The hidden art of editing – the 2016 Whitcombe lecture

By Susan Greenberg

When I was first invited to give the keynote Whitcombe lecture at this year’s SfEP conference, they told me about the theme for this year – ‘Let’s talk about text’ – and explained: ‘Our members’ work is very varied, but we are all in the business of improving text.’

I feel a deep affinity with this approach. I have spent the greater part of my life thinking about what it means to improve texts; first as a practitioner, then as an academic.

When I started a PhD to go with this new career, about 10 years ago, I wanted to choose a subject that connected these two different lives. And I chose editing in particular because – like other behind-the-scenes work – it is mostly invisible; a hidden art. It would be interesting to bring it more fully into view.

Right from the start, my instinct was to look at the subject in the round. The analysis had to be comparative; it had to take the long view, and it had to include the insights of practitioners. The comparative aspect is crucial, because we already know how the different kinds of editorial work are different; why not ask how they might be similar?

Z_EditorsCoverSo far, one book has already come out of this research, and work on a second is advanced. In the first book, a set of interviews, we get to hear conversations on a human level about what people do when they are editing and what they think about it. This does three main things:

  1. It teases out the shared concerns of different kinds of editors.
  2. It gives a rough shape of a possible ‘best practice’.
  3. It underlines the extent to which good communication is hard; and so the extent to which people need help.

The second book is based on the idea that to bring this invisible practice into full view, we need not just description and definition, but also a really good theory.

We think of ‘theory’ as something high-minded and abstract, but it can and does affect everyday life. Compared to other cultural practices, publishing is very under-theorised. And this can end up undermining its value or status. The reason is that people need a framework in which they can fit random discoveries; otherwise the things they encounter are not fully noticed or remembered.

So, one needs a theory, but the type of theory makes a difference to visibility as well. Until now, the theorisation of editing often comes under the heading of ‘social constructivism’ and often uses the language of ‘gatekeeping’. This is a useful metaphor, but it can struggle to fit all sizes. And it sometimes makes too many assumptions about its subject. The assumption in the case of editing is usually that the ‘gatekeeper’ is always bad, and is always found only in whatever part of the media that the researcher does not like.

That is why I feel there is a need to define principles for textual work that make more allowances for the messiness of human practice.

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan L. Greenberg is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton [1], following a long career as journalist and editor. She teaches and offers doctoral supervision in her specialist areas of narrative nonfiction, and publishing. Susan is also the Publisher of the department’s in-house imprint, Fincham Press [2]. Publications include Editors talk about editing: insights for readers, writers and publishers (Peter Lang, 2015) [3]. Visit her blog at Oddfish [4] or follow her on Twitter at @sgediting. [5]

One thought on “The hidden art of editing – the 2016 Whitcombe lecture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *