Confessions of a Journal Editor

September 28, 2007

It's good that people can't hear me when I edit their writing. "Blah blah blah." "Is this a garbled translation from the Cyrolean?" "Did you reread your writing? I'm not your mother." "Urrrh." It wouldn't be polite.

I have edited a literary and cultural-studies journal for the past 15 years, and it's hard not to feel some irritation when it seems I pay more attention to other people's words than they do.

Of course some academic writing is as elegant as the drape of Armani, and one can't expect everyone to write as well as Louis Menand. But if you pick up a typical article in an academic journal, what happens? Does it put the ding in plodding?

I don't think it's because people have nothing to say but because they don't manage to corral what they want said, and they don't get any instruction. I don't mean copy editing, although that's faded from the days when two copy editors would sit in an office and read the text backwards to glean any mistakes.

I mean editing in the style of Max Perkins, editing that engages the text at hand, pares it, kneads it, and makes it better. Nowadays there is very little serious editing in academe. It's a scandal, and I think we should change it.

Editing, like sending thank-you cards, is one of those things that everyone acknowledges is a good idea but few people do. It takes time and you don't reap much reward, certainly not equivalent to the time. There is probably not enough attention to teaching writing in graduate school, but at least you have plenty of models and plenty of chances to practice.

Models of editing are scarce -- that is, unless you work with commercial presses or magazines. There, editors really edit. We think of those venues as shallow slaves to the market, but they often pay more attention to the words and ideas than we do. They never lose sight of their audience, holding the quaint assumption that writing is actually written for people -- not for tenure or a CV, both of whom are tone-deaf.

Editing can sometimes be overbearing, or twist what you want to say, but most editing is sympathetic. The best editing is like ventriloquism. It makes the edited text sound exactly like you, but better. Shorter, sharper, more orderly. It's like getting a transcript of a dinner party and cleaning up the things you said, keeping your words but only the good ones. How many times do you wish that you hadn't uttered some line, or had thought of a better one? With editing you can.

Editing can only occur, pen in hand, while reading a particular piece of writing. But I've observed several tendencies in academic writing that, like transfats, everyone should avoid.

"Glossomania," or excessive citation. Yes, we know you've been to the library, or at least Google, but sometimes it's too much of a boring thing. Or more likely masking insecurity in a fog of citation. Or simply being lazy.

Rarely do well-known scholars cite a lot. I was cured of that by a philosophy professor who commented at the end of a paper explicating Aristotle, "You have Aristotle almost letter perfect, although I don't know if I should give the grade to you or to Aristotle."

Indirection. Some journal articles suffer from being excessively roundabout, taking longer to get to the point than Henry James. A common habit in literary articles is to start with a quotation or a description of a literary scene. Sometimes, as in Stephen Greenblatt's essays, that can be a brilliant device, but it is sorely overused and often a false start, the real point being on page 5. Or the main points are buried, in the middle of a paragraph on page 12.

A reader shouldn't have to be a detective to find the point. I don't always like his arguments, but I appreciate the mode of someone like Stanley Fish: You know what track the train is on, which way it's going, and where it stops, and it gets to the final station on time. Many academic arguments are more like a Kafka train, only without the irony.

False difficulty. A common expression in the humanities is that an author "complicates" a topic. That is another academic habit of overcompensation, much like excessive citation. Shouldn't our goal be explanation rather than complication?

Of course not everything can be simple, and difficulty might go with the territory. But the reverse does not follow: A torturous explanation does not indicate difficult thought; it usually only indicates bad writing, its faux difficulty presuming its faux profundity. Think of Wittgenstein: He presents us with nubs that gnaw at us, but his sentences run clear.

Self-indulgence. Sometimes academic essays string together minor corrections or comments on small points, producing what Foucault once described as "une petite pedagogie." Reading such essays is like overhearing high-school gossip, which endlessly dissects events, and the intricacies of who said what to whom.

The problem is not jargon, but the presumption of interest and more than a little self-indulgence. Who, other than one's analyst, should care about a chain of free association? I'm more interested in where writers have gotten, and they should distill it before they tell me. "Reductive" has become a term of dismissal, but history, for instance, would take a long time to tell without reduction; a key to good academic writing is distillation.

Lazy language. Cutting clichéd connectors has cost me boxes of blue pens -- "in other words," "to put it another way," "in addition," are the lice of academic writing. Use them once and they might have some snap; use them eight times in an essay and they're tics.

Another glitch is announcing or narrating what you are doing, in phrases like "I would like to argue." Such meta-comments might aid in moments of physical intimacy but are usually unnecessary during an essay. Just argue it!

And then there are a slew of phrases that should henceforth be banned. "Always already" was once striking, but that was in 1972 and it's now an utter cliché. "Cutting edge" is a phrase that is anything but cutting edge. "Problematic" is just clunky, and actually what people probably mean is "troublesome" or "contradictory." It would be asking too much to stave the tide of Latinates, as George Orwell advises in "Politics and the English Language," but a little more zip would be nice, and if not zip, then simple is always in style.

Lest I seem a tad crotchety, let me add that editing does carry its share of gratifications. As most editors will tell you, probably the best reward is publishing the first essay of a young scholar and working with him to refine it. We are teachers, after all, and it's always good when you see tangible proof that the lesson took, even better if it goes beyond anything you might have advised.

It's also gratifying to work with a more-experienced scholar to whom you suggest a new tack, in keeping with her leanings, that she hadn't thought of. It surprised me when I first started editing that younger scholars were frequently more set in their ways and less open to changes, whereas experienced ones were usually glad if you did some of their work.

Another gratification is having people tell me (I hope without tacking my picture to a dart board) that they imagine my blue pen when they go over what they have written (red is too 9th-grade English teacher, black hard to distinguish, and I just like blue). Although "the editor with the blue pen" doesn't seem quite as elegant as "the reader over your shoulder," I think they realize that I value what they have to say, in fact so much that I pay attention to every word.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and editor of the Minnesota Review.