Review: Editors on Editing

Editors on Editing edited by Gerry Gross


As part of my homework for what I like to think of as publishing camp, I was assigned three books to read—I’ve already read and reviewed The Elements of Style, and I need to pick up a copy of the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Luckily, I recently earned a Barnes & Noble gift card for my collegiate years of service to the theater, and I’ve been measuring adulthood lately by being cheap and practical. (“Adults,” I tell myself, “buy pens in the giant packs of twenty.”) I was only assigned excerpts out of Editors on Editing, but I just can’t do sampling. I have to take the whole thing out for a test drive.

Editors on Editing is subtitled “what writers need to know about what editors do”. First compiled in 1962, the third edition of the collection is completely revised, retaining little content from its two previous incarnations. In thirty-nine pieces, thirty-nine working editors lift the curtain and reveal how editors do what they do. These essays cover the ethics of editing, the differences between line editing and copy editing, how to work writers’ conferences, what editors are looking for, different genres, and the question of political correctness. This collection is intended as a resource for writers, but is also, obviously, useful for editors and those who aspire to join their ranks.

Rejection is never an easy thing. If you’ve spent a great deal of time crafting a manuscript and then carefully send your baby out into the world, it’s hard to face a form rejection letter. During my two years at my literary agency, I encountered this a lot. The vast majority of authors took it gracefully (or, at least, silently), but I have had memorable encounters with authors who were seemingly convinced that if they just yelled me down, we would change our minds. (Pro-tip: this never works.) For authors, I think the inner workings of agencies and publishing houses—the “gatekeepers” of literature—are frustratingly closed off. Thus the usefulness of Editors on Editing to authors. I think it’s harder to yell at a literary agent or editor for not understanding the brilliance of one’s work when you understand not only the sheer amount of manuscripts editors and other publishing professionals have to deal with on a daily basis, but also the amount of work that goes into getting an acquired manuscript through the publishing gamut. Many of these essays advise aspiring editors to focus on the projects that they love so they can survive that process with some enthusiasm for the project intact. In a piece of advice that’s more universal than expected, Gerry Gross tells aspiring editors to “[r]emember life is too short … to live with self-inflicted intellectual, physical, or psychological pain” (xvii).

A surprising amount of these essays are directed at writers, but there’s also plenty of advice for editors. Many editors share their own personal philosophies on what they do, but most agree that their job is making sure that the author is saying what they want to say as clearly as possible. Given the fact that I’ve shared this philosophy since that fateful day in my high school library when I realized that this is what I wanted to do, reading Editors on Editing was beyond heartening. It further affirmed that this is what I want to do with my life. I’m a fairly laid back and satisfied person, so I rarely experience true want. (I realized this in high school theater; I loved what I was doing, but I lacked the passion of those around me. I felt rude.) But reading John W. Silbersack’s essay “Editing the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Novel” reminded me quite vividly how much I want this. Wanting is not getting, of course, but it is a welcome reminder to have when my family mistakes my ambitions and when people look askance at my organizational impulses.

Being published in 1992 (hey, it can buy itself a drink!) does mean that Editors on Editing is dated. There’s some discussion about what computers can do for the publishing industry, but obviously no discussion of self-publishing. Instead, its trendy topic is “political correctness”—referred to in those exact air quotes on the back cover. The first essay on this topic is as pejorative as the phrase itself (“we’re not doing it on purpose!”), but the second is a little more enlightened. Still, it’s enough to make you heave, to quote Roger De Bris.

Some of the nitty gritty can make your eyes glaze over—it’s a collection built for reference, not straight-through reading. Oddly, Gross includes a brief summary before each essay that essentially just boils the essay down to a few paragraphs. Again, useful for reference, but a weird stumbling block if you’re reading all the way through.

Bottom line: A useful, if dated, piece of reference material that demystifies editing for authors and heartens the aspiring editor. Just dodge the infuriating essays on “political correctness”.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Editors on Editing

  1. Ha! Your idea about adulthood is sort of opposite to mine. I have been being cheap and practical my whole life. I feel the most like an adult when I am buying something a little more upscale and cool. I say to myself “Adults buy new hardbacks from independent bookstores when they want to,” and, “Adults buy elegant stationery for the purposes of writing notes to friends.”

  2. Nice to know I wasn’t the only one who felt it was a bit dated. Nevertheless I appreciated this book for the insight and advice I gleaned from it. In a sense, the ones about writer’s also taught me what we should expect as editors. I’m sure we’ll end up talking about that in a couple days time.

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s