Reflecting on my practice – three pillars of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

I was chatting the other day with my friend Erin. ‘Editors are Gods’, she wrote, ‘I don’t know how someone could do it and not make mistakes. Like how do you learn how to do that?!’

As an editor, I felt surge of pride. I also took this opportunity to reflect on how I learned my skill. As I was drafting a reply, I came to realize it came from three main sources.

First, I trained in Greek philology. I spent large amounts of time, in a classroom and at my desk, reading passages from speeches, history, philosophy and literature, written in a language that is no longer in use. The goal was to train my brain in accessing the mental world of people who lived in a different context from mine, through the linguistic traces they left. It was also to make their meaning accessible to my contemporaries, through translation and commentary. More generally, the art of translation, which I practiced extensively through my studies, is probably the closest approximation to the art editing. You must understand the logic, meaning and style of an original, disentangle them from their linguistic form, then find the right equivalent in your language. Success is making your presence invisible: leave no scars after your intervention.

Second, I trained across a broad range of disciplines. When I prepared for Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, beside Greek philology, I studied history, philosophy, literature, English, German, and some geography. Later, I complemented my training with neuroscience, anthropology, sociology – and a smattering of design, ecology, politics, computer science and business. A good editor must have an extensive culture, because they need sensitive antennae, to pick up whatever seems ‘not quite right’ in areas where they have no deep expertise. Whether laziness or hybris, I see many writers follow the poor example of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals. They like to use blanket statements to make a point; except the statement is often unverified or untrue. Common culprits are sentences that begin ‘people have always’, ‘our ancestors’, or just ‘everyone. When this happens, the role of an editor is to play the risk management game with their authors. In comments, I often write things like ‘you’re making generalising statement x, y, z. I am quite ignorant of this domain, but I’d like to double check with you that all the sources confirm what you’re asserting without ambiguity, or whether there is some debate, and some sources could invalidate your claims. If the latter, I would suggest possibly rephrasing as x, y, z. Please, accept my apologies for my ignorance, and simply disregard if what I’m writing is confusing or naïve in any way.’ Generally, my comment is neither confusing nor naïve, and the author tones down their bold statement for something less brassy, but more accurate. 

Third, I learned the art of flattery during my short-lived experience as a film director. In 2010, I wrote, directed and coproduced one short-film. When I describe the experience, I like to say that it was a perfect dom fantasy. On set, I told people exactly what to do, and everyone obeyed. They were looking for someone to give them orders. Earlier, during rehearsals, I observed how actors craved attention. As long as I gave it to them – describing what I saw them try with care and precision – they would happily try whatever I suggested.  Editors need gentle firmness. Writing is very personal, egos easily wounded, and trust needed for suggestions to be taken on board. Like a good dom, the editor must have the pleasure of their partner in mind, and be thoroughly guided by benign intentions. In that, we differ most from the critic who points out flaws in an argument, or props up their own ego by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. There may be suffering involved, or effort, in perfecting a text, but It’s all about helping an idea find its ideal shape, and shine through. Editing, then, comes with a measure of eroticism. Like diplomacy, it is a subtle power game, where the goal is mutual victory, and the weapon language.

Reflecting on my practice – the art of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The most preventable risk is the risk of misunderstanding. Yet as any teacher would know, getting a point across is difficult work. For we must build not on top of a student’s knowledge, but through their ignorance and prejudice. In the classroom – or in any one-on-one conversation – pointed questions and personal charisma compensate for hazy wording and brain fog. A text has to stand on its own, and withstand the winds of ignorance, with no live human crutch to prop it up.

Ensuring its robustness is the role of an editor.

For this, we use two complementary tools: the scissors and the glue. 

Coco Chanel is our patron saint when it comes to wielding scissors. Our end goal is invisibility, so that the curtains of language won’t obscure the light of intent, meaning and imagery, or drown an original voice under their heavy ruffle. So, before sending a text out the door, we like to take an extra thing off.

More complex is the art of mastering glue. For it requires two different sets of skills.

Editors must engineer the mechanics of a text. We closely follow the sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs, to make sure that rhythms, emotions and ideas will achieve their intended effect on the reader. For this, we carefully track every cog in the machine, checking that it catches the right wheel, and that nothing comes to block their movement. If things don’t click properly, we must guide the author either to craft and place a new cog, or take apart the whole machinery, and re-assemble it on the basis of a different logic.

Editors also need to master linguistic chemistry, because our text will circulate out there in the world, and interact in the brains of its readers with all sorts of unexpected compounds. We must foresee where an argument might corrode when exposed to the air of media discourse, and place appropriate coating over its more fragile joints. We must anticipate where the cogs will catch and grip, and place just enough oil that the reader won’t get stuck, nor slip. We must expect all sorts of distractions to take eyes away from our text, and therefore lure attention with emotionally loaded scents and decoys. Most importantly, we must consider the natural decay of all things alive: if our aim is longevity, we must ensure that the core web is made of solid verbal material, genuine spider silk, not a flimsy suit of clichés. And finally, we must ensure that the various elements of this textual chemistry, once activated in the brains of readers, will not bring about a toxic shock by reacting with each other, or what was already there – or if there is a risk, ensure that it is taken consciously.

This is the work of an editor. Wow, that’s a lot!

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.