I edit books for a living. Not newspapers, not magazines, not movies. I edit books. I’m being repetitive because the following exemplifies how a typical job conversation goes for me.

At a party, or an art reception, or a meet-and-greet for some community board, or whatever:

Me: …So the movie’s about three generations of a Taiwan family living in Taipei, this huge glowing metropolis. It’s really funny and thoughtful and beautiful, one of the best movies about family that I’ve—

Random stranger [holding glass of white wine]: I don’t like movies with subtitles.

[awkward pause]

Random stranger [sipping]: Soooooo, what do you do for a living?

Me [wishing I had a drink of my own]: I edit books.

Random stranger: So, that’s like newspapers and stuff. right?

After I clarify what I do, most people move quickly on to other subjects or glance somewhere over my shoulder, to see if there’s someone sexier or more interesting that they should be talking to. That’s fine. Unless you’re an astronaut, cartoonist, or train conductor, I’m not that interested in what you do for a living, either.
Oh, my job is interesting—sometimes even enjoyable—to me but I don’t expect it to hold anyone else in fascination. Hell, even I don’t like talking about my job—I do that enough during work hours. In part, that’s because editing is difficult to define. If the average American has any idea of an editor at all, it comes from His Girl Friday or from J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s editor and editorial nemesis of Spider-Man. Perhaps you know the routine: the chain-smoking, clipped-voice foulmouth who sits at a desk groaning under the weight of papers and books, and who yells “Get me rewrite! Pronto!” If you grew up in the Hamptons or in an especially literary family, maybe your idea of an editor is the New Yorker’s William Shawn, an agoraphobic who was so afraid of being in elevators that he was rumored to always carry a hatchet in his briefcase… in case he got stuck in an elevator and needed to bust his way out.

So there’s the editor in the American imagination: either an asshole or a milquetoast but, either way, someone who doesn’t actually do very much beyond flailing arms around or mumbling.

Usually, if the aforementioned partygoer expresses interest in my work, he’s actually interested in what he can bring to the editing field, not in finding out what I really do. The conversation then proceeds in one of several ways:

1) The dormant writer. “I’ve been thinking about writing a book. My life would be one hell of a story, if only I could find the time to do it.” (Nod my head, pretend to agree.)

2) The expectant writer. “I’ve written a book about my life, which is one hell of a story. Will you read it for me?” (I don’t really have time to do freelance work.)

3) Truant from the grammar police. “Well, I guess I’d better mind my p’s and q’s around you, then, ha ha.” [A nervous glance at me]. “I’ll speak correct from now on.” (Grin politely, pretend I haven’t heard fifty variants of this joke.)

4) The one-upper, still bitter about bad marks in junior high. “Oh, yeah? So, do you know what ‘sesquipedalian’ means?” (Yes.) “What about ‘synecdoche?’” (Yes, again.) “Oh, really? Well, have you read this incredibly obscure 2000-page book that I pretend to have read, in order to separate true language lovers from heathens such as yourself?” (Excuse myself to find the restroom. Pronto.)

5) The condescending commiserator. “Don’t you just hate it when people don’t use the serial comma properly?” (I don’t care enough to weep about it.) “Or when people use ‘penultimate’ when they mean ‘ultimate?’” (It’s mildly amusing but I don’t, you know, hate it.) “I figured you could sympathize with me, because I’m a real stickler for grammar.” (Ah. That’s why no one was talking to you.)

Most of the above comes because people confuse my work with that of a copyeditor, those mavens of fine tuning who treat the Chicago Manual of Style like the Talmud, and who split into factions over minor points of MLA documentation style. While I dutifully own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and work with copyeditors, this isn’t really what I do.

So, what is it that I do? Editing’s a hodgepodge of a number of duties and skill sets, and the definitions of each shift slightly, depending on what sort of publication on which an editor might work. My stepdad once asked me to sum up my job in two sentences or less. I couldn’t do it.

To be fair, there’s not much guidance for this pop quiz. For a take on the aspiring editor—i.e., the lowly editorial assistant—there’s hardly anything better than Megham Daum’s essay, “My Misspent Youth.” For what happens once you wield the editor’s pen, there are plenty of books—usually from a writer’s, and not an editor’s, point-of-view—but not many good, brisk essays.

Count Brian Doyle’s new essay for the Kenyon Review as Exhibit A. Although ostensibly about the art of writing–and receiving–rejection letters, the essayist provides a relatively succinct definition of the editor’s job and the various roles she juggles daily. A taste:

My friend James and I have for years now plotted a vast essay about editing, an essay we may never write because we have children and paramours and jobs and books to write, but we take great glee in sketching it out, because there are hundreds of subtle joys and crimes of editing, and editing is hardly ever what the non-inky world thinks it is, which is copyediting, which is merely the very last and easiest piece of editing—rather like a crossword puzzle, something you can do near-naked and beer in hand. Real editing means staying in touch with lots of writers, and poking them on a fairly regular basis about what they are writing and reading and thinking and obsessing about and what they have always wanted to write but haven’t, and also it means sending brief friendly notes to lots of writers you have never worked with yet in hopes that you will, and also it means listening to lots and lots of people about lots and lots of ideas, some or all of which might wend their way into your pages, and it means being hip to the zeitgeist enough to mostly ignore it, and it means reading your brains out, and it means always having your antennae up for what you might excerpt or borrow or steal, and it means tinkering with pieces of writing to make them lean and taut and clear, and always having a small room open in the back of your head where you mix and match pieces to see if they have any zest or magnetism together, and it means developing a third eye for cool paintings and photographs and drawings and sculptures and carvings that might elevate your pages, and writing captions and credits and titles and subheads and contents pages, and negotiating with and calming the publisher, and fawning at the feet of the mailing manager, and wheedling assistants and associates, and paying essayists more than poets on principle, and soliciting letters to the editor, and avoiding conferences and seminars, and sending the printer excellent bottles of wine on every holiday, including Ramadan and Kwanzaa, just in case.


And dickering with photographers, battling in general on behalf of the serial comma, making a stand on behalf of saddle-stitching against the evil tide of perfect-bound publications, halving the number of witticisms in any piece of prose, reading galleys backwards to catch any stupid line breaks or egregious typos, battling on behalf of the semicolon, throwing away all business cards that say PROFESSIONAL WRITER, trying to read over-the-transom submissions within a week of their arrival, deleting the word unique on general principle and sending anonymous hate mail to anyone who writes the words fairly unique, snarling at writers who write We must or We should or, God help us all, the word shan’t, searching with mounting desperation for a scrap or shard or snippet of humor in this bruised and blessed world, reminding male writers that it’s OK to acknowledge that there are other people on the planet, halving the number of times any writer says me or I, checking page numbers maniacally, throwing away cover letters, checking the budget twice a day, and trying to read not most but all of your direct competitors, on the off-chance that there might be something delicious to steal.

Go read it.

(Thanks, OGIC.)

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to (stet)

  1. lindsy says:

    I was actually going to recommend the article you quote from when I started reading your post. I thought it was deliciously funny.

  2. Lynn says:

    I like the word “shan’t”. But I’m unique. ;-)

  3. Ian Mason says:

    Great post on a fascinating subject — and an accurate portrayal of the unexpectedly difficult-to-explain life of an editor (I edited a political/cultural magazine back in the mid-90s, and grinned with recognition all the way through the post). Good to hear you’re a book editor; after reviewing too many books with substantive editing problems, I had actually begun to assume that the profession had essentially died out. Keep up the great work (both editing and blogging, I mean).

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