The Unseen Guide: Editors and Their Ever-Important Roles

“Editors are everywhere. They are at work wherever words are being written and published—words about the universe, the world, our society, and our human sojourners here.”[1] Thus begins Elsie Stainton’s guide: The Fine Art of Copyediting. Stainton goes on to detail the various skills and practices performed by editors. And she is not alone. Just take a look at the top journals, magazines, and best-selling novels, and you will see that editors are everywhere, in all types of jobs and industries. Yet titles such as “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” still appear. Why is this question being posed?

In an age of ever-increasing technology, humans have replaced once time-consuming or laborious tasks with the simple click of a button. Still wondering what ‘anachronism’ means? There is no need to hike to the library and check out a dictionary; Google is on hand, happy to answer your query. In addition, spell-check, autocorrect, and digital robots save time and effort. Unfortunately, such quick-fix technologies can also lead to embarrassing mistakes. In “The Editor—A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore,” Kurt Anderson references the current population’s “unwavering belief that technology can solve any problem.”[2] I would argue, as Anderson does, that technology cannot solve all our problems and, even more importantly, that it does not do the job humans can do of perfecting a product. This is where editors enter the picture, leaving their human touch imprinted on writing, molding a piece in ways that machines cannot.

As critics and experts debate their importance, journal editors continue to do the often thankless work of compiling, composing, and creating the world’s scholarly journals (among other mediums). Anderson speaks to the “need for leadership and accountability”[3] and a strong uniting vision for a journal, elements that an editorial board alone cannot provide. Anderson’s point is vital to understanding why editors are still relevant and necessary today. Imagine other organizations functioning without a CEO or president. Who would set a course and goals for the company? To whom would its members look for guidance? “Leadership,” Anderson tells us, “is an elusive and abstract trait…but noticeable in its absence.”[4] When journals lose their editor, and all the guidance that he or she provides, the results are felt by its audience. Unfortunately, readers can also feel the overreaching presence of editors, who have the power to make decisions that can be “politically charged, change careers, and make or break alliances.”[5] This power is used and abused, as power by leaders such as CEOs often is. However, the solution to power abuse is not to eliminate the position of power, but rather to give it to someone worthy of such power and responsibility.

An editor also gives a magazine a level of credibility that cannot be earned without. Juri Allik disagrees, calling for a world without academic journal editors or even peer reviews, one in which the “quality of articles would be determined by post-review: the number of all views, downloads, likes, comments and references.”[6] Davis cites David Colquhoun, who agrees with Allik, proposing that authors “publish [their] papers on the web and open the comments.”[7] I see an immediate problem with such a system. Popular opinion, especially through sites in which likes and views are options for rating, is volatile and often random. Look at what’s trending every few hours on Facebook or Twitter: a new viral video of a talented piano player or an article about the horrendous name a celebrity has given to his or her child. Does interest in or views of these mediums make them high quality writing or news? I sincerely hope not. In general, Davis claims that statistics provided by comments, downloads, and citations “provide little additional information”[8] that would be of help to the reader. Instead, we as readers greatly need the presence of a human editor to wade through information and provide guidance.

Other opinions are not so drastic as to suggest a complete reworking of the current system, but rather that prominence goes to the peer reviewer, rather than the editor, as a judgment of merit for publication. This attitude can lead to overemphasis on the role of a peer reviewer. Anderson’s examples highlight journals’ requirement to be peer reviewed, but not to have a lead editor. Peer reviewers, while of great importance in ensuring the relevance of subject matter in proposed articles, are not able (or willing) to control the direction and purpose of a particular journal as lead editors do.[9]

As technology continues to provide shortcuts and new options, the need for editors’ sharp eyes and artistic vision increase. Davis calls journals “mediators of quality signals in a crowded information space.”[10] How can journals show their audiences which articles are of high quality if there is no human guiding the selection of such information? When authors self-publish, following the notion that publishing controlled by editors “must be taken back…and returned rightfully to the people,”[11] proponents forget that this erases one of the vital functions of an editor. Databases collecting self-published works offer no guide to differentiate between works of high and low quality. Editors, on the other hand, work to enhance quality signals, as readers are inundated with ever-increasing amounts of information.[12] In many ways, they also make it more efficient for readers seeking information. If I wish to read an article about racism in British literature, a Google search yields over one million results. However, if I skip that step and instead seek out nationally or regionally recognized academic journals that contain such topics, I greatly increase the likelihood that the article I read will be relevant, or, at the very least, high quality.

Finally, editors serve, if nothing else, as an extra set of eyes. What author would be unhappy to learn that an editor had found and corrected several grammar mistakes that the author missed? This would save the journal and author from embarrassment when the article is published. Peer reviewers may find some mistakes, but often their role emphasizes ensuring the overall quality of an article, not the perfection of each line within. As someone hoping to enter the field of editing myself, I am clearly biased. However, I still believe it is quite evident that editors offer authors and journals so much more than they are given credit for. Rather than emphasizing the power they take from readers, remember that their power is used to amplify and enhance quality writing and publication, all for the benefit of their (perhaps ungrateful) audience.


