Starting and Running a Magazine

by Jordan Hylden, Harvard ’06

Jordan Hylden was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Harvard’s Ichthus.

How to Edit

Or, A Short Course in Grammar and Diplomacy

You may think that this is just a matter of remembering what Mrs. Anderson taught you about grammar back in the seventh grade. If you think that, however, you would be wrong. Editing has much more to do with multiple-party diplomacy, the assuaging of hurt egos, and the exercise of restraint than you would ever have thought possible. I don’t mean to scare you off—it can be done, and done well. But it is much more an art than a science, and requires the cool, calm, meticulous hand of a surgeon, rather than merely the blunt instrument of Mrs. Anderson’s sentence diagrams.

First things first, however: you do need to know how put one sentence in front of another, and make sure that all the words are lined up right inside of them. There are two books of reference to which you will want to refer: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and the massive standard Chicago Manual of Style. Between those (one elegantly small and one encyclopedic), you should have all the information you need. On a technical level, that is. One’s grammar must be correct.

Second, you need to understand not only grammar, but structure as well. Every article must have a single, clearly stated thesis. For example: The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. If the thesis cannot be stated clearly in a single sentence, then it is not a thesis. The thesis must be stated clearly in the article, preferably in the first paragraph (although alternate placements will work as well). If, after reading an article, you are forced to ask yourself, “But what does he mean?” then it is not a good article. It is a muddle. If, after reading an essay, you are forced to say: “I see his points, but how do they fit together?”—then, it is not a good article. It is a checklist.

An article exists for the sake of its thesis, and everything not in support of it is unnecessary. It follows from that that each paragraph of the article must support the overall thesis in some way. If it does not, then it is superfluous. Each paragraph, additionally, must have a sub-thesis of its own, which must be clearly stated, and in support of the general thesis. This is just another way of saying that each paragraph must have a point, and that each sub-point must add somehow to the overall point. Otherwise, there’s no point. Get it?

Don’t be afraid of pointing out these sorts of mistakes to your writers. It’s not pleasant, but it must be done. If you’re not confident of their writing ability beforehand, it is probably a good idea to give them a mini-tutorial in what you expect in a publishable article. None of this is exceptionally fun, but it is necessary, and so it can’t be avoided. Nevertheless, even if you’re an astonishingly good writer, and can turn out sparkling prose with one hand tied behind your back that does not make you a good editor. That, as it turns out, has really nothing to do at all with the proper use of grammar, and everything to do with diplomacy.

Writers do not usually appreciate being told that their writing is deficient in some way. They often feel that changes made to their articles cut to the heart of their own personal originality and voice, and will protest strongly when changes are proposed. That, consequently, is where diplomacy comes in.

Above all, do not be imperious and condescending in your edits. That is a constant temptation among editors; do not succumb to it. Be tactful and conciliatory at all times. Much depends upon the tone of voice used when making suggestions. If you are pointing out flaws, make sure to also point out strengths. You can avoid last-minute struggles by nipping problems in the bud. Ask for early drafts of articles, rather than waiting with it all until publication week. That way, if there are problems, you can allow time for re-working and re-writing. Much can be avoided this way. If, for instance, a writer is reviewing a book, but you do not think he has really grasped the most important part or dealt with vital areas of concern, you can and should tell him so. It must, however, be done at an early stage. Articles are difficult to re-write at the last minute.

Be clear about what you are looking for beforehand, rather than simply assuming that your writers know what you want. They do not; you must tell them. Be specific about what sort of article you are looking to publish—that way, you avoid serious communication problems that wind up dooming articles and creating hard feelings all around.

Additionally, unless you are confident of your writer’s abilities on the basis of previous work, be specific about structural issues. Say that the article has to have a single clearly defined thesis; that it has to be stated in a single sentence; and that each paragraph must have a sub-thesis of its own in support of the overall thesis. Being up-front about this will save you from having to deal with rambling, disjointed articles. Meet with your writers face-to-face, if possible. Give them examples of good articles, so that they have a template to follow.

Be ever-mindful of the fact that good writing is a skill gained only with much time and practice, and that most college students have not yet acquired it. They will need help. It is your responsibility to help them grow into better, more confident writers. If you do not tell and show them what good writing is, then they will not understand you when you criticize their work. Instead, they will see your criticisms as arbitrary, overbearing, and snotty. You can avoid that by giving them a very clear standard against which to measure their writing, so that they will understand when you point out the ways in which they have not met it.

Ultimately, as the editor, you have final control over what goes in the magazine. You are under no obligation to print something about which you are not happy. Conversely, you have no right to publish something against a writer’s strenuous objections. They do not have to attach their name to something about which they do not feel comfortable. And, remember—I have said it before but it bears repeating—tact is key. Be polite. Editing is not just about being correct; it is also about being diplomatically so. You will learn this more fully as you go along, but keeping it in mind at all times will make a very important difference. Got it? Good. Mrs. Anderson, I think, would be proud of us.

Next step: Start the Presses!.