The art of editing

In a workshop led by Ira Glass, host of public radio’s “This American Life,” I heard him admit, “We edit out people’s breaths and pauses in the interviews before they go on air.” Referring to those ums and stammers, this well-known personality admitted to a group of aspiring storytellers that his renowned radio show might not be as unvarnished as it had once seemed. Editing out pauses makes the story flow better — a measure designed to improve his audience’s experience. Even the non-frilly is edited.

Whether we like it or not, we’ve been given a new role. This promotion came about without warning, without training, without org charts or manuals. In addition to our current positions, let’s face it, now we’re all “editors.”

There has long been an invisible tribe, a mysterious group, who transform scattered thoughts into compelling stories, who splice hundreds of hours of video into feature-length films, who segregate the semicolons from the em dashes. These are editors working across media sectors — publishing, film, music, more — to deliver transformative stories with clarity and grace.

Editing is to media as a performance is to a composition: It is an act of interpretation, rich with opportunities for personal insight, misguided judgments, or brilliance. Each individual is different, and each individual will construct experiences differently. In our new editorial roles, we’re tasked with acting as equal parts consumer and editor.

What we’re doing is, in fact, parallel to decades of editorial traditions:

1. Saying no.

While “stubborn” and “opinionated” might be too strong, it is a truism that an editor’s chief responsibility is to say no. Like all truisms, it is probably false some of the time, but having a recognizable voice is essential. In the recent documentary, “The September Issue,” Anna Wintour exposed hard-handed opinions necessary to differentiate Vogue in the $300 billion fashion industry. Call it decisiveness. Call it intuition. Whatever you call it; editors have the responsibility to quickly sift through abundance to decide what’s important. Just as our Twitter reputation may rest on our ability to make quick judgments about the quality of a tweet before reposting them, so are we all editors in media.

2. Determining the tempo.

The editor determines the tempo, and therefore, the amount of information a consumer receives. Website editors decide when and how often to deliver information to consumers. Film editors decide the duration of a shot, or what kind of edit happens between shots. Both set the pace for a particular experience. The slow dissolve at the end of “Psycho” (1960), for example, can leave an audience lingering, while the timing of a video release on contributes to our impression of the brand’s value. This is all within an editor’s control. Likewise, the editor’s own tempo must be high. He or she must plow through manuscripts on subject matter that may be of no interest with passionate disinterest.

3. Giving out (or withholding) information.

Editors determine how much information audiences need access to, and how much to hold back. Well-known curated sites such as are celebrated for the considered content, not overloaded links. Editors know when and how to scan sources to determine which parts can be skimmed and when it’s key to read it all the way through — every line, word, and scene.

4. Creating coherence.

Editors create relevance and experience where there was none before. Whether it’s constructing a theme or splicing together a flashback sequence for a film, editors are creating connections for their audience with, sometimes, mismatched shapes and concepts. Access does not mean a free-for-all curation party.

5. Lacking a personal agenda.

An editor is creating a narrative from other people’s stories, and must be comfortable doing so. In this sense, the editor is largely invisible, yet knows the value of citing. Sourcing references carefully using “via” or another format demonstrates humility and respect for your sources.

See also:

Brooke, Clive and Ethan at Aspen.” On the Media. September 4, 2009.

Gross, G. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

Shirky, C. “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.” Web 2.0 Expo, New York, 2008.

boyd, d., Golder, S., and Lotan, G. “Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter.” Microsoft Research, January 2010.

So from here, where? We’re now simply making footprints and leaving signs. While this is a small step for us as burgeoning editors, it’s a fascinating departure as, traditionally, an editor’s role has been an invisible one-one to provide a sort of statuesque transparency — to give it form without knowing he or she is there. The character of the medium remained unchanged, but the transformation was essential so that consumers reveled in the media rather than deliberated over it. With this change, everything has shifted downstream. The footprints and signs of the editor’s role have moved from pre-publishing to post-publishing.

Where once editors and curators provided meaning, now we’re providing it. It remains to be seen how filter failure will be solved, and whether our editorial practices are going to be enough to stamp it out. But meanwhile, though red pens and proofreaders’ marks are not in our future, better ways of collecting and distributing stories are. This age is not about writers learning new tools, nor is it about readers sift through content; it’s about editors experimenting and making meaning of stories for themselves and for their new audiences — whether those are small or large.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVII.1 – January / February, 2010 » The Art of Editing: The New Old Skills for a Curated Life