The editing game…

Jonathan Willis

editing-ratesRegular monster readers may have noticed that my productivity as a blogger has dipped in recent months. I’m not trying to claim extenuating circumstances, but I attribute this (at least in part) to the fact that I’m currently involved in the production of three edited volumes of essays (two as co-editor, and one as sole editor). Editing other people’s work is a great privilege, and most of the time it’s immensely rewarding and enjoyable. Editing a volume of essays, though, is also extremely time consuming, and trying to coordinate your own hectic work patterns with the schedules of ten other academics, perhaps a dozen or maybe more, is often easier said than done. In this post, I’d therefore like to spend some time reflecting on my experience of ‘the editing game’, and the rewards it can bring, as well as some of the potential pitfalls to avoid. If you’re short of time, why not scroll straight to the bottom to see my top 10 dos and don’ts for editors!

vesaliusMy recent experience consists of working on three quite difference projects. The first is a collection of essays on Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe, which I’m co-editing with Liz Tingle. This volume comes out of the activities of the European Reformation Research Group (ERRG), which periodically brings together edited volumes when a certain intellectual theme appears to be reaching a critical scholarly mass. Some of the essays in the volume are based on papers given at past ERRG conferences, some on material presented at other fora, and some of the essays were specially commissioned . My involvement didn’t come about because I work on death, but because of my role as general secretary of ERRG, and I felt that editing was something I’d like to gain some experience of. Luckily for me, Liz is an experienced scholar, and working with somebody else gave me a chance to ease into the process gently. Co-editing isn’t much less work than sole-editing. You can share the burden of some of the admin – for example, by each taking responsibility for dealing with half of the contributors – but ultimately you’re both working on all of the essays. Liz and I also co-wrote a substantial introduction, which was made much easier by the fact that she brought knowledge of the French historiography to bear, while I covered the English side of things.

BMo-JLGCIAA465NMy second experience of editing is a volume of essays on Sin and Salvation in Reformation England, based on a conference of the same name which I organised in 2013. It had always been my intention to produce an edited volume arising from the event: after the conference I emailed the speakers, and to my delight, of 24 speakers at the conference, 14 are included in this current volume. I say 14, but that’s 15 including myself, as I’m writing an essay as well as a general introduction to the volume. Not only is that a pretty good number of essays, it’s also a great strike rate, considering that many conference papers are based on material that’s intended for publication (or indeed may already have been submitted) elsewhere – I know I’ve done it, and I’m sure that we all do from time to time. Seeing this process through from beginning to end, from a seed of an idea relating to my research, to putting on my dream conference, to attracting such a great selection of essays, and getting a chance to attach my personal gloss in the form of the introduction, has been a brilliant experience, but I’m so glad that I had some prior experience of co-editing before I took this on myself.

cartulary2My final experience (for now at least!) is a volume of essays designed to help students get to grips with researching early modern primary sources, and which I’m co-editing with none other than my fellow monster head, Laura Sangha. This is not a project we came up with ourselves – we were invited to put together a proposal by the publisher – but it’s one we’ve come to feel very passionately about. It’s also been wonderful because, although assembling a list of contributors from scratch is much harder than persuading people to revise a conference paper they’ve already given for publication, we’ve been able to put together a ‘dream team’ of experts on sources from print to material culture, and on themes from gender to religion. It’s great to be putting together something which might possibly reach a much wider audience than some of our more ‘traditional’ scholarly publications, and which might also help to inspire the first baby-steps of the next generation of early modernists.

top-10What have I learnt from all of this? Here are my top ten dos and don’ts, based on my experience of the editing game:

