As Transparent As Typography

I’m not a writer. In fact, I take pride in the negative part of that sentence because what I am—what I love to be—is an editor. Editors and writers, while in the trenches with words together, really comprise two pretty different mindsets.

I’ve been editing for a while, but it wasn’t until I read Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (thanks to Dan and Jason at An Event Apart) that I realized one of my most important jobs as editor: the editor, like fine-tuned typography, must be transparent.

Bringhurst quite insightfully sums it up with:

“… Typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention is has drawn. Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.”

Read that paragraph again and substitute the word “typography” with “editor,” and you have something that’s very true about the relationship between writers and editors:

“… An editor must often draw attention to himself before he will be heard. Yet in order to be heard, he must relinquish the attention he has drawn. An editor with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.”

Making Sense

The writer is about ideas, inspiring readers with concepts, making connections among previously estranged topics, inventing things. Malcom Gladwell did it with “tipping point,” Jane Jacobs with “sidewalk culture,” and, as much as it is contested, Richard Saul Wurman with “information architect.”

Writers take messy ideas and make them accessible, so they can become part of our vernacular or way of dealing with the world. That accessibility, however, is often instigated, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, by an editor.

Making Form

The editor is about form. He is the writer’s guide, but he is also the readers’ advocate. He takes in the writer’s ideas and suggests a form that will make sense to readers. As a good editor, he knows his readers well, knows their threshold for flourishes and slang, knows whether they will tolerate compound-hyphenated adjectives, and when they will just give up. It’s the editor’s job to be that readers’ voice, then get out of the way to let the writer do her thing.

To guide writers, an editor must be in the background, but be in the background at the right tempo, volume, and pace. Much like a designer can and must give form to a body of writing, the editor can and must give form to the writing. And just like stunning type that so perfectly and invisibly complements a body of text, the more statuesque and transparent an editor can be, the better he can complement the writer.

Thanks Robert Bringhurst. Who knew?