Among the various portentous ‘deaths’ that seem to be befalling contemporary culture – the death of the ‘manly man’, the death of ‘Australian values’, the death of the personal essay – is the lesser-known apparent death of the editor. In a 2008 long-read for Essays in Criticism, Harvard University’s J Stephen Murphy lamented the slow demise of my long-beloved profession, largely as a result of the changes to the publishing landscape wrought by new media and their ostensible democratisation of writing and literature.
Journalism has contended with the brunt of this monumental shift in how editing is (under)valued: in the last few months alone, editorial jobs were slashed by both Fairfax and News Corp on local shores, as well as by The New York Times further afield. During the same period, Australia’s Pacific Magazines also terminated a substantial number of editorial positions. It seems books haven’t been invulnerable, either: a 2011 Guardian article incorporating responses from several publishing bigwigs diagnosed a marked weakening – a ‘timidity’ – in how the editors of today approach their assigned manuscripts.
What’s particularly interesting, for me, is how this final criticism seemingly jars with the traditional conception of the Good Editor as self-effacing. The renowned Beatrice Davis, Australia’s first full-time book editor, famously described the work of the editor as ‘invisible mending’, highlighting the importance of making non-intrusive, seamless changes to a text – of preserving the author’s tone, tenor and intention. In publishing circles, we joke about editors being ‘midwives’ to authors’ ‘babies’, alternating attention between darlings killed and discursive gems needing mining. Indeed, beyond being secondary to the author, the editor is caught in the middle of a four-way tug-of-war between the author, their readers, the publication (its history, vision, voice), and the broader media and publishing industries.
Yet misconceptions about the editing profession remain – my favourite, and the furthest from the mark, being that we editors just sit around and wield red pens to correct grammar and punctuation. That we are perceived as glorified spellcheckers (ones susceptible to human error, no less) perhaps partly explains the diminishing value placed on what we do: why pay someone a wage when Microsoft Word will mete out squiggly lines for free? Then there’s the idea of editors emerging gracefully out of lifts, swanning around at galas among the literati, then arriving home to a mock-up put together by swathes of underlings. Like the migrant that both scabs off the dole and steals locals’ jobs, these competing characterisations somehow coexist in the minds of those whose lives aren’t beholden to the production schedule.
The reality is so much more unglamorous, however. I’d already addressed some problematic aspects of these myths in a piece for Voiceworks a couple of years back, so I won’t rehash those points here. But further demystification is necessary, especially in a world that is seeing a significant decline in resource allocation – and respect – for the profession. Speaking on purely economic terms, as eminent Australian publisher Hilary McPhee has argued, the ‘best edited’ works ‘last longest’ in the marketplace: ‘Editing is not only about ensuring that “Commonwealth” has a capital “c”, it’s about structure, it’s about audience, it’s about getting the voice right. Then sales follow.’ Author Charlotte Wood is also unreservedly warm when recounting editor Jane Palfreyman’s pivotal role in the creation of her Stella Prize–winning 2015 novel, The Natural Way of Things. Here, we are reminded of editing’s ‘value-adding’ effect on texts: an investment in quality leads to better returns – not just economically, but also in terms of symbolic capital.
And editing isn’t a career you just ‘fall into’. In line with the attitudinal expectation raised earlier, it isn’t unlike fields such as teaching, in which professionals are overworked and underpaid, with not much visible recognition. It requires a specific kind of person. Or, as New York Times ‘comma queen’ Mary Norris describes it, editing ‘draws on the entire person’. In addition to brandishing the red pen, editors face working to, anticipating and addressing setbacks in the production cycle – often at the expense of our own cycles for sleep and socialising. There’s the need to always be on the pulse: commissioning topical pieces and keeping abreast of developments in slang, society, political sensitivities. There’s having an eye for design and knowing how text and image best complement one another. There’s the drive to fact-check everything. There’s the never-ending obsession over the perfect wording and the inevitable heart-rending humility of ‘but there’s not enough time, so this’ll have to do’.
New media – and the new consumption habits they foster – are challenging this traditional model of quality-control. Not only is anyone, regardless of expertise or eloquence, now able to publish their writing on an online or digital platform, but our voracious appetite for content also means that demand far exceeds the time and human resources that can be allocated to ensuring what we engage with is authoritative, articulate and well-analysed. Moreover, the networked, ‘perpetually editable’ online arena lends itself to continual corrections and less judiciously structured texts. Perhaps the minimal investment involved in clicking on a hyperlink to yet another ‘free’ article is matched by minimal investment in how rigorously those written works were put together.
In the economy of ‘free’ (advertising prevails, of course), value is placed firmly in the hands of the consumer. So if not on quality of style and structure, then, the role of the twenty-first-century editor may well focus more on being a custodian of substance. As critic and Overland columnist Mel Campbell wrote in 2014 – reminiscing about the time she ‘accidentally changed hip-hop history’ – ‘information goes feral online’, especially when it is ‘truthy’: ‘if information feels right to us, and plays to our existing perceptions and prejudices, then we’ll accept it’. Confronted with a surfeit of sources, it’s more crucial than ever that editors help writers mean what they say and say what they mean – and, more importantly, safeguard readers from erroneous, egregious information, or messages peddled to hurt or harm. Objectivity may be an illusion but, with editorial intervention, a writer’s bias (and readers’ penchant for confirmation bias) can at least be tempered with fact and tact.
Modesty, scrupulousness and diplomacy are integral to professional editing and – aligning with Davis’s characterisation – the best editors do their work invisibly. Concomitant with this is the reality that those not directly involved in the editing process won’t always be able to discern the degree to which a text has been improved by its editor’s efforts. But amid the evolutions in media and publishing, the technologies available to producer and consumer, and the reading habits of the general public, editors must persist – the fulcrum for the publication tug-of-war. It’s vital that editors continue to mend text, context, contention lest our globalised discourses come apart at the seams.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!