At the end of a long day at my job as the Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, it's always pleasant to consider those editors whose lives are harder than my own.
Consider the editors who have worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. Lorien Kite tells some of the stories in "The evolving role of the Oxford English Dictionary," which appeared in the Financial Times on November 15. For those not familiar with the OED, it not only aspires to include every word in the English language, whether in current use or archaic, but it also seeks to give examples of usage of words over time. The full article is worth reading, but here are a few snippets.
"James Murray (1837-1915), the indefatigable editor who oversaw much of the first edition, was originally commissioned to produce a four-volume work within a decade; after five years, he had got as far as the word “ant”."
"When work began on OED3 in the mid-1990s, it was meant to be complete by 2010. Today, they are roughly a third of the way through and Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor, estimates that the job won’t be finished for another 20 years."
"The first edition, published in 10 instalments between 1884 and 1928, defined more than 400,000 words and phrases; by 1989, when two further supplements of 20th-century neologisms were combined with the original to create the second, this had risen to some 600,000, with a full word count of 59m. Once the monumental task of revising and updating that last (and possibly final) printed incarnation is complete, the third edition is expected to have doubled in overall length."
"The OED records 750,000 individual “sessions” each month, most of which come via institutions such as libraries, universities, NGOs and government departments. ... The surprising thing, explains Judy Pearsall, editorial director for dictionaries in OUP’s global academic division, is that a quarter of these monthly visits are coming from outside what we think of as the English-speaking world.In September, the US accounted for the single biggest group of users, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. At numbers five and six, however, are Germany and China. Readership from countries where English is not the first language is growing faster too ..."
[C]onsider the problems posed in editing the papers of Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher and occasional economist. Bentham wrote perhaps 15 pages in longhand almost every day ofhis adult life. His admirers gathered some of his work for publication, but much was simply stored in boxes, primarily at the library of University College, London. In 1941, an economist named Werner Stark was commissioned by the Royal Economic Society to prepare a comprehensive edition of Bentham’s economic writings, which in turn are just a portion of his overall writings. Inthe three-volume work that was published 11 years later (!), Stark (1952) wrote in the introduction:
The work itself involved immense difficulties. Bentham’s handwriting is so bad that it is quite impossible to make anything of his scripts without first copying them out. I saw myself confronted with the necessity of copying no less than nine big boxes of papers comprising nearly 3,000 pages and a number of words that cannot be far from the seven-figure mark. But that was only the first step. The papers are in no kind of order: in fact it is hard to imagine how they ever became so utterly disordered. They resemble a pack of cards after it has been thoroughly shuffled. . . . The pages of some manuscripts, it is true, were numbered, but then they often carried a double and treble numeration so that confusion was worse confounded, and sometimes I wished there had been no pagination at all. In other manuscript collections the fact that sentences run uninterruptedly from one sheet onto another, is of material help in creating order out of chaos. I was denied even this assistance. It was one of Bentham’s idiosyncrasies never to begin a new page without beginning at the same time a new paragraph. But I cannot hope to give the reader an adequate idea of the problems that had to be overcome.
Of course, the task of editing can have some extraordinary payoffs. Making Bentham's thoughts available and accessible to readers is of great importance. One can imagine a future in which you will buy the OED as an app for your e-reader or your word-processor, and definitions and past uses will be only a click away. In a 2012 essay "From the Desk of the Managing Editor," written for the 100th issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, I tried to describe some of what an editor can hope to accomplish:
Stark’s lamentations would chill the heart of any editor. “Bentham was most unprincipled with regard to the use of capitals.” “After careful consideration, it was found impossible to transfer the punctuation of Bentham’s manuscripts on to the printed page. When he has warmed to a subject and is writing quickly, he simply forgets to punctuate . . . ” And so on.
Communication is hard. The connection between writer and reader is always tenuous. No article worth the reading will ever be a stroll down the promenade on a summer’s day. But most readers of academic articles are walking through swampy woods on a dark night, squelching through puddles and tripping over sticks, banging their shins into rocks, and struggling to see in dim light as thorny branches rake at their clothing. An editor can make the journey easier, so the reader need not dissipate time and attention overcoming unnecessary obstacles, but instead can focus on the intended pathway.
Obstacles to understanding arise both in the form of content and argument and also in the nuts and bolts of writing. An editor needs a certain level of obsessiveness in confronting these issues, manuscript after manuscript, for the 1,000 pages that JEP publishes each year. Plotnick (1982, p. 1) writes in The Elements of Editing: “What kind of person makes a good editor? When hiring new staff, I look for such useful attributes as genius, charisma, adaptability, and disdain for high wages. I also look for signs of a neurotic trait called compulsiveness, which in one form is indispensable to editors, and in another, disabling.”
The ultimate goal of editing is to strengthen the connection between authors and readers. Barney Kilgore, who was editor of the Wall Street Journal during its time its circulation expanded dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, used to post a motto in his office that would terrify any editor (as quoted in Crovitz 2009): “The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading.” An editor can help here, by serving as a proxy for future readers.