Does an editor own the text?

I edited my first article for Buzzfeed recently. When we were done—about three drafts later—the article we had crafted only vaguely resembled the one that had been submitted. I had reworked the entire structure, cut out a third, added some extra research, smoothened out the kinks with some extra sentences, and has done my usual heavy line-edit.

When we were done congratulating ourselves, the commissioning editor asked if this is the kind of work I do on all my articles. He was genuinely surprised to hear that academic editing tends to go the other way entirely—you try to evince the maximum effect with minimum intervention, or as a more cynical editor friend once said, “Fix what is wrong, stet what is merely horrible.” The author’s voice is considered all important, and it is the author who holds the ultimate ownership over the work. Or, in other words, if the argument is muddled or structure remains unfixed despite gentle suggestions, on their heads be it.

“Oh,” replied the commissioning editor, “what’s the point of editing then?” If you’re not making a text the best it can be—claiming complete ownership of it, even to the extent of overriding the author—what is the point of editing? Wouldn’t you have to live with the dissatisfaction of having put out sub-par content; or worse, what if your restraint was the reason the message/research/story was not heard? As an expert in the field, is it not your job to interface between the author and the reader, repackaging the author’s ideas if need be, so that it reaches the reader and is received with credibility and attention?

This is a puzzle that has been rolling around in my head for the last year. As an editor a) how much ownership do you have over a work?; and b) to whom do you owe the greatest allegiance: the text or the author? How far do you compromise on one to satisfy the other? When I posed this question to an editors’ forum a year ago, I received a somewhat predictable answer: it’s all about the context.

But it is easy to reach for the historical context to explain why things are the way they are, but it is harder to justify whether they should be. It is a well-known fact that the academic publishing industry is rather bizarre. We’ve ended up in a place where a handful of publishers distribute an ever-increasing volume of academic content that authors are incentivised to produce. (For context: Elsevier published about 3% of the 1.2 million submissions it received in 2015.) But unlike Buzzfeed that can count on an audience of a few thousand for even its less popular content, a significant share of academic content goes entirely unrecognised, except for on the authors’ CVs. According to Elsevier, 400,000 new articles were published in its journals in 2015, which were viewed by 12 million readers; this means each article had a grand readership of 30 viewers. However, the total readership number itself—12 million—is significant, considering that Elsevier also estimates that there are only about 7.8 million active researchers in the world, as of 2015. The company’s success comes not from its ability to generate a readership for each article, but from its ability to create a broad base of knowledge—a “long tail”—that will cater to two thousand tiny readerships simultaneously. In addition, a significant share of the company’s revenue goes towards deciding what not to publish, on maintaining its quality by processing nearly a million papers every year that will never be published in its journals or generate direct revenue. So this entire system can work only if the cost per article is kept as minimal possible, so that it does not outweigh the revenue generated by the few papers (in comparison) that are actually published. Academic publishers neatly duck this problem by not paying authors and peer reviewers, outsourcing project management to India and other emerging markets, subcontracting editing, and charging universities exorbitant fees, all of which they have been criticised for.

Since the entire industry operates on volume, publishers entice vendors to take on increased volumes at a lower rate, and the same argument is used further down the chain, when project managers coax editors to do faster and lighter edits for lower pay in exchange for higher volume. (Most “packagers” to whom copy-editing is outsourced in India pay freelance editors between INR 30-60 per 250-300 words.) All of this is couched within a rhetoric of author ownership: that the author is a specialist and, therefore, it would be unwise to meddle with her content too much. This is, of course, true to an extent: copy-editors are often not subject-matter experts of the material they are editing, and with limited budgets, training is often inadequate. Also, in an effort to reduce costs, the editing process is usually divided between two or three editors, all of whom are short of time and budget, and none of whom feel any real ownership of the text. Publishers reiterate this lack of ownership either by stating that it is the peer reviewer’s burden to identify content errors and not that of the editor, or that there is no time/budget for back-and-forth with the author, so it is better to make minimal edits rather than misrepresent their meaning without permission. Therefore, for everyone’s sake, it is assumed that it is better for a copy-editor to not make any changes that cannot be justified using a rulebook and to ignore bad structuring or an inelegant sentence, rather than introduce a more grievous error by making a stupid edit. And since these publishers are so large and hire such a massive workforce across the world, they have set the pace for the rest of the industry, which follows suit (though there are notable exceptions: hello, EPW!)

While the why is clear, the should is a lot more fuzzy. What is lost when an editor feels no ownership over a text? Have we become complicit in the growth of jargon-ese, in making knowledge less accessible, though our explicit role is to do the exact opposite? This is a line of thought that really worries me, and not just in a broad “what is our role in society” way, but because I believe the more rule-bound we make our work and the more we purge it of creativity, the more we’re paving the way for automation to replace us and participating in our own extinction.

But perhaps the best response to the question came from a writer friend who posed a counter-question: “What’s the point of writing, otherwise?” This was a perspective that I had not considered before. Why write if someone is going to change it entirely and make the work their own? The trouble is, I believe, the worlds of academia and literature see this is in entirely different ways. Particularly in STEM, I’m increasingly hearing the argument that in an industry where everything is changing so fast, it’s more important to get the information out as fast as possible, even if it’s grammatically incorrect. Indeed, if it can be understood by other readers, is the punctuation important at all?

Meaning is increasingly being seen as separable from language, especially in fields that rely heavily on data and visuals. But when the volume of content generated is so high, where does one draw the line? When does an article pass from “good enough” to “not credible”, or worse, “unintelligible”? We’re seeing more and more research from India and other countries where English is not spoken as a first language; very often, good language does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with good research. In this case, the author’s inability to explain her ideas in English is not a sign of her incompetence or laziness, but the work of centuries of colonialism that gave one language an unfair advantage over the others. In this situation, what point is there in doing a “light edit” and saying the responsibility lies with the author? Does the author truly “own” the language of the paper in that sense? And what sense does this system make, that simultaneously says that language is not important, but also penalises authors for it? Perhaps this is why the “author ownership” argument seems a bit bogus me—too often it is used to shift blame to the author, someone whose work a publisher profits from, while simultaneously refusing to take responsibility for the work.

But cynicism and a frustration with academic publishing aside, I’ve seen some truly skilled editors fix the most horrendously written texts by merely rearranging the author’s words. It’s as though they know exactly what word the author was reaching for—or the sentence structure they had misremembered and had reproduced in garbled form—and produce that in the edit. Minimum intervention for a truly maximum effect, but not out of laziness, a lack of knowledge, or budget constraints, but true magic-bordering skill. But if they were to do more than that—rewrite a paragraