Editors Talk about Editing

Insights for Readers, Writers and Publishers

by Susan L. Greenberg (Author)
Monographs VIII, 217 Pages


The work of «editing» is by and large something that happens behind the scenes, noticed only when it is done badly, or not done at all. There is not much information about what editors do. The result is that editing is not often talked about in its own right – not even by the people who do it. This collection of interviews attempts to fill some of the gaps. The author, a former editor herself, interviews practitioners at the top of their game – from newspapers, magazines, broadcast news, book publishing, scholarly editing, academic publishing and digital curation. The interviewees think out loud about creativity and human judgment; what they have in common and what makes them different; how editing skills and culture can be shared; why editing continues to fascinate; and why any of this might matter.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Endorsement
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Identity
  • Chapter 1: Johnny Grimond, The Economist
  • Chapter 2: Adam Moss, New York magazine
  • Part 2: Attention
  • Chapter 3: Ileene Smith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Chapter 4: Jerome Mcgann, University of Virginia
  • Part 3: Legacy
  • Chapter 5: Mary Hockaday, BBC Multimedia Newsroom
  • Chapter 6: John Mcintyre, The Baltimore Sun
  • Chapter 7: Philip Campbell, Nature
  • Part 4: Devolution
  • Chapter 8: Louise Doughty, Novelist
  • Chapter 9: Carole Blake, Literary Agent, Blake Friedmann
  • Chapter 10: Constance Hale, Book Editor
  • Part 5: Digital
  • Chapter 11: Peter Binfield, PeerJ
  • Chapter 12: Phoebe Ayers, Wikimedia Foundation
  • Chapter 13: Evan Ratliff, Atavist
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • References
  • Further Reading
  • Index


← viii | 1 → Introduction

Editing takes place behind the scenes, and is called by many different names. There is not all that much information about what happens during editing—what it is, exactly, that people do. Many people are unaware of the full range of possible editorial interventions, and therefore remain unaware of the difference editing can make, for good or ill. Like other work that happens behind the scenes, editing is often noticed only when it is done badly, or not done at all.

When one does find information about editing practice, the activities it describes are bafflingly varied. ‘What an editor does all day and why he does it is usually a mystery to an author and just as much of a mystery to most of the people inside a publishing house,’ writes Clarkson Potter, an editor-turned-publisher (1990: 82–83).

The result is that editing, as a subject in its own right, is not talked about very often—not even by the people who do it. Editors are by and large reluctant to draw attention to their own work, perceiving it as something that could harm the text’s relationship with both author and reader. The reluctance is captured in the comments of veteran book editor Thomas McCormack, who wrote that editors ‘are always in the “backroom” [and] that’s where we should be’ (1988: 95).

The collection of interviews presented here is an attempt to fill some of the gaps and silences. The interviews came about as part of a larger research project, a PhD that analyses editing in a comparative way. Not all of that work is covered here. In particular, a mapping of editing theory and practice through time, in the past and in the digital present, is the subject of another book to come.

← 1 | 2 → Why editing?

Why bother to fill this particular gap in our knowledge, in the first place? And does anyone care?

I start by admitting my own bias, because I am writing from personal experience; first as a writer and editor in journalism and publishing and now, from the vantage point of a second career, as a teacher on a writing programme. I hope that my perspective has been transformed by viewing the topic through the lens of scholarship.

I have also discovered that curiosity about editing is shared by others, especially if they have ever tried to wrangle sense out of a text for other people’s benefit. The huge expansion of social media and self-publishing has brought this experience home to an audience extending well beyond the world of professional editors, and has stimulated discussion about the ways in which we mediate texts. It also speaks to writers seeking an audience who have learned that pre-submission editing, of a high enough quality, will help their work find a publisher; and to the many people now teaching and studying different forms of media practice, for example at universities and colleges.

Why interviews?

Why fill the gap, specifically, with a book of interviews? Anyone wishing to know how writers approach their work suffers no lack of choice. A large and growing literature describes and explains the author’s experience of the writing process, in memoirs, ‘how-to’ guides, essays and interviews.1 But when it comes to editors and editing, the torrent turns into a trickle. It is rare to find accounts of editing as an everyday activity, or interviews with the people who work on the production of texts.

In scholarly works, with some exceptions,2 editing as a specific subject can become lost within more broadly defined studies, and so potential new areas of research are lost to view. A review of scholarship about magazines notes, for example, that editing ‘has not been viewed as a body, its parts having been published at wide intervals in a disparate range of publications and made relatively inaccessible due to poor cataloguing and indexing’ (Jolliffe 1995: 52). The comment was published 20 years ago, but the landscape has not changed much since then.