1 Stainton, Art of Copyediting, 3.

2Anderson, “The Editor.”

3 Ibid.



6 Allik, “end of editors.”

7 Davis, “Editors Become Anachronisms?”

8 Ibid.

9 Anderson, “The Editor.”

10 Davis, “Editors Become Anachronisms?”

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.


Allik, Juri. “The end of academic journal editors?” University World News 319 (2014).

Anderson, Kent. “The Editor—A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore.” The Scholarly    Kitchen. talk-about-anymore/.

Davis, Phil. “Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?” The Scholarly Kitchen.      anachronisms/.

Stainton, Elsie Myers. The Fine Art of Copyediting. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.



Add yours →

  1. I found your concluding statement particularly powerful. I think audience’s are in fact very ungrateful for the work done by editors. This can be attributed to a lack of understanding among society as to what it is exactly that editors do. Many people think that all editors do is check for comma mistakes and misspelled words, and while that’s a part of the job, I don’t think many people consider the amount of contemplation that goes into editing a piece of text. The fact that an editor is capable of putting thoughts into their readers minds, that editors and their writers are solely responsible for the thoughts crossing the reader’s brain in that moment is amazing.

    I hadn’t ever thought of that before my editor mentioned it to me at work on Wednesday. It’s an incredible power to be an editor and a writer. For a split second, you control someone’s mental focus, hopefully contributing to his/her knowledge on the subject in some small way. With this in mind, I think the general public is very unaware of how necessary editors are. Editors are the silent, driving force behind a great deal of what the general public thinks. They maintain the power to manipulate the public, and the worst part is, the public doesn’t even know that editors have this power. Maybe my phrasing sounds a bit diabolical, but the fact remains that our society doesn’t put enough stock in the job of editors, or the impact that editors have on the average Joe’s life.


  2. I really like the point that you bring up where we need to presence of a human editor to wade through information and provide guidance. Like you said, technology is providing shortcuts and continually inundating consumers with new information, and I think it serves as a testament to an editors ability. We assume that everything that an organization releases, whether in the form of a press release or a newsletter, is going to contain factual information that will be easy to read on the page. But while these things are being written, there might be typos, or someone might have a factual error.
    I also found the part you wrote about self publishing very interesting, because it’s something that I’ve looked into, and something that I have seen authors advocate for. With the notion of a “slush pile” at publishing houses, and perhaps with someone’s impatience to see their works released, the notion of self publishing online seems very tempting! However, editors are crucial as you point out, to examine the works and determine how to enhance what is already on the page, that which the author already thinks is good enough.


  3. Editors are fantastic! I didn’t realize just how much they do until this class. I thought I knew, but what I knew wasn’t even close to reality. They are crucial in the writing process. I don’t know about you but even though I love writing, the dynamic of being so close to your own personal work can feel like having a case of tunnel vision, which isn’t always helpful. Having someone like an editor, reading your work from the outside, can make a big difference in the quality of your writing. Not only does a good editor provide you with feedback on technical or grammatical issues, but an especially good one can also be a second pair of eyes for the content from a reader’s point of view. Since writers are not able to read their own work from a reader’s perspective, it becomes even more important to have that editor who can say where the writing needs to be clearer, or even if it is too redundant. We as writers know what we mean when we say it, but can’t always know how to communicate the same ideas to other people who are coming from different angles. I thought you described these and other issues of editors’ roles in our modern times very well!


  4. I particularly appreciated your CEO analogy: “Imagine other organizations functioning without a CEO or president. Who would set a course and goals for the company? To whom would its members look for guidance?” I think this is a particularly strong metaphor for the role of the editor. It’s true that the writers are producing the actual content, just like manufacturing workers produce the actual product. But without editors to guide that writing process, or managers to lead the manufacturing facility, the system couldn’t survive. In this way, editors provide guidance and quiet leadership on a text’s journey from the author’s brain to the reader’s hands.

    I also agree that editors provide a type of quality control to journal articles, ensuring that they are high quality. After all, when we’re looking for the next novel to read, we don’t consider every possible book equally. If we considered each book that exists , we’d have to wade through every bestseller and National Book Award winner in addition to every self-published novella sitting out on Amazon. Some of these novellas might be well-written, but we don’t know that for sure, so most of us stick to the bestsellers and award winners rather than taking that chance. In the same way, readers could take a chance on any scholarly article published online, but most would rather have the certainty of an edited, respected, peer-reviewed journal. Editors provide peace of mind for readers in this way. We’re in the background most of the time, but like you mentioned, readers notice if we’re not there. Your “unseen guide” title fits particularly well with this idea; editors provide leadership and guidance to readers that might otherwise be lost in a sea of undifferentiated text.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: