because one of the central tenets of editing is to be as unobtrusive as possible—making the text appear as though it had undergone no editing—the amount of work that had been carried out isn’t always visible. A further problem was identified by sociologist Michael Lane, who asserted that the skills (or what he more appropriately calls ‘flair’) possessed by editors are not necessarily quantifiable and are thus difficult to recognise.

But aren’t editors professionals?

While editors are indeed considered professionals in the sense that they require a particular set of skills to carry out their tasks, there does not exist any formal requirements (like university courses) to enter the industry in Australia. To date, many aspiring editors continue to learn their skills on the job through what can be considered ‘apprenticeships’. Through these, editors acquire their ‘eagle eyes’; for instance, they can temporary ‘switch off’ of the human tendency to perceive words as gestalts. This can be illustrated when cetrian wrods are missplet but wtih the fisrt and last letters still correct. Certain visual illusions, like this one…

Visual Illusion - "Paris in the the Springtime"

…also exemplify this condition.

Nevertheless, some people have qualms about this notion of the ‘professional editor’:

(1) Faults, or ‘I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen [what I deem to be] a typo.’

Despite all its professionalism, editing is not a field that can offer discrete solutions—it is more a craft than a science. Instead of facts, editors have access to standards and conventions that are agreed upon by the local industry (and regional variations are rife). Likewise, these standards and conventions are continually updated to match changes in society. Australian editors have several go-to publications, with the Australian Standards for Editing Practice and the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers being the most vital. (Note, though, that both of these have undergone several revisions.)

(2) Perceived elitism, or ‘I don’t need a darned editor to edit me text; I can do it meself.’

It must be acknowledged that writers themselves, in the act of writing, do some editing. However, the difference is the degree to which editors execute these tasks. When a non-editor practises ‘editing’, for example, often what is done is a mere proofread: delete a word here, correct a misspelling there, with issues of structure or logic or clarity—which are arguably more significant than an out-of-place comma—potentially left unaddressed. This is reminiscent of the dangers of self-medication: I would take expert opinion over the advice of a Google Doctor any day.

So editors are not just grumpy old dinosaurs?

Harriet Rubin, founder of Doubleday Publishing, points out that ‘everyone is a writer nowadays’—the growth of self-publishing and the internet allows authors to bypass the traditional publishing model altogether. However, this promise of egalitarianism puts the editor’s role in question: if all readers are themselves writers, and all writers can edit, then surely the ‘expertise’ of the editor is spurious.

Yet self-published texts only reach a limited readership, and some information obtained from websites continues to be met with raised eyebrows. This could mean that, as readers, we still feel reassured by the ‘value-adding’ role of the editor. As Peter Donoughue, managing director of John Wiley & Sons Australia, puts it: ‘At a time when celebrities can’t write, corporations lie, actors can’t sing, journalists run agendas, politicians deceive, and institutions are cowed, we need editors with high standards to produce text readers can trust.’

How do you feel about editors and the editing process?

Adolfo Aranjuez (a.k.a. ‘Fez’) is the deputy editor of Voiceworks, and the editor of arts and culture magazine Fragmented. He is also the in-house editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books, whose annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing will be released in November. Adolfo was recently featured on a Kill Your Darlings podcast on editors, writing and publishing. He tweets @adolfo_ae.

<body bgcolor="#ffffff" text="#000000"> <a href="">Click here to proceed</a>. </body>