In history, a study of editing in Victorian Britain asks: ‘How does one begin to quantify and speculate on the variety of functions [that] editors of periodicals served in nineteenth-century Britain? So often we refer to someone as “editing” a magazine, without much thought about what such duties ← 2 | 3 → entail’ (Finkelstein and Patten 2006: 148). In bibliography, there are rich pickings about the theory and practice of scholarly editing.3 But by and large, the debate takes place in isolation from conversations about non-scholarly editing.

Descriptions of everyday editing practice can be found in ‘how-to’ guides; examples include Saller (2009); Lerner (2002); Norton (2009); and Zinsser (2001). However, these accounts, while useful, have a closely defined, normative purpose; they are written to provide advice and instruction, to suit a particular time and place. Occasional works of journalism make editing their subject,4 along with a handful of memoirs such as Diana Athill’s Stet (2000) or, from earlier times, Harold Latham’s My Life in Publishing (1965). Gerald Gross’s essay collection (1993) provides a platform for editors to write more reflectively on their own experience, but it remains an outlier.5

As far as I can tell, no book-length collection of interviews with editing practitioners has been published before; certainly not one that presents the encounters in a way that deliberately sets out to encourage comparison and analysis. This book therefore covers entirely new ground, by offering deep descriptions of experience from a wide range of practitioners. The aim is to throw light on how editing problems are defined and negotiated in the contemporary publishing world, and offer original source material on what people do—and think they do—when they are editing. I hope that it is also done in a way that offers a basis for future comparative explorations.

A working definition

Because of its invisibility, it is important to define the subject. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun editing (OED 1989a) is defined as ‘The action of edit (v)’. This, in turn, is defined as ‘To be or act as the editor (n)’ (OED 1989b), and the noun editor is defined as ‘one who edits’ (OED 1989c). All terms derive from the Latin noun editor, someone who puts forth or gives out—the ‘e’ indicates outwards movement. The earliest noted use of ‘editing’ as an English noun is dated 1840, but ‘edition’ has a first mention in 1551. This is defined as ‘1. The action of putting forth, or making public; publication’ but also, more broadly, ‘2.a. The action of producing, or bringing into existence; hence, birth, creation (of orders of knighthood etc), extraction, origin. Obs’ (OED 1989d).

By nature, however, dictionary definitions have a circular quality, and only tell us so much. I therefore developed a working definition for the wider research project to serve as a testable, organising hypothesis; a generic benchmark for comparative analysis.

← 3 | 4 → The very short version of this working definition runs as follows: editing is a decision-making process, usually within the framework of a professional practice, which aims to select, shape and link content. The aim of editing practice is to help deliver the meaning and significance of the work to its audience; the process thus involves a relationship between author, editor and text, with the editor representing the as-yet absent reader.

For the benefit of this book’s readers, the definition can be expanded as follows:


Editing is part of a process, in the obvious sense that a text moves through a production cycle. But it also has its own decision-making process, and is part of a wider sense-making process. An awareness of process avoids pitting style versus substance: they are both needed. A decision-making process involves reference to a standard, which can be an implicit part of the culture or expressed in formal rules. Standards are only partly ethical: they are also an attempt to bring meaning and aesthetic beauty to a work.


Editorial selection goes by many job titles: ‘content strategy’ or ‘curating’ are recent examples. Selection involves decisions about what gets published, and what is left out. It is selection that features in the image of editor as ‘gatekeeper’. But even when the gatekeeper is abolished, decisions are still made, although they may be automated or widely distributed.

In the popular imagination, the editor is a passive creature, busy telling people ‘No’. An author dreams up a text and sends it to the gatekeeper, where it joins the pile of work sent by other authors; the gatekeeper then chooses from this fully imagined and achieved work. In the mind of an editor, however, selection is an active business that involves discovery; the inventio of rhetoric.6 This can take the form of building lists, anthologies and series, assembling a particular set of contributors, and defining types of content. The editor may develop ideas from scratch and give them to someone else for development, or help a writer determine the shape of an idea.


Editing gives a text its final shape, helping to bring it into existence. In rhetoric, this corresponds to dispositio (structure) and elocutio (style). These choices ← 4 | 5 → used to be the sole province of the professional; they are now experienced by a much wider public. A common assumption is that shaping decisions are made by the author alone and editing is limited to the correction of mistakes. But in practice it is difficult to draw a line between the two, even for the lightest of edits. The shaping of language includes an engagement with the text’s voice; the way it sounds on the page. For texts put together by groups of people—for example, magazines, websites, works of reference, or films—a distinctive collective voice is needed, and it is the people doing the editing who create that effect.



VIII, 217
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (January)
academic publishing publishing magazines scholar newspaper
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 217 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Susan L. Greenberg (Author)

Susan L. Greenberg (PhD, University College London) took up teaching and research after a long career as a writer and editor. She is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton and a founding member of the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS).


Title: Editors Talk about Editing