On 6 March 2020, just weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown, Corridor8 and the Imprints of the New Modernist Editing project co-delivered a one-day ‘Languages of Editing’ workshop, bringing together a group of art writers and editors from across the North at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool. We invited four speakers: Sarah Laing (Independent Editor), Chris McCormack (Associate Editor, Art Monthly), Andrew Thacker (Professor of English Literature, Nottingham Trent University) and Nick Thurston (Artist and Associate Professor in Fine Art, University of Leeds).
This gave us the rare opportunity to discuss the pleasures and challenges of the editor role, and to share best (and worst) practice. We learned about the history of the ‘little magazine’ from Andrew Thacker and digital forms of mark-up languages from Nick Thurston. Sarah Laing gave insights into freelance editing, considering both previously published and new writing, about living artists and their estates. Chris McCormack talked about the politics of art publications, such as who and what is commissioned and how new writing is developed.
The following text is inspired by the presentations and discussion that took place that day.
An Art Editor’s Manifesto
Editors are gatekeepers and caretakers of content. We are key actors in the mediation chain.1 There are strata to our role: oversight, commissioning, editing for content and structure, proofreading, or a combination of the above. The manner of our revisions can range from very harsh (outright rejection) to light touch (tidying language), from kindly constructive to cold critique. Despite this great power and responsibility, we often remain in the shadows (barring the occasional editorial), as our interventions are anonymously absorbed into the writing of others.
The quality of a piece of writing is by no means the only criterion for publication. As editors, we shoulder the heavy burden of deciding which messages are most important (when is its ‘now moment’?),2 whose voices ought to be projected (taking care to include those who struggle to be heard), and how a text should appear (often in line with editorial themes and style guides). We check for sense, truth, clarity, consistency and balance. We demystify writing and remove obstacles between author and reader.3
Writing comes to us in many forms. There are texts that are open and willing to listen, while others are self-contained and impermeable. Correspondingly, there are writers who welcome feedback and those who resist or refuse critique. As editors we sometimes get experimented on, when our presence is rewritten and dialogue becomes a form of composition.4 We learn when we are forced to see our interventions as one, but not the only or the best way to improve a text. Indeed, it is healthy editorial practice to question the very notion of ‘improvement’ as it pertains to the written word.
Language is malleable and endlessly interpretable, as are the styles of writing that seek to give it order and form. Itself a value laden term, ‘style’ has strong associations with class and privilege, or a lack thereof. When editing a text for style, we must be careful to preserve the unique character and voice of the author. It is a constant challenge to edit without over-imparting our own sensibilities and preferences. Whether an adjustment of a sentence or a total reworking, a final piece should remain the writer’s own.
Preserving individual style is more important to some editors and platforms than others. Style guides can give a sense of stringency, but they rarely indicate how or to what extent words might be meddled with. Perhaps this is because it’s too woolly a process to pin down or enforce with any certainty? To give a housing metaphor, some of us are in the business of gutting and others do light refurbs. Our reputations are shaped over time by writers who live to tell the tale.
Editing qualifications are scarce, especially those that are industry specific or prepare us for the people politics of small platforms. Many of us learn to be editors on the job, our confidence and aptitude growing with experience. A good editor learns to subtly annotate and gracefully carve out meaning. They don’t shove but gently lean into a slouching text to make it stand up straight. They are careful enough to check things and caring enough to have conversations.5 They inspire writers to write again, and to write better.
A magazine or platform can act as its own manifesto. An editorial vision can be a call to action, a comment on the times or a support statement. There are ‘dynamic’ and ‘eclectic’ editors6 who determine how the publication as a whole comes across, wrestling its different voices and elements into a unified whole, or allowing its eccentricities to rub up and jostle. Post-digital publishing presents new dimensions and implications for the editor’s role, such as how to control access for readers and create opportunities to reproduce content.7
Throughout history, the magazine has operated through a language of periodical codes: page layout; typefaces; price; size; regularity; use and placement of illustrations and adverts; quality of paper and binding; type of material; networks of distribution and sales; modes of financial support; payment practices; and editorial arrangements.8 It is often an editor’s job to emphasise one thing or another and to create a direction of traffic for the publication.9
In the art publishing world there are some set rules and guidelines for editing, but a lot of it happens in the gut, or on the fly, or at the end of a long day. We have a duty of care, but we are also up against time and limited resources. How many back-and-forths can we reasonably offer, and how much should we be willing share about our process? In the best cases, we are given time and space to shape a document in conversation, in an open and generous spirit. It is here that we can loosen our belts and let language hang out, allowing ourselves to become as fallible and authentic as the writers we work with.
The ‘Languages of Editing’ workshop was developed by Lara Eggleton (Corridor8) and Dr Bryony Randall (University of Glasgow) as part of the Imprints of the New Modernist Editing project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Lara Eggleton is an art writer and managing editor at Corridor8.
This exploration is supported by the AHRC.
- Nick Thurston, Connecting modernist editorial histories to current practice, ‘From Little Magazines to Little Databases’, The Bluecoat, 6 March 2020.
- Chris McCormack, Presentation on the politics of editing, The Bluecoat, 6 March 2020.
- Sarah Laing, Independent Editor, Presentation on freelance editing, The Bluecoat, 6 March 2020.
- Nick Thurston
- Sarah Laing
- Andrew Thacker. Presentation: Modernist ‘Little Magazines’ and Editorial Visions, The Bluecoat, 6 March 2020.
- Nick Thurston
- Andrew Thacker
- Chris McCormack