May 9, 2017

the invisible editor

Jill Lepore talks about translating academic work for wider audiences, and more over at Public Books.

BRC: I think for many academics who want to write beyond the academy, the role of the editor, even that fact of editorial advising, is blurry. I’m curious, too, and this is a plain question, but how many drafts and revisions go into a typical published essay with the involvement of that editorial hand?

JL: Wouldn’t it be interesting to write the history of the editor, as a figure not in the history of literature but in the history of knowledge? One of the really staggering things to me about the great “newspaper death watch” of 2009 was the jeering jubilance of disruptors, their astounding confidence in the genius and efficiency of a new system of communication that, at the end of the day, did one thing above all: it killed the editor. Here’s a way to think about that: what percentage of everything “published” in, say, 1952—that is, every radio and television broadcast, every magazine, newspaper, newsletter, book—was edited, in the sense that it passed through the hands of at least one person whose entire job was to consider the judiciousness and reasonableness of the argument and the quality of the evidence? Let’s say—wild guess—more than 98 percent. And how much of everything “published” in 2017—every post, comment, clip—is edited? Who knows, but let’s say, less than 2 percent. Doesn’t that explain a lot about the pickle we’re in?

As someone who shares life with a documentary editor (who writes, in scripts and in setting up scenes, evaluates story beats, and mixes the placement of argumentation within narrative specificity)—a resounding yes.