On Editing as Leadership

This is going to sound obnoxious and self-important. I've been thinking a lot lately about editing as leadership.

It sounds obnoxious because I'm an editor, and so it sounds as though I'm making some audacious claim to being a leader, which itself is a bit obnoxious because people (especially evangelicals, of which I am also one) talk far too much about leadership. You'd think "evangelical" and "leadership" were synonymous; but then you'd get to know some of us and realize that they can't possibly be.

Nevertheless, I, an evangelical editor, am feeling more and more convinced that the work I do is in many ways an act of leadership. Max De Pree, author of Leadership Is an Art, suggests that the first responsibility of a leader is to "define reality." And part of the task of an editor is to winnow and prune the assertions and assumptions of an author until the truth of it is clearly revealed. That sounds Quixotic when you think about it--what if, ultimately, there's no truth to be revealed in it, or the editor's biases and assumptions simply add to the murk rather than bring clarity? But that's the task; whether we're up to it or not is another question entirely.

I supervise editorial interns where I work, which is a self-serving way of saying that I show them around and help them do their work and try to explain why they're doing what they're doing. I don't get paid any extra for it, and I haven't received any training for it, so I make it up as I go. (Don't tell my boss.) But as I go about my business with interns I find that I regularly resort to language of leadership--taking initiative, challenging error, encouraging and empowering authors, noticing what's missing, anticipating what will or won't work, making tough cuts, solving thorny problems, all that sort of stuff. Introduce the role of acquisitions and you open a whole new vista for leadership values: in acquiring authors and their books, editors define the reality of a publishing program, giving it coherence and consistency in style, language and content. Editors function as ambassadors for their publishers to critics and reactionaries, defending the occasional provocative or controversial book or author by asserting the value of a marketplace of ideas. Editors look for new terrain to cover, new ideas to exploit. Editors effectively establish what's important, what merits 208 or 352 pages of ink on paper to be disseminated to the masses. Editors, with the acquisition of each author and in the development of each manuscript, help to define reality.

See what I mean? Obnoxious. Self-important. But I need to remember this every once in a while so I don't just roll over and take whatever gets thrown at me, so I don't give in to the temptation of expediency at the expense of quality. I need to remember this so I take my work seriously when so often it starts to orbit absurdity. And to be frank, the rest of you need to remember that editors offer leadership as well, because the temptation for authors is to bypass editing in the pursuit of quick publication, or even publication at all; and the temptation for readers is to accept the end result. The reader is, after all, the ultimate editor, editing with his or her pocketbook and defining the reality of what writing (and the research and craftsmanship behind it, and by extension, the pool of knowledge we all swim in and drink from) becomes.


Not obnoxious. Not self-important.

Just very true. As an author, thanks for your leadership!
John Pattison said…
I agree with Jamie.

Good post.

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