  1. If you can, make your first experience of editing a shared one. Co-editing is also great when you’re dealing with a broad area, so that you can draw on a greater breadth of knowledge and contacts.
  2. Communicate with people clearly and often. What exactly are you asking for, and when? How does the individual contribution fit into the broader context of the volume? Giving people lists of chapter headings and other contributors, and even encouraging them to contact one another, can really help.
  3. Be realistic in terms of the timescales you set, both for yourself and your contributors. Don’t underestimate how long it takes to go through fourteen 8,000 word essays with a fine-toothed comb, and bear in mind you’ll be doing it once, twice, probably three or four times. Build in time to read, edit and return essays, and to give people time to make alterations. Try to work around periods when people are likely to have more time, such as the Christmas and Easter holidays.
  4. Don’t be too intrusive: the essays you’ve been given the privilege of editing are the result of other people’s hard work. By all means comment, question, suggest, but don’t take liberties with the fruits of their labour.
  5. On the other hand, don’t bother people with tiny details. If there’s a missing comma, an erroneous apostrophe or a casual typo, just correct it yourself.
  6. Don’t edit your own work. If you’re co-editing this takes care of itself, as you can edit each other’s essays, although a co-written introduction should probably be seen by a third party. And if you’re sole-editing a volume, ask a colleague or one of the other contributors to take a look at your own piece(s).
  7. Make yourself familiar with the publisher’s requirements, and follow them to the letter. Standardise spellings, capitalisation, footnote references, even the number of spaces between sentences. Make sure that your contributors know if they need to include the publisher and place of publication, so you’re not left spending sleepless nights with the library catalogue, filling in the gaps.
  8. Clarify the publisher’s policy regarding images. Are you allowed a certain number, and in black and white only, or colour? What format or resolution should they be in? Will they charge? And what precisely do they require in the form of permissions? Farming responsibility for images and permissions down to individual authors is perfectly reasonable, so long as you make that clear from the outset.
  9. Take the unexpected on the chin, and persevere regardless. A contributor has to drop out? Thank them for their hard work, and wish them well. Series editors require significant additional work? Thank them for their hard work, and get on with it: it will improve the volume in the long run. Perhaps the hardest part of editing is acting as the middle man between the publisher and series editors (if applicable), and the contributors. Just do your best: be honest about communicating any problems that come up at either end, and trust people to be able to work things out for the best in the long run.
  10. Finally, enjoy the process, and the opportunity of being able to engage in it. A good edited collection is a beautiful thing: a genuine product of debate and collective scholarly endeavour. The whole should be greater than the sum of its individual parts, bringing attention to an area of history that has been neglected, or is in need of reassessment or reinterpretation. Enjoying the process means coming to terms with the fact that it is often slow going and can involve a lot of hard work. But then, the same can be said of most things that are worthwhile and important.

That’s my take on editing, but I’d be interested to hear whether other people’s experiences agree with or differ from mine, and whether some contributors to edited volumes would like to add some balance to the account I’ve given above!

7 thoughts on “The editing game…

  1. As someone editing my third volume, but also the first by myself, I really appreciate your observations and the very useful top ten tips. Thank you!

  2. Yes, very important to make sure you and the contributors know the publisher’s house style. But don’t pretend you know about copy-editing if you don’t, and don’t use it as an opportunity to impose your pet peeves about grammar and punctuation.

    Do try to have one or two reliable writers in reserve who can throw something usable together at relatively short notice if an essay you were expecting is too late or too rubbish – I was the Terrance Dicks of the collection I was in. Or you could do a Bob Holmes and write an extra one yourself.

    Sometimes it’s better to centralise image permissions. You might be able to negotiate a deal where the publisher pays all image fees in return for all contributors waiving their royalties (which would hardly be worth having anyway).

    • Thanks Gavin, there are some useful suggestions there. I’d never thought about centralising image permissions, but then I’ve never dealt with a very large quantity of images, so I can see how that might be a useful strategy to adopt. The point about not imposing your own pet peeves is a really important one! A few times I had to stop myself and click ‘undo’ because I was changing something, just because it wasn’t how *I* would have written it. I had to remind myself that I *hadn’t* written it, and therefore had no right to change it.

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  4. I’m coming to the end of my first editing experience, a co-edited volume (shameless plug: details here), and much of what you say resonates with me. At times it has felt like a slog, but it has been enormous fun and – although we’re not quite there yet – already very rewarding.

    Our volume also emerged from a conference, and I think the definitive feature of the experience has been harmonising contributions from many different linguistic and academic backgrounds (I imagine the ERRF volume may be similar?). Perhaps because of this, I think I have ended up as quite an ‘interventionist’ editor; of course I recognise that authors’ work is there own, and that the final say is also theirs, but at the same time I have no reservations about weighing in with changes – although I always emphasize that these are suggestions, and the ideal result is a conversation leading to a resolution with which both editor and author are happy. This is also the style of editing I have found most stimulating as a contributor to others’ volumes.

    One thing that I would add to your list, Jonathan, is that it helps when co-editing (although this is more of an issue when there are more than two editors) to have a clear workflow; not exactly a hierarchy, but a direction from one editor to the next, so that people do not duplicate tasks, and so that you always know who has the latest version of the text. This can be accomplished with your second point of clear communication, but it sometimes helps to be a bit more structured. I also think it might be useful – though we didn’t do this – to keep a log of editorial decisions; I am continuously (and rather naively) amazed by my capacity to forget things. We haven’t used any special software, but I know friends on collaborative projects who use programmes like Alfresco to help manage workflow and versioing.

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