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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive When a Biblical Scholar Becomes an Editor

Ten years ago, I began to learn what editors do.

I had seen the result of editorial work throughout my life, and certainly throughout the years of my training as a biblical scholar. I was no stranger to books, journals, and other manifestations of written or digitized knowledge in an array of fields. My office surrounded me with editorial products; I assigned books to my students to fill their hands and their heads with edited and published ideas; I had even given over reams and disks of my own authorial efforts to the machinations of the editorial process. After all that, editorship remained a mystery to me. I knew literary productivity as author and reader, but I didn't know what happened in between. Then I accepted a job as editor at a religious publishing house, beginning my education as an editor.

I quickly learned that editing is only part of publishing. My work as an editor integrates closely with colleagues in the publishing house's marketing and production departments. It's easy to see their work. Through arcane technologies and formalized procedures, a production department proofreads, formats, typesets, prints, and binds an author's words (or keystrokes) into the physical object of a book. My marketing colleagues make the wider world aware of the book's existence through catalogs, journal advertisements, book review copies, web sites, sales exhibits at scholarly conferences, representation to bookstores and other distribution outlets, and a variety of other activities. I spend much of my time each week cooperating with the professionals in these departments, sharing with them what I know of the book's content (as well as its context, its intertexts, and its potential for contribution) so that their efforts may be as effective and efficient as possible. But that isn't all an editor does.

The editor occupies a space between author and reader. Editors always try to bridge that gap, not so much to eliminate the distance between authorship and readership, but to allow the finished book to exist comfortably on both sides of this epistemological gap, simultaneously as a book that speaks its author's voice in a way that the author recognizes and values and as a book that compels its readers to think well and to value these thoughts. Editors succeed when authors and readers alike claim ownership of the book.

Thus, an editor works with authors as an advocate for the reader. The editor reminds the author of things writers should know about communication. Complete declarative sentences communicate more effectively than other types of sentences, in most cases. Prose should strike a balance between the predictable and the erratic, between the painstakingly syllogistic and the unconnectedly random, between the stultifying and the impenetrable. Editors also attend to the formation of argument, encouraging each author to present a case in a logical and rhetorically compelling fashion. At times, editors liken their work to conducting an ongoing postdoctoral seminar in writing, with a hundred or more seminar participants dispersed internationally, whose interests and topics run a wide gamut. In each case, the editor listens intently to the intended reader, ensuring that the author's choice of words, manner of definition, syntactical complexity, and logical deployment of concepts reflects accurately what the reader knows and matches what the reader is ready to learn.

At the same time, an editor strives to construct a readerly experience that will advocate for the author. The editor polishes the prose so that the reader readily perceives the author's erudition, expertise, integrity, and good intentions. The editor tidies the text to remove the distractions that may tire or befuddle the reader. Through arrangement of the text, inclusion of helps, removal of unwanted features, and careful manipulation of foreground and background, the editor helps the reader best understand and appreciate the words that the author first composed. This requires an editor's intimate knowledge of readers, and an ability to focus on the many different readers that may find themselves attracted or compelled to open the book. Editors must know the readers' interests, abilities, attention spans, foibles, and habits, better than readers know themselves. The editor must know how these factors vary from one type of reader to another, and how to craft each text to work best with those specific readers.

Here, analogies spring to mind. The editor is an audio engineer who scrubs out unwanted noise and sweetens the sound of each instrument. The editor is the interior designer who arranges things precisely to showcase the beauty of the room's best features and to obscure its inherent and unavoidable flaws. The editor is an air-filter who blocks allergens and pathogens from reaching the sensitive reader's nose. The editor sweeps up the trash from the tarmac before jet engines suck in the debris causing disastrous explosions and possible fatalities. The editor is the reader's bodyguard who must sometimes leap in front of the bullet lest it strike the protected reader.

An editor should also know when to stop analogizing and get back to work.

I arrived at my first editorial position as a biblical scholar and as a teacher. I held a tenured position as associate professor of Old Testament when I took my first job as an editor. I enjoy teaching, and I still teach Old Testament, now in an adjunct role at a local seminary, with all of the advantages and pains of adjunct teaching. I consider myself a biblical scholar, who tries to find time and energy to research and write amid all of the exigencies that a full-time job imposes (and in that, I find it not all that different than faculty or administrative posts, except when it comes to summers and sabbaticals). In fact, I see the role of biblical scholar as not that different from the role of editor, since biblical scholars stand between (ancient) authors and a plethora of contemporary readers with conflicting uses and expectations of our texts. We struggle with understanding those on both sides of this epistemological gap—although as biblical scholars, we do not receive telephone calls or emails from angry biblical authors who question what we've done to their words. As editor, I face more immediate feedback as to the accuracy of my work to advocate for the author.

As a biblical scholar and as an editor, I have the opportunity to make certain contributions to the industry of religious publishing. Because of my training and vocation in biblical studies, I possess an insider's understanding of the various genres in which biblical scholarship operates—the essay, the dissertation, the monograph, the commentary, the thematic study, the exegetical resource, the pastor's aid, the layperson's book of instruction in faith, and so on. I not only advocate for the authors and readers of these diverse genres; I myself have written and read such works. Because I work as an editor, I experience daily the privilege of time to think deeply about what our discipline does and how we do it, and on my desk and disk reside a nearly endless supply of examples of good biblical scholarship for my consideration.

Perhaps what I enjoy most in this combination of roles is the opportunity to listen. Almost every day, new ideas in biblical studies cross my desk, and I listen to them, carefully and critically, employing the full range of intellectual skills that I have developed as a biblical scholar. Since I enjoy reading biblical studies, this influx of new ideas provides constant enjoyment, intrigue, and education. I also spend a great deal of my time listening to readers and potential readers. I learn from them what they want to read and what happens to them when they read. I listen to what kinds of textbooks they need in order to teach their classes, and what books they need to read in order to further their own thinking. Biblical scholars share with me their opinions of where the discipline should develop next and what resources this maturation will require and produce. I don't always agree with these opinions, but it's a fascinating conversation that I conduct with a variety of biblical scholars. In our discipline, we are all too often caught up in the pressures of the immediate—the next class, the next appointment, the next committee meeting, the next deadline—such that we rarely have the luxury of time to think about our own research projects, let alone to ponder the state of the discipline as a whole. Ascertaining the condition and direction of biblical scholarship was once a luxury for which I had precious little time. As an editor, such contemplation (and, at least occasionally, insight and understanding) has become part of my job description.

Jon L. Berquist is author of Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel (Rutgers University Press, 2002) and various works on the Persian period, and is Senior Academic Editor at Westminster John Knox Press.

Citation: Jon L. Berquist, " When a Biblical Scholar Becomes an Editor," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=299

 
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