What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing
By DAVID SHIPLEY, editor, Op-Ed page / New York Times – July 31, 2005
In February 2004, I published an essay in this space describing life at the Op-Ed page. While the article touched on the main facets of our operation high up in the Times building, it focused largely on the submission and selection process.
But deciding what runs in Op-Ed is only part of what we do. We also edit the articles that appear in this space.
Not surprisingly, readers have lots of questions about the editing that goes on. What kinds of changes do we suggest – and why? What kinds of changes do we insist upon – and why? When do we stay out of the way? And the hardy perennial: Do we edit articles to make them adhere to a particular point of view? I thought I’d try to provide a few answers.
Just like Times news articles and editorials, Op-Ed essays are edited. Before something appears in our pages, you can bet that questions have been asked, arguments have been clarified, cuts have been suggested – as have additions – and factual, typographical and grammatical errors have been caught. (We hope.)
Our most important rule, however, is that nothing is published on the Op-Ed page unless it has been approved by its author. Articles go to press only after the person under whose name the article appears has explicitly O.K.’d the editing.
While it’s important to know that we edit, it’s also important to know how we edit. The best way to explain this is to take a walk through the process.
Say you send us an article by regular mail, e-mail, fax or, this summer at least, owl post – and it’s accepted. You’ll be told that we’ll contact you once your article is scheduled for publication. That could be days, weeks or even months away.
When your article does move into the on-deck circle, you’ll be sent a contract, and one of the several editors here will get to work.
Here are the clear-cut things the editor will do:
• Correct grammatical and typographical errors.
• Make sure that the article conforms to The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Courtesy titles, for example, will miraculously appear if they weren’t there before; expletives will be deleted; some words will be capitalized, others lowercased.
• See to it that the article fits our allotted space. With staff columnists, advertisements and illustrations, there’s a limit to the number of words we can squeeze on the page.
• Fact-check the article. While it is the author’s responsibility to ensure that everything written for us is accurate, we still check facts – names, dates, places, quotations.
We also check assertions. If news articles – from The Times and other publications – are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.
For instance, an Op-Ed article critical of newly aggressive police tactics in Town X can’t flatly say the police have no reason to change their strategy if there have been news reports that violence in the town is rising. This doesn’t mean the writer can’t still argue that there are other ways to deal with Town X’s crime problem – he just can’t say that the force’s decision to change came out of the blue.
How would we resolve the Town X issue? Well, we’d discuss it with the writer – generally by telephone or e-mail – and we’d try to find a solution that preserves the writer’s argument while also adhering to the facts.
Now to some people, this may sound surprising, as if we’re putting words in people’s mouths. But there’s a crucial distinction to be made between changing a writer’s argument – and suggesting language that will help a writer make his point more effectively.
Besides grammar and accuracy, we’re also concerned about readability. Our editors try to approach articles as average readers who know nothing about the subject. They may ask if a point is clear, if a writer needs transitional language to bridge the gap between two seemingly separate points, if a leap of logic has been made without sufficient explanation.
To make a piece as clear and accessible as possible, the editor may add a transition, cut a section that goes off point or move a paragraph. If a description is highly technical, the editor may suggest language that lay readers will understand. If it isn’t clear what a writer is trying to say, the editor may take a guess, based on what he knows from the author, and suggest more precise language. (There are also times when we do precious little.)
The editor will then send the edited version of the article to the writer. The changes will often be highlighted to make it easy for the author to see what’s been done. (I tend to mark edits I’ve made with an //ok?//.) If a proposed revision is significant, the editor will often write a few sentences to describe the reasoning behind the suggestion.
Every change is a suggestion, not a demand. If a solution offered by an editor doesn’t work for a writer, the two work together to find an answer to the problem. Editing is not bullying.
Of course, it’s not always warm and cuddly, either. The people who write for Op-Ed have a responsibility to be forthright and specific in their arguments. There’s no room on the page for articles that are opaque or written in code.
What our editors expressly do not do is change a point of view. If you’ve written an article on why New York’s street fairs should be abolished, we will not ask you to change your mind and endorse them. We’re going to help you make the best case you can. If you followed this page carefully in the run-up to the Iraq war, for example, you saw arguments both for and against the invasion – all made with equal force.
Editing is a human enterprise. Like writing, it is by nature subjective. Sometimes an editor will think a writer is saying something that she isn’t. But our editing process gives writer and editor plenty of time to sort out any misunderstandings before the article goes to press. And if a mistake gets through, we do our best to correct it as quickly as possible.
The Op-Ed page is a venue for people with a wide range of perspectives, experiences and talents. Some of the people who appear in this space have written a lot; others haven’t. If we published only people who needed no editing, we’d wind up relying on only a very narrow range of professional writers, and the page would be much the worse for it.
So what’s the agenda? A lively page of clashing opinions, one where as many people as possible have the opportunity to make the best arguments they can.
And just so you know, this article has been edited. Changes have been suggested – and gratefully accepted. Well, most of them.