In Defense of Editing - The Objective Standard

Editor’s note: The following essay, by Norman Podhoretz, was originally published in Harper’s Magazine, October 1965. I first read the essay in 2007, about a year after launching The Objective Standard. At the time, I was still new to the art of editing other writers’ works, but I had already experienced enough to identify substantially with Mr. Podhoretz’s portrayal of the process. Indeed, I felt like he was channeling my past year. Since then, I’ve wrestled multiple times with practically every difficulty described in this essay and recommended the article to virtually every writer, editor, and intellectual with whom I’ve worked. If Podhoretz hadn’t written this gem, I’d have felt compelled to write something on the subject myself (though I’d not have neared his eloquence). Happily, he beat me to it. And I’m delighted to republish the essay here. —Craig Biddle

It seems to have become the fashion lately for writers who have had difficulties with one magazine or another to complain in public about the terrible treatment they have received at the hands of insensitive editors. B. H. Haggin not long ago voiced such a complaint in Partisan Review against Robert Hatch of The Nation; more recently, in the Hudson Review, Hans J. Morgenthau had a go at me. As it happens, both Haggin and Morgenthau were speaking out of what might easily be regarded as personal pique, but the question they raised—Are editors necessary?—is nevertheless an interesting one, touching as it does on the general state of discourse in America and the whole issue of the maintenance of standards. To take up that question, one has to discuss aspects of the editorial process that were perhaps better kept private, but now that they are being made public from the point of view of the aggrieved author, they might just as well be talked about from the point of view of the working editor as well. And the only way for a working editor to begin talking honestly about them is to attempt an answer to the question as it was put in more positive form by John Fischer in the June Harper’s: What do editors do?

Most people, I imagine, if they think about it at all, think that the job of an editor is to pick and choose among finished pieces of work which have been submitted to him and deliver them to the printer; that is to say, he acts as a middleman between individual authors and an expectant public. In the six years that I have been editing Commentary, there have indeed been occasions when my job corresponded roughly to that conception of it. But the editorial process is usually far more complicated. Typically, between the receipt of a manuscript at the offices of almost any magazine and the dispatch of a publishable article to the printer fall the shadows—of doubt, of deliberation, of labor, of negotiation.

Doubt: Every magazine that deserves the name has a character, a style, a point of view, a circumscribed area of concern, a conception of how discourse ought to be conducted; if it lacks these things, it is not a magazine but a periodical anthology of random writings. Obviously the editor’s personality, his cast of mind, his biases, his interests are crucial to the formation of this character. Yet once it has been formed—if it has been truly formed—it takes on an independent existence of its own, resisting even the editor’s efforts to change or qualify it. It is enormously important for him to fight his own magazine, to keep it from becoming hardened and predictable, to keep it open and mobile. Yet if he whores too avidly after strange gods, desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, the magazine will avenge itself by refusing to assimilate the foreign substance. Instead of achieving surprise, he will achieve a tasteless incongruity, like a woman with the wrong hairdo; instead of looking more flexible and lively, his magazine will take on an uncertain and affected air. This is why phrases like “Not for us” or “Unsuitable” so often accompany rejected manuscripts. They are used partly to soothe the wounded feelings of authors, but there is a truth in them by which magazines live or die.

Rites of Commissioning

To understand that magazines have their own insistent characters is to understand why the vast majority of the articles they publish are likely to be commissioned. (The strictly literary magazines are an exception, for the obvious reason that poems and stories, unlike articles, are not as a rule written to order. But even a literary magazine can only become a real magazine—that is, acquire a character—by going after particular writers whom the editor values more highly than others; that, too, may perhaps be regarded as a form of commissioning.)

If an established writer or a regular contributor comes to a magazine with a proposal that the editor likes, he will naturally be told to go ahead. But before he is told to go ahead, the editor will indicate to him how he thinks the subject ought properly to be handled: “properly,” of course, meaning the editor’s conception of how the intrinsic demands of the subject can best be reconciled with the demands of the magazine’s character.

The other, more common, form of commissioning follows not upon the writer’s initiative but upon the editor’s. The editor—or, mysteriously, the magazine itself—decides that an article is needed on a given subject and he looks for someone who can do it as far as possible in the “right” way. This search for the right writer sets what is one of the editor’s most interesting problems, but it can be exhausting; often the writer he wants is a man who must be cajoled, flattered, harassed, nagged. And even with cajolery, flattery, harassment, and nagging, the search ends half the time in failure, either because no one can be found, or because the person who eventually is found never delivers, or worse, turns out to be the wrong writer. With enough experience, however, an editor will know where to go, and with enough luck he will snare his man. Still, he has to be very lucky indeed or very inspired in his choice of writer to get the piece he is dreaming of (and almost miraculously lucky to get it on the promised date). It happens once in a great while. But the typical conclusion to this phase of the editorial process is the delivery of a manuscript which only faintly approximates the editor’s ideal conception, or else differs radically from it. Thus Doubt, and then . . .

