What Do You Do?
I edit until I cry.
I promised behind-the-scenes content on the work that goes into publishing Sola Ecclesia. I couldn’t think of a better place to start than to answer the question I get most often when I say I’m the managing editor for Grimké Seminary and Sola Ecclesia. People ask, “What does an editor do?”
Honestly, I stare at Word documents until my eyes water. No really, I do. The eye-watering effect is a similar phenomenon to when I would shiver in a pool as a teenager on a ninety-degree day teaching swim lessons non-stop from 11:00 AM until 5:00 PM. Even though the water temperature was a balmy seventy-six degrees and sunbathers lined the pool deck like hot dogs on those little rotisserie spinning bars at 7-11, eventually my body temperature would deviate from the usual 98.6 degreestoward the temperature of the pool. You’d be surprised how little of a deviation in body temperature it takes for you to begin shivering. In the same way, staring at an author’s work, even an excellent author’s work, on a computer screen for multiple, non-stop hours will, eventually, make your eyes water. That is how an editor knows that he is done for the day, unless, of course, said editor tries to fight through the tears, in which case he shows up to family dinner like he attended a funeral that afternoon, or cut three thousand onions, or stood unblinking in a sandstorm. An editor stares at a computer screen until he cries; that’s the job.
But until the tears flow, there is work to do. Editors help authors aspire to that high standard of written style: (usually) The Chicago Manual of Style.no writer ever gets there; only Bryan Garner has come close. But a mediocre (or better) editor can help a mediocre (or better) author inch a tad closer to the gold standard. “Why a standard, why use a style guide?”, you ask. For this simple reason, elite reader: you are in the minority if you have read this far. Seriously. And if you finish reading this article, which, statistically speaking, is unlikely, you will be in a much smaller minority. How can this be? Negatively put, readers, especially online readers, are fickle, distracted, and lazy. Positively put, readers are busy, picky, and poorly trained in how to read. Editors have to work really, really hard to make written text (excellently written text, mind you, not that click-bait drivel) as clear and precisely formatted as possible to retain a reading audience. In this editor’s opinion, the CMOS does the best job of setting a standard for a minimalistic, simple, and elegant writing style that serves the fragile reader. And this is what an editor does between opening a Word document and weeping uncontrollably.
Now, let me also add that I am a theological editor. That does not just mean that I edit theological writing. It means that, but it also means more than that. I was ordained as a pastor on July 13, 2003, in an evening service at the Historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS. I had been serving in ministry in different capacities well before that. So, let’s say I’ve been involved in ministry for well nigh on two decades. I was well-trained theologically in seminary and have kept my edge over the years through regular reading and teaching. Michael Polanyi, the scientist-Christian-philosopher, described a word for what I gained over the past twenty or so odd years: tacit knowledge.Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that someone has about a subject, a knowledge that extends well beyond their ability to put that knowledge into words. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, gives two examples of tacit knowledge. First, the seasoned firefighter knows when a backdraft is about to happen and is able to move himself and his team to safety before he could ever describe why he knew a backdraft was about to occur. He just knows it. In the same way, a NICU nurse knows when an infant is in trouble and needs attention long before the monitors on that infant register that there is a problem. She just knows it. This is tacit knowledge. A seasoned, well-trained pastor has the same knowledge about theological writing. He knows something is correct and written well even if he can’t tell you why he knows it. Errant theology can be written in an elegant and engaging way. True theology can be written in a vague and confusing way. A decent theological editor can guard his readers against both. Beyond, well beyond, ferreting out comma splices, which, frankly I’m only so-so at detecting, this is my main work for Grimké Seminary and Sola Ecclesia—ensuring that the very best theological writing is published as clearly as possible. This, somewhat, assumes that writers aren’t a part of the equation, but they are.
The last, significant facet of my work is coaching authors. I have the opportunity to use all that I’ve learned from my coach trainingand apply that to my work with the authors that Sola Ecclesia is privileged to publish. Like any skill or craft, you can only get so far in writing on your own. Writers need someone to speak frankly to them about the quality of their writing, to encourage them when they think they’re no good, and to prod them in directions they may not have considered. This work with writers is a sacred trust and true privilege. Some writers need to know that a 1,200-word essay is their sweet spot. Other authors need to be encouraged to write long-form pieces. Some authors would hit it out of the park if you just gave them a topic. Other authors need you to hop on a phone call and talk through a potential article.
Yes, there is loading onto WordPress, and social media, and markdown, and SEO, and choosing art, but the work, the real work of a theological editor, is working with great authors to publish excellent theological writing that readers want to read all the way to the end, and doing this every day until you start weeping.
Posts Past and Future
Since our last update, we’ve published some fantastic articles on how John Calvin viewed friendship, how Herman Bavinck engaged in scholarly debate, and on the necessity of preaching in corporate worship.
This coming Monday you’ll hear about a seminary that was once a jail (and how one of our faculty has a family connection to that jail-seminary). Beyond that, you’ll hear from our president, Doug Logan, in addition to an article on the importance of theological education in the local church and how pastors should approach sermon preparation.
Please know how grateful we are for you, our readers.
Of course, recent research suggests that the average body temperature is changing. So, if you are a stickler, insert 97.9 degrees here.
For example, there are, at least, six errors in this post. If you find one, you have the distinct privilege of knowing that you are, indeed, a SNOOT.
In a writing seminar for Grimké Seminary, a seminary student once asked me this very question. That a developing writer asks why we even need style guides is a HUGE sign that you want to be a part of that seminary. That is exactly the question that a writer needs to ask when he starts.
Four more readers have stopped reading since I began explaining writing style. They’ve since clicked on ESPN to check how their brackets are faring in a league with friends they haven’t talked to since college. If you are still reading, congratulations. You are truly a specimen of advanced attention management.
For you Newbigin fans, Lesslie drew upon Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge in Foolishness to the Greeks.
It is important to note, from a church history standpoint, that heretics have been some of the most likable and affable figures in church history. That is a big part of the problem.
It is also important to note, from a church history standpoint, that some very capable and gifted theologians have been in desperate need of a good editor.
I recently spent a year earning my Associate Certified Coach credential from the International Coaching Federation.
Matthew Crawford has written ably on understanding work as craft in The World Beyond Your Head.
For more information on the need for coaching in skill development, see Anders Ericsson's works, especially Peak. Interestingly, Ericsson takes issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.
This applies to all authors.