Editors are hired by just about everyone, making their ability to perform for a wide spectrum of audiences, in a plethora of genres, pivotal. Just think about it—your favorite Harry Potter book, this month’s edition of Sports Illustrated, the local news report, a descriptive restaurant menu that paints a picture of your impending meal, textbooks and academic essays, the advertisement for the latest and greatest iPhone that everyone will own within days of its release, or the little tag on the inside of your sweater that tells you to ‘wash on delicate cycle’—editors have been there, influencing just about every aspect of society. While many see them as behind the scenes specialists of grammar, the alterations made by editors have a profound impact on the pieces they work with and society in general. Though editing techniques have changed throughout the ages, at times, the contributions of editors are even more influential than those of the original author.
As long as there has been written language, there have been individuals to make corrections to ensure its accuracy and suitability based on context. When stories were passed on orally, those who eventually scribed the information would generally not have exact quotes, forcing them to depict things to the best of their knowledge and ability. More exact manuscripts were produced when the writers would verbally relay their ideas to scribes for immediate transcription. However, the scribes were still responsible for inserting grammatical elements, such as the correct punctuation.
At a later time, though not formally referred to as editors, scholars had the responsibility of compiling and comparing all of the earlier manuscripts. Their goal was to produce a reliable and complete text based on the multiplicity of manuscripts and their understanding of the history and language. It wasn’t until 1552 that the first developed study of the methodology of textual criticism was produced. It was at this point that “editors” were given a more technical standard for their work.
No authentic manuscript survived for Shakespeare’s pieces, and for nearly a century, his Works were republished multiple times from the faulty copies of the transcripts. Talented editors used careful reasoning based on a remarkably thorough knowledge of his author’s writings, language, and broader cultural and linguistic context to produce more accurate versions of the pieces. Theobald, one of these editors stated, “[The] want of originals may require us to guess, but these guesses turn into something of a more substantial nature, when they are tolerably supported by Reason or Authorities” (Walsh 133). The revisions and compilations made by these editors portray to us the Shakespeare who reigns with literary acclaim today (learn more).
Another prominent example of similar work comes to us through the Bible. Arguably the most important and well-read piece of literature, the Bible has been compiled and changed to produce hundreds of different versions. Though stemming from the same history, the choices that different “editors” have made in producing it have had a vast impact on hundreds of world religions. With endless interpretations of single verses, it is easy to see how an individual word choice or omission could completely alter the “unchanging” doctrine of God. The Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, for example, gives helpful clarification for the LDS church.
As the tools and expectations of editors have altered through the years, so have the means they use to communicate. While the basic tasks of editing, solving linguistic problems and setting mechanical items like punctuation, had changed very little, the development of the printed word has vastly helped in the standardization and accuracy of editing. More recently, computers have also increased things such as the publication process.
At a base level, editors create ethos for the author—making sure that they employ the correct version of there/their/they’re. However, from the initial brainstorming sessions, to the structural planning, researching, and revision—editors are hired as masters of rhetoric and language. In this sense, editors are forced to employ rhetoric in more than just the written form. They have to be able to verbally communicate with the company, author, and publisher—all of whom are generally opinionated individuals. Editors then act as the mediator between the three, making sure that the final product fits the expectations of the production as a whole.
In a more contemporary sense, Maxwell Perkins has been revered as one of the most famous literary editors. He is known for his work with writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. Perkins demonstrated one of the other aspects of editing with his influence on Fitzgerald’s first novel. Though his manuscripts had been rejected multiple times, Perkin’s revised the text and then successfully lobbied for its publication. He continued on to have a prominent role in later novels such as The Great Gatsby (learn more). In this example, an editor made changes that view the publishers’ and presumably the publics’ views of a piece. Through Perkin’s editing and rhetorical persuasion, a career was born for one of the most prominent American authors.
Okay cool, so the version of Shakespeare that I’m reading in my college English class has gone through an extensive process to make it authentic. How can you argue that these editors have had a profound impact on society?
Well, at a base level, literature itself significantly affects culture and the human experience. It allows readers to gain new perspectives, provides a form of education, depicts historical circumstances, acts as a representative of people and cultures, etc. The fact that editors play a key role in literature’s production and publication is already monumental. On top of that, the way that something is presented, whether in formal literature or one of the other forms of written text (ie: advertisements, journals, etc.) strongly affects the way that it is understood. Quite frankly, editors have to be a jack-of-all-trades. They influence every field. They aren’t just well-versed in linguistics, editors work in broadcasting, book publishing, business, law, engineering, and every other type of profession you can imagine. Editors improve safety when working with manuals and guidelines, promote products that businesses are striving to put on the market, and ensure the clarity of our laws. Does ‘A rose by any other name smell as sweet’? Maybe, but it probably wouldn’t have the same effect. That’s why it’s an editor’s job to pick the perfect ‘name’ to maximize the impact and prove the desired outcome successful.
"Maxwell Perkins Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
Walsh, Marcus. "18 Theories of Text, Editorial Theory, and Textual Criticism." Oxford Reference. N.p., 2010. Web.
"Freelance Editor Resource - Where Writers Win." Where Writers Win. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
"Something Wicked." Savage Chickens Cartoons on Sticky Notes by Doug Savage. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.