How well read should editors be?

Asked about their work, experienced copy-editors point to the importance of reading – and reading broadly. It’s well-founded advice. Editors tend to be avid readers, but with biases for and against certain types of books, such as we all have. And any budding editor who isn’t a voracious reader might consider that lack of appetite a red flag.

But just how does diverse and eclectic reading help us edit? Are there books, or types of books, that are essential reading for editors? And what of editors who forgo fiction and would not dream of reading anything ‘unrealistic’ or formally experimental: Are they missing out, even if they edit only non-fiction?

I was invited to explore these questions for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly the SfEP), which has now made my essay freely available: How well read should editors be? In it I write:

Broad reading opens us up to diverse world views, the same way that talking with different kinds of people does, and this informs our work. More directly, it familiarises us with lesser-known words and their habitats and collocations. It trains the ear on different forms of authorial rhythm, narrative, and humour. It accustoms us to different writing styles and devices, metaphors and clichés, norms and lexicons. Reading from different eras and dialects educates us on the inexorable drift of idiom.

The head for my essay, with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading logo (blue circle, white initialism) in the top right. Under the heading 'Focus', for focus paper, is the essay title ('How well read should editors be?') followed by my name.

And what of the common resistance to the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (SF/F/H)? Many men, Ursula Le Guin suggests, reject the imagination as ‘childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful’; this, I write, ‘begets its own horror’.

Worse, some men eschew any books by women – as though these were a genre, one they can ignore as irrelevant in a patriarchal world. If the purpose of art is to make meaning, Elisa Gabbert writes, ‘That leaves room for lots of different kinds of fiction to make different kinds of meaning.’ Reading SF/F/H can loosen our habits of thought and perception, weakening the instinct to impose our conditioned meanings and presumptions on the world. This can make for more mindful, more meaningful editing.

Spatial considerations prevented me from tackling a couple of topics, such as the relative lexical richness of fiction and the particular value of reading the classics (even in the absence of a literary canon). But it’s a subject that tugs one in countless directions, and I’m pleased to have been able to venture down a few.

You can read or download the essay here, and feel free to add your thoughts below. It’s about 1,700 words.


5 Responses to How well read should editors be?

  1. Virginia L Simmon says:

    Nice one, Stan. I always learn something from you, and I’ve been editing forever (American English Usage with Garner).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you for reading it, Virginia. Most of what I edit is in Irish or British English, but I do also edit in American English, and Garner has his place on my reference shelf.

  2. Steve says:

    Well-read editors pick up more editors than ones who are less well-read, especially in citations.

  3. […] * Not a word I use often, but I included it in a recent essay, ‘How well read should editors be?’ […]

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