When Editors Are Accomplices

As an editor, what do you do when the author you’re working with has nothing worthwhile to say? Not simply when the writing is poor, but when there’s actually no there, there.

In my editorial roles, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great thinkers and researchers whose contributions genuinely make a difference. I learn a lot as they help the world to learn even more. But a substantial minority of the material I see is, I have to be frank, dead wood, at least after you scrape off the varnish. Varnish that I often apply.

First let me make a distinction between an author’s ability as a writer and the quality of what he or she has to say. Many people whose names appear in bylines don’t write well (often because they’re in fields where writing is not the core activity), yet they offer enormous value through the written word. That’s where editors and ghost writers act as edifiers — an effort that ultimately satisfies everyone involved, including readers. But sometimes underneath the writing, whether poor or impressive, an editor finds a void in substance that simply cannot be filled with words. Much labor is expended covering up the gaping hole, accompanied by much editor-enabled denial. Editor as sycophant is a role I’ve learned to play all too well, and one that I still haven’t figured out how to consistently avoid.

Here’s where I should supply a few juicy examples — where I ought to name names. Thing is, I’m not in a protected-enough professional position to expose myself to the wrath (or the stoniness) of injured egos. Underlying the art of sycophancy is, sadly, a sickness that becomes perilous if unleashed. But I’ve learned that art well enough, I think, to please you with examples that offer some titillation even without the proper names. They fall into three main categories.

Profile 1: Traffickers in the Obvious

These are the authors who sell, and sometimes make an entire living at selling, answers to obvious questions that they’ve purportedly “investigated” or “researched.” It’s the biggest category of empty content out there, and it takes a variety of forms. Sometimes authors get mileage out of mining areas of “inquiry” that readers love to revisit no matter how well-trodden the territory: the mysteries of genius and success, gender and generational differences, career advancement, self-improvement, and the list goes on. Other times, the addictive topics are not of the evergreen variety, but rather pegged to current trends (e.g., in technology) or to issues raised by recent news events. Occasionally, something genuinely substantive and useful is offered, but usually underneath it all is the same old bottom line repackaged and relabeled, even if the authors themselves don’t recognize it. The “research,” frequently conducted under name-brand auspices to legitimize the so-called data, is served up in clever and pithy language. If an editor is sharp (and lucky) enough to come up with a slick headline, it spreads like wildfire. Click. Sizzle. Burn.

Profile 2: Massagers of the Evidence

Whether or not a topic has broad appeal, a surprising number of authors are willing — even eager — to mischaracterize their data in order to make a more compelling point. To their credit, some resist attempts by editors to jazz up their work (although one must take care to distinguish between lazy or expedient attempts to oversimplify content and necessary, practical efforts to make something readable and engaging). Fairly often, though, authors want their “findings” to say one thing when the raw results, if analyzed carefully, show something else or don’t even match up with the question that’s supposedly being investigated. Unless the actual data are published, the reader has no access to the underlying evidence, and so the author and editor effectively become complicit in a deception that the public cannot uncover. To be sure, few nonacademic readers have the stomach for combing over lots of data, so publishing them in full would be ridiculous. But editors are the folks with the obligation to do the intensive review so that readers don’t have to. More often than not, if that review reveals major gaps, editors and authors simply tidy (cover) them up. And, disturbingly often, the review doesn’t happen at all.

Profile 3: Toters of Irrelevance

This is the least surprising of the three groups: authors who pump out material for its own sake (often to rack up publication credits) with little regard for either the short- or the long-term value. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of worthwhile content that, despite its lack of immediate application, provides the foundation for important future work. However, both print and online publications, especially journals, are loaded with stuff whose sole purpose is to advance the careers of those in the bylines. Almost by definition, the water this content carries does not quench any real thirst for knowledge, and certainly not for pleasure. Editors know this, and they simply go along for the stroll to and from the muddy river. You’re already familiar with what’s in this boring bucket, so I won’t make it any bigger than it needs to be. It must be counted, though. Check.

So where does this leave me as an editor? Fortunately, with enough work by authors who don’t fit any of these profiles to allow me to feel fulfilled. That’s still a majority of the time, thank goodness. I do get dispirited, though, when I have no choice but to play along in a publishing game whose rules and outcomes I sometimes don’t respect. I’ll continue to spend some of my time at the edge of the void, determined never to lose my footing.


About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

3 Responses to When Editors Are Accomplices

  1. Arla says:

    I once wrote to the author of an article who was endorsing a certain IT process for small and mid-sized companies. I wanted to see the data he was basing his claims on. After a couple of emails where he tried to dodge my questions he ended up producing a hodge podge of numbers that didn’t prove anything he was saying. it sounded good, but there was no basis in the numbers for any of it. He had cited a few stray numbers from the whole data set and then talked around it in the article. Total sham. The whole thing. I think this happens more often than people realize. Thanks for exposing this. Naming names would have been a nice bonus.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Although I believe I understand the spirit of this essay, I’m angered by one of its implications — that editors must be partially or totally responsible for quality of content. Editor as sycophant, indeed! Sir, you offend me.

    As a copy editor, I could not make a living if I had to analyze the legitimacy of the material I edit and check all the facts. IMO, that vetting must be done before my position in the production chain. By the time something gets to copyediting, decisions about the work’s viability and marketability have already been made by people I have no contact with and never will. What am I supposed to do, be the Quality Police?

    My job is to make the author’s work coherent, not to pass judgment on the subject matter and its value. The reader, the marketplace, the acquiring editor, peer reviewers, many others — these are the parties who determine the value of a work. If you’re going to saddle “editors” with participatory responsibility in the quality of a someone’s content, then at least take the time to define whether you’re talking about a developmental editor, a content editor, a line editor, a copy editor, or an acquiring editor — and whether they’re freelance or on staff. All of those differences make a big difference on an editor’s role and authority in publishing a work!

  3. Carolyn, excellent point. I was writing from the point of view of a developmental editor, although I also do copyediting and other kinds of editorial work. Thank you for your keen observation. It’s an important point to remember.

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