Deliberation: Is it right for us? Can it be made right for us? How? Will the author be willing to revise it? Can he revise it on time? Will he let us revise it? Are we willing to risk offending a valuable contributor by pushing very hard? Are we being unfair or too rigid? Should we perhaps publish the piece more or less as it is? Are we perhaps a little crazy?

Such are the questions that are struggled with at editorial conferences or via interoffice memos. Finally, when the manuscript may have gone the rounds of the editorial staff a second time (the conference having left everyone thoroughly uncertain) a decision, enthusiastic or grudging, is reached. A letter is written or a telephone conversation held or a lunch date arranged. “This is what we think still needs to be done. Will you do it?” If yes, the whole process is repeated when the revised version comes in. Or, if no: “Will you let us do it, then? Naturally you’ll have an opportunity to check the edited version.” If yes to that, the phase of deliberation gives way to . . .

Labor: One edits a manuscript by trying to correct the flaws that inevitably appear when it is subjected to the minutest scrutiny of which the editor is capable. In America (and indications are that this is beginning to happen in England, too), the overwhelming majority of the flaws to be corrected are either technical or minimally aesthetic: flaws of grammar, flaws of syntax, flaws of structure, flaws of rhetoric, flaws of taste.

But the deficiencies that tend to show up on a ruthlessly close study of a manuscript may be substantive too. Under the editorial microscope things that were not visible to the naked eye—neither the editor’s nor the author’s—suddenly make an unexpected appearance. One sentence does not logically follow from the next; the paragraph on page 8 only makes sense if it is transposed to page 6 and stitched in with a clever transition to cover the seam; a point which seemed persuasive on a first reading turns out to need bolstering with more documentation (or the irrelevancies surrounding it have to be peeled away); an argument which looked reasonable before is now revealed as contradicting another argument elsewhere in the piece, or to have ignored or distorted the evidence on the other side of the case.

Some of these deficiencies—the logical and structural ones—can be remedied by the editor himself if he has acquired a truly inward grasp of what the author is trying to say and show and evoke. But it must be left to the author to fill in gaps, to add further information, to take up new questions that have arisen, to shore up weaknesses that have become evident. Accordingly the edited version of his article will be sent to him with a letter explaining what has been done to the manuscript and why, asking him to make sure that no inaccuracies have crept in through the editing, and requesting that he deal with the substantive problems which have emerged upon careful scrutiny. The phase of Labor has come to a close, and what remains is . . .

Negotiation: Seeing the edited manuscript, the author, as likely as not, is more than a little outraged. This is, after all, his article; he takes responsibility for it; it is to appear under his name. By what right does anyone presume to tamper with it? (On the other hand, some authors, curiously enough including many who write very well, are often grateful for editing.) When the outrage subsides, however, he will begin to wonder whether there might not perhaps be a certain justice in the criticisms reflected in the editing; not all, of course, but some. Adjustments will naturally have to be made here and there, but on the whole the edited version will do.

Clash of Vanities

Just as the editor may have been worrying about the possibility of losing both article and author by pressing too hard on the manuscript, so on his side the author may be worried lest he lose his chance of publishing the piece and disaffect the editor. There is a clash of interests and vanities here which does not differ greatly in principle from the clash of opposing groups in politics, and it is ordinarily settled in much the same way as political struggles are—by negotiation. The author accepts most of the editing but insists on certain points (the restoration of a passage that has been cut or of a formulation that has been changed), the editor agrees, and the piece is at long last sent to the printer.

Thus is the editorial process completed—so far as this one article is concerned. There may be as many as fifteen or twenty other pieces in the same issue. Not all of them will have involved so much effort. Two or three will have required only a little touching up or none at all; several other will have needed considerable editing but not in every sentence; still others will have needed more editing than the editor—knowing the author would object, and on balance wanting the piece even in an imperfect state—dared to do. (Reading such pieces in proof, or even in print, the editor can hardly control his pencil.)

It takes, then, a great deal of work, an enervating concentration on detail, and a fanatical concern with the bone and sinew of the English language to edit a manuscript—to improve an essentially well-written piece or to turn a clumsily written one into, at the very least, a readable and literate article, and, at the very most, a beautifully shaped and effectively expressed essay which remains true to the author’s intention, which realizes that intention more fully than he himself was able to do. In addition to work, manuscript editing takes time—and time is critical to an enterprise that lives under the pressure of deadlines. And in addition to time, it takes a combination of sympathy—getting inside someone else’s mind—and rigor—resistance to being swallowed up by that other mind, once inside—that is extremely difficult to maintain.

Who Cares?

Is it all worth it? Over and over again one asks oneself that question, tempted as one is to hoard some of the energy that goes into editing for thinking one’s own thoughts or doing one’s own writing. One asks oneself whether anyone would know the difference if one simply sent all those pieces to the printer after a perfunctory reading. And one asks oneself whether anyone really cares about writing of this kind as writing. For all editors have had the experience of publishing inadequately edited pieces that were praised beyond their deserts, and articles they knew to be classics of their type that were scarcely noticed and certainly not valued at their proper worth. If such articles (which are not edited—one has no impulse to tamper with perfection) are not appreciated, what hope is there that lesser (edited) pieces will be?

In the end an editor is thrown back, as any man doing any job faithfully must be, on the fact that he cares and that he can therefore do no other. He cares about the English language; he cares about clarity of thought and grace of expression; he cares about the traditions of discourse and of argument. It hardly needs to be said that even good editors will sometimes bungle a job and that bad editors invariably will, but it nevertheless remains true that the editorial process is a necessity if standards are to be preserved and if the intellectual life in America is not to become wholly compartmentalized and ultimately sterile in spirit.

Apocalyptic as this may sound, I believe it to be an accurate statement of the case. It is no secret that the number of people in this country who can write an acceptable piece of exposition in literate English is astoundingly low. But if one goes beyond that minimal requirement and asks for a piece of exposition whose virtues include clarity, economy, coherence, and grace, one is hard put to find it even among professional journalists or professors of English, let alone professors of economics or sociology. (One is, however, rather more likely to find it among the professors of history who as a class are for some reason the best writers in the academy today.) Whatever the causes of this sorry condition may be, the fact is that it exists, and until it is remedied the only alternative to (competent) editing must be a further debasement of our language and a further loosening of our already tenuous hold on the traditions of civilized public discourse.

In our culture—I exaggerate only slightly—those who know cannot write, and those who can write do not know. An editor who wants an article on a given subject which seems important to him at a given time has very little trouble locating people with impeccable credentials and unquestionable authority. Since such people are rarely good writers, however, he has three choices as an editor: he can decide not to get a piece on the subject at all; he can resign himself to publishing one that is gratuitously unreadable and guilty of grave offenses against the art of exposition; or he can edit. To opt for the first choice is to lose opportunities; to opt for the second choice is to behave irresponsibly both toward the readers of his magazine and toward the standards of his profession; to opt for the third is to risk error and arrogance for the sake of creating a monthly illusion that we live in a world where a certain mode of serious discussion can still take place. What is today an illusion was once a reality; but without the illusion—that is, the sense of what is possible—before our eyes, how will we ever make it a reality again?

Apart from standards, there is also the matter of American intellectual life itself. Once upon a time—or so it now seems—all educated men spoke the same language and therefore were able to communicate with one another. They strolled together in marketplaces or ate together at High Table conversing all the while, wittily, on all manner of things. These educated men were all equally philosophers, equally theologians, equally scientists. But then one day, in the very midst of a conversation, they suddenly discovered that something strange had happened: they could no longer understand one another. They all wondered why they had been punished in this mysterious way by the multiplication of tongues (which soon came to be known as “disciplines”). Some blamed it on the growth of an idolatrous cult of Science among their fellows; others blamed it on the laziness and complacency of the littérateurs. The argument still rages today, but the “disciplines” are if anything further apart than they were in that far-off time when the common language was first shattered into a hundred isolated fragments.

Finding the Language

In my view, the primary responsibility of the magazine editor is to participate in the struggle to reconstruct that shattered common language. There must be a language in which all but the most highly technical matters can be discussed without distortion of falsification or watering-down; there must be a language impartially free of all the various jargons through which the “disciplines” maintain their proud and debilitating isolation; there must be a language in which the kinship of these disciplines is expressed and revealed and reaffirmed.

A man who does not believe in the possibility of such a language cannot edit a magazine (though he may be able to edit a specialized journal of one kind or another). For from the belief in the possibility of such a language everything else that makes an editor follows: the conception of a culture as organic—as one and not many—and therefore accessible in all its modalities to the general intelligence; the correlative conviction that by the exercise of his general intelligence a man can determine what the important issues are even in areas in which he has no special training; the arrogance to assert that this is the relevant point rather than that; the nerve to tell others how to discuss things which they know more about than he does.

And so we come back to where we began: to manuscript editing. Mr. Fischer is right in stressing qualities like intuition, curiosity, and enthusiasm when he talks about the process by which an editor decides on subjects to be covered, problems to be investigated, issues to be raised. But it is manuscript editing and manuscript editing alone that makes it possible for those subjects to be covered properly, these problems to be investigated adequately, these issues to be raised incisively.

(I should add that the article you have just read was commissioned and deliberated upon, but not edited. Perhaps—I hope not—it should have been.)

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