A Poetics of Editing

by Susan L Greenberg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 265pp, £59.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978 3 319 92245 4

Reviewed by Peter Norrington

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This book is a scholarly work with significant intentions for editing and editors. The author aims, for the first time, to set editing as a primary area of research, just as writing, reading and translating are.

The author makes clear claims that editing is invisible and lacks coherent broad-based reflection. This book supports the demand to value editing, in all its forms, and to see editing as a positive and important contributory activity, not just as a negatively viewed one of rigid correction. The author’s working definition of ‘editing’, which I elide for brevity, is: ‘…a decision-making process, usually…in professional practice,… to select, shape and link the text,… [to] help deliver… the work to readers‘ (p.14). This enables a refreshingly wide range of activities to be included, including ‘anti-editing’, without over-formalising generally or professionally debated terms, such as ‘proofreading’ or ‘line editing’.

What is a ‘poetics of editing’? The deceptively simple definition arrives late in the book – ‘a set of principles for the making of a text‘ (p.225) – fine for those familiar with poetics in literary theory. But it’s easy to find via the book’s headings if you need to see the direction of travel first, and the definition is there expanded on, for both the making of particular texts and a wider view on the production of texts.

The book comprises three parts: Part 1 brings editing into the foreground and describes its practices, and Part 2 sets editing in historical and current contexts, identifying editing’s emergence as a distinct professional role. These are perhaps the easier reads. They deal with broad, and detailed, comparative discussion over the histories of editing, from manuscript through digital, from manual through technology-supported. The material here is – even with the scholarly positioning – open to readers who want to know more.

Part 3 then develops the ‘poetics of editing’, the author’s theoretical perspective. Important aspects of this are the involvement of a wide variety of theories on the production of text – e.g. social, psychological, technological – and the value given to practitioners’ experiences and views. Critically, the author takes the view that many perspectives can be found, and that this diversity isn’t to be moulded into a simplistic, normalising theory.

SfEP-forum readers will recognise the issues, regardless of their position on them. The book may offer challenges to a variety of sectoral perspectives, and then opportunities for debate on the kinds of editing we practise and want to practise. Of course, as a first poetics it is open to challenge and extension. In the longer term, we may find that study that takes us seriously is welcome (though not without risks), and may influence the industry and lead to (positive) change in the ways we value ourselves and are valued.

Greenberg is a senior lecturer in creative writing, following a career in journalism and media. This book develops her 2013 PhD in Publishing. Her 2015 book Editors Talk about Editing comprises interviews with practitioner editors for her PhD, including SfEP members.


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