Three reflections on being an editor

It is hard to capture what it means to be an editor in an academic endeavour beyond that it is hard and rewarding work. Yet experiences, like the volume on “value practices” I co-edited with Isabelle Dussauge and Francis Lee that came out last year (2015) and the work as one of the founding editors-in-chiefs of Valuation Studies, have generated some reflections I would like to share.

What is an editor? What does an editor do? Looking up the word editor in a dictionary, you find talk about the editor being someone who edits, or is in charge of “the running and contents” of, for instance, a periodical. It also includes the possibility to denote someone that is responsible for the content. In other words, according to the dictionary an editor is someone who edit, is in charge, and takes responsibility for the content. While succinct, they hardly give any real flesh to the editorial role. In short, it does not really describe the practice of being in charge of “the running and content.”

Drawing on my experiences of doing editorial work I sort my reflections using three questions: What is it like? Why do it? How to do it?

What is it like? I would favour a situational way of describing an editorial venture, highlighting that it includes the working with texts, people, ideas and an endless list of mundane and unpredictable aspects that comes with working with such matters. Editorial work is extremely interactive. It involves a large number of other parties (authors, reviewers, commissioning editors, copy-editors, co-editors, etc. etc. etc.). There are slices of solitary writing, reading and editing, but it more often involves interacting with others in meetings, through correspondence and so on. It further includes a fair share of plain administration and planning, the resolving of technical questions, etc. It appears as relational and multifaceted through and through.

Why do it? Being an editor has struck me as committing to a varied and unpredictable workload. (Yet, it is highly predictable that it means more work than predicted.) The broad contours of the end result is known. We all know, for instance, how a book broadly should look like. Yet, the shape of the end result is not known in any detail. The contingencies of the path to get there have in my experience furthermore been uncovered as part of the process and is actually a large part of the reward. What you with certainty sign up for is not a given end result, but rather an opportunity to the make and shape something together with others. This is a strong reason close to why it is a point of being an academic in the first place.

What can happen, then, is the creation of a process that generates new ideas. In such instances, being an editor is like taking part in a considerably extended brainstorm. For me, this is where the answer lies as to why do it: The reason to be an editor is for the moments where the process becomes generative for all involved parties.

How to do it? On the top of my incomplete list would be to not go about it alone. It is helpful to be able to divide certain editorial chores, but even more so to have one or a few others with which to share the caring for the overall development of the venture and the others involved. There are many instances where you will benefit from having arguments and drawing on the judgement of several people. It further means treating the effort as a form joint venture that develops a collective property.

Another helpful thing is to have good questions that can guide the work as well as to coordinate efforts as the project moves forward. It can be really generative to ask questions such as “What would a good book look like?” and “How can the whole and the parts be adapted to strengthen one another?” Involving contributors and editorial team in such working through such questions may not only improve the answers, but can also be part of realising them.

A third helpful thing is to cultivate your patience. Slowness is not necessarily a sign of failure. It might instead mean that serious work is being done that will show in the end result. Yet, you have at the same to be at it, to ensure progression and that the abundance of other commitments not just pulls everything apart.  All this means planning, communication, listening in, discussing, and so on. Over and over again.

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