Let’s Hear It for the Editors

With the passing of founder and 50+-year editor of the New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers, we’re seeing a number of remembrances praising what he built.

The New York Review has been special for a number of reasons, which include: being profitable for 50 years despite not dumbing down its content or catering to the trends; and being a wide-ranging publication of ideas that aimed to publish timeless essays but that also stayed on top of the news.

The other reason for the NYRB’s belovedness is of course that Silvers was by all reports an incredible editor, one who was dedicated and tireless, and who made everything he touched much, much better.

After an essay was finally on track, he would send an edited copy back — the famous “A Galley.” Your argument would be better, and your prose would be cleaner. But on every page, there would be his cramped handwriting, asking for page references for every quotation, questioning word choices, inserting paragraph breaks, pointing to recent work from the Congressional Research Service, invoking arguments from James Madison, John Marshall, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant.

After you responded to “A Galley,” you would get “B Galley,” with still more questions and corrections, more references, meticulous editing and, occasionally, a serious concern. A direct quotation: “After many readings, I appreciated the changes you made, but in our ignorance my colleagues and I still had questions.”

When an essay was far along and close to ready to run, he would occasionally call to say, “We just have a few final questions.” My heart would sink. Was a conversation actually necessary? Had he found a serious defect? Wouldn’t email be better? Were we going to go over whole sentences, word by word?

Yes, yes, no and yes.

It’s really impossible to overstate how important editing experiences like this are for writers, especially up-and-coming writers who are still finding their voice.

Given the trajectory of many young critics today—which would include lots of blogging, writing reviews and essays for Web-native venues, and maybe doing some newspaper reviewing—I do wonder if this sort of intense editing is getting lost. And I wonder what this is doing to the current up-and-coming generation of American public thinkers.

To be clear, I think it’s fine that many Web-native venues don’t do a ton of editing. Oftentimes the nature of the work is that it is not to be lasting, and certainly there have always been venues where the editing was light. Oftentimes there’s not a whole lot you can do with a shortish book review if it’s submitted well-written. This will always be true, and it’s fine.

But, really strong editing is so important to a writer’s development. Looking back on the editors I’ve worked with who have stepped me through multiple edits of my own pieces, making them immeasurably better in the process, it is clear how 100% crucial good editing is. This is really where a writer learns to take note of his/her blind spots (we all have them, no matter what you think of your own self-awareness), to step beyond the sources and logic we are most comfortable with, to consider arguments we never would have thought of before, and just to take the prose and the reasoning behind it to the next level. Even though it can be hell for a writer to be asked to go through that draft one more time, in retrospect it is always something I value and appreciate, and editors who can do this well are people I am always inclined to work with in the future.

As Cass Sunstein writes, this is really a matter of “what a democracy needs,” as such on-the-job learning-via-editing is one of the only ways talented, promising writers can become the sorts of public intellectuals who are rightly looked to an admired. It’s one of the only ways to be kept humble, to make a writer really see all of the sides of an argument, to deal with his/her flaws, and to have the kind of scope and thoroughness necessary to be a great essayist. And if you can’t see the applicability of such writing to a functional democracy . . . well, it should be clear.

If you’re a writer (at whatever point in your career), try this: take a look at all the pieces being written about Silvers right now (they will invariably include discussions of his in-depth edits), and ask yourself if you couldn’t benefit from an editor with the skill, resources, and dedication.



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