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It's the Editor, Stupid

While we rethink the future of writing, let's not forget the people behind the scenes.

Last week I opined about some ways publishers might market themselves during these uncertain times of print. I proposed building brand loyalty, but others believe getting rid of publishers entirely is a better way to go. According to this logic, publishers are simply middlemen who have been rendered unnecessary during these self-publishing, self-promoting times.

The question of whether we need publishers to serve a gatekeeping function misses the mark. Publishing houses are not gatekeepers. They do more than act as a shuttle between the genius an author writes on her laptop and an eager reader. And whether a review is published on paper or in pixels is irrelevant.

What does matter, and matters very much, is editing. Good writing is, more often than not, produced through a collaboration between writer and editor. Many good editors work for online sites. Many poor editors work for print publications. The question is not platform. The question is: Who has good editors?

As I read stories about the death (and future) of print (and writing), it always amazes me how rarely editors are mentioned. Perhaps the paucity of discussion of editing has to do with our conception of editors as invisible enablers. Perhaps it is because good editors are being laid off in horrifying droves. Perhaps it is because currently employed editors worry any such case would be seen as self-serving. Whatever the reason, I wish we would discuss editing more, lauding those who do it well.

A recent controversy over the works of Raymond Carver is instructive. Carver is known as a minimalist, writing in a spare style that helped create the “dirty realism” of the 1980s. His editor was Gordon Lish, a well-known, much respected writer and editor whose work with Carver—as well as Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolf and others—undoubtedly influenced contemporary American literature. Some claim that Lish wielded his red pen too severely, and against the wishes of Carver. Whichever side you take, the debate highlights the role editing plays in shaping writing. (To see editing in action, read this New Yorker comparison of the first and final version of a story here.)

Sometimes overzealous editing may delete to the detriment of literature, but that is the exception. The rule is that no matter how great a wordsmith you fancy yourself to be, your writing will be improved by a knowing, adept editor.

There are few courses one can take in editing, and few adolescents grow up hoping to become a great editor. Those who have mastered the art of editing, then, are uncommon creatures. I envy them their skill and am enormously grateful for their gifts: I am never more relieved than when my writing lands in the hands of a competent and caring editor, someone who shows me how to rethink ideas and restructure prose. The writings I have published as a result of a strong writer/editor collaboration are my best work, measured both by my satisfaction with them and by reader interest.

So I do not give a whit whether we go all e-booky and internetty with words. I do care, however, that we cultivate and value editors. (Not to mention employ and pay them). For this reason, I am wary of self-publishing and internet start-ups that throw content up on the site willy-nilly.

Writing is too much with us right now. There are too many sites, too many small publications, too many comments upon comments. We did the growing of the web; now we need to do the pruning. The time has come to cull and to prioritize our sites, our publishing, our venues for smart writing. Dare I say our moment is one crying out for editing? To enter the Age of the Edit, we need, well, editors. Now more than ever.

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