Why Editing Could Make a Comeback

More

obama-editing.jpg

There was a time, say around 1985, when Americans discovered "desktop publishing." Suddenly, *anyone* could make a newsletter or a flyer. And boy, did they, in MacPublisher and Pagemaker and a host of less illustrious products. By the time the web came along, the DIY design attitude was firmly entrenched, and it got extended to the networked realm.

But in recent years, decades after modern design first swept through the country's graphic arts scene, we're seeing a retrenchment of design and a recognition of the value of designers. The principles and practice never went away, but now they are positively everywhere. A feature film has been made about a font -- and it did well.

This is just an intuitive argument, but I think the reason we've seen the Return of Design is that people realized the value of actually knowing how to lay words and images on a page or screen. Sure, anyone could do it, but some people were damn good at it. It just took Comic Sans and blink tags and horrible clipart and unreadable color combinations to make people  see that good design was as much about guiding people to information as it was about looking pretty.

Now, here's where the hypothesis turns self-centered. Every writer and editor I know really liked an essay published this week by Paul Ford called "Real Editors Ship." Of course we would: it makes the case for our value in our economy. Here's the nugget of his thought.

Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.

In other words, editors do the things for text that designers did for visual products. They standardize rules; they enforce consistency; they provide the key for the map; they make things right.

And yet, in recent years, they've seemed expendable, perhaps because they were still around. Now, though, they're disappearing. Text goes online with less editing than it did at magazines or newspapers. More and more of us writers are working without regular editors. More and more people are writing without ever having been edited. Maybe now people will realize what editors did: their presence will be felt in their absence.

Here's my analogy. We take good roads for granted in the US; our highway system just works, so you start to think of it almost as geology, almost immutable and close to eternal. But if you take a drive on the backroads of the Yucatan, the forest encroaches, large potholes appear out of nowhere, and the signage is indecipherable, regardless of your level of Spanish.

The Internet can feel like a jungle, and journalists are in the business of providing paths through the territory. Writers might blaze the trails, but editors maintain the roads. The vines are creeping and the potholes are growing. And maybe letting the road deteriorate is really the only way to make audiences and media companies realize the value of those whose names do not appear underneath the headline.

Update 12:32pm: This article has been updated to fix a couple of typos that only served to reinforce my point.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In