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Thinking Hard for Ourselves: A Short History of Editors

By Rebecca Brinbury, NWIEG Administrator “Reading breeds the power of an independent mind. When we read well, we are thinking hard for ourselves—this is the essence of freedom. It is also the essence of editing.” –Susan Bell, The Artful Edit Chapter five of Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a book on the craft of self-editing*, is dedicated to the (mainly western and Eurocentric, it must be said) history of editing. She traces the editor’s genealogy through the following positions. She originates editing with scribes, who, in ancient Mesopotamia, “had to downplay their reading skills lest they antagonize their employer” with their powers to understand and shape the written word. Later, in medieval Europe, “the sleepy scribe would accidentally skip or alter words; the arrogant yet lucid would rewrite an obtuse passage; the zealous would interpolate” (and sometimes a feline coworker would contribute their own take on a manuscript). With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century, the role of the editor came further into focus. In Venice, the center of Europe’s publishing world, editors collecting and presenting the work of the high-profile authors of the day had a fair amount of freedom, as those authors (such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio) had been dead for several hundred years. Among those “original freelance editors,” Bell points out, were Franciscan monks, teachers, law students, and writers. In a few short decades, the book industry was so successful that freelancers could live by editing alone. They helped publishers do several difficult jobs. Editors first had to locate and authenticate old manuscripts. Then they had to correct grammar, which, at the time, was a highly complicated task, since the Italian language was still forming itself. Once editors had decided a work was worthy of print and had copyedited it, they oiled it entry into the world with an exegesis—today’s flap copy or scholarly introduction. These first industry editors created a tacit manifesto that still guides many editors today: be savvy enough to find good manuscripts, suave enough to navigate their ambiguities, and erudite enough to discuss them persuasively. If you’re a copyeditor and you find yourself wrestling with, for example, the dissonance between Chicago’s discomfort with the singular “they” and a desire to use inclusive pronouns and/or reflect everyday usage, consider what editor Pietro Bembo found himself contending with: in Petrarch’s poem Italia mia, Bembo restored the Tuscan spelling of “bavarico” in one instance (in current Italian, essentially “Bavarian” or “German”) and rejected the Venetian “barbarico” (in current Italian, the more general “barbarian” or “non-Roman”)**, thereby shaping the direction of the Italian language. In the Renaissance, editors had to contend with what level of discourse they wanted their works to achieve. Should they, as Bell puts it, “water down classical Latin into pedestrian speech, so it would be understood by a general, uneducated public, or render it into a more sophisticated vernacular”? (The tech editors among us are familiar with the feeling of sitting down to a document that seems to be …