Why Editing Could Make a Comeback

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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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 peopleĀ  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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/why-editing-could-make-a-comeback/60207/