What is Scholarly Editing?

Let’s begin with editing in the broadest sense. The root of the word, and of related words such as editor and edition, is the Latin edere: to bring forth or produce. Editors bring things forth. Mainly, for our purposes, texts.

But there are, of course, other purposes, and it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider at least one of them. As Google’s Ngram Viewer dramatically illustrates, we’re a lot more likely these days to encounter writing about gene editing than text editing. One kind of editing has to do with biology, the other with cultural artifacts. But they have a few important things in common. Scientists edit genes by taking existing genetic material and changing it. What they bring forth or produce in this way isn’t the same as what organisms bring forth through the biological process of reproduction. Similarly, what editors of texts bring forth isn’t the same as what authors bring forth when they give birth to new poems, plays, novels, and other literary works. It makes sense to talk about editing genes because we already have the idea of editing as the act of altering something that exists to produce something new.

We also already have the idea of editing as a process intended to improve through change. DNA may be “inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism” for the purpose improving the organism’s ability to fight disease, just as words may be inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced in an author’s manuscript by a publishing-house editor seeking to help the author produce a better short story.

The varieties of editing that aim to improve a text before it’s published (including developmental editing, focused on helping an author get from initial idea to words on the page, and copyediting, focused on improving readability and eliminating errors of grammar, usage, punctuation, and fact) are not the same, however, as the varieties of scholarly editing, which, if they aim to improve at all, do so in a very different way.

Rather than working to help authors prepare new works for publication, scholarly editors work to help readers understand texts of the past. Some scholarly editors concern themselves with texts that were published in the modern sense of being issued by a commercial or non-commercial entity calling itself a “publisher” and devoted to putting texts in circulation. However, many scholarly editors work with texts that circulated before the era of modern publishing, and some concern themselves with texts that remained in private hands, circulating among friends or family or never circulating at all. Scholarly editing arose, in fact, from the need to better understand texts from ancient and medieval times, before the existence of publishing as we know it today.

Still, scholarly editing, like all editing, starts with something that already exists — a text from the past — and, from it, brings forth something new.