How do you know when it’s finished? Susan Greenberg on editing a text

By Anthony Haynes

September 24, 2015


Category: Texts on publishing

1 Comment »

Monographer writes: I like publishing guest posts. And I like encountering people who can write well about editing. I especially like it when the two coincide, as with the following piece by Susan Greenberg.

Susan Greenberg writes: Since turning to teaching and researching about the media practices that I spent so many years pursuing as a professional, I have become interested in explaining the corners of media culture that get less attention.

One particular concern of mine is the world of editing and editors. As part of a larger study, I collected interviews with different kinds of editors, asked them the same set questions, and put their responses next to each other, to see what patterns emerge. That experimental conversation has now appeared in book form and will hopefully answer some questions about what editors do, and why it can make a difference.

One of the striking patterns in the interviews is the way all editors spoke as one, in response to the question: ‘Do you know when you are finished?’ The short answer is ‘never’.

Without exception, all of them – the night news editor on a daily paper; the book editor crafting a high-brow list; even the scholar on a decades-long project – keenly feel the arbitrariness of a ‘final version’. Descriptions of their daily work reveal a life of infinite tinkering with the text.

In many ways this is not surprising. The creative potential of editing lies in its ability to open up possibilities. When the mind is in the editing zone, it must resist the final version, at least for a period.

This sentiment was so strong, I ended up adding a new definition of editing to the workaday one offered at the start of the interviews: I now describe it as a state of mind that enables the practitioner to see a text as if it is not yet finished.

But being perpetually unfinished is also a curse. And to finish, we all need a deadline. You’re finished, says interviewee Professor Jerome McGann, ‘when the publisher is on your back asking “Where’s Volume 4?” … you’re finished when you’re finished.’

The truly rare skill that a good editor offers is this: the ability to hold two different possible worlds in mind at the same time. The text is opened up, and then closed down again, so that the text can move across the dotted line, from private to public. It is the tension between constraint and freedom that helps to foster creativity.

Any readers interested in joining this conversation in person might like to know about a couple of literary events taking place in London (UK) over the next few weeks. The first is a panel talk on ‘How to get published’ at the Wimbledon BookFest on Sunday October 11.

The second, called ‘Do writers need editors?’ takes place at the Free Word Centre on Tuesday October 27.

Dr Greenberg is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, following a long career as journalist and editor. She teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses on narrative nonfiction and publishing, and welcomes enquiries about doctoral supervision.


One Response to “How do you know when it’s finished? Susan Greenberg on editing a text”

  1. My comment is from the typesetting end, of course, but I have sometimes tried to stop authors from revising their book at page proof with a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12, from about 3000 years ago: ‘of making many books there is no end’. Some changes just have to go into the second edition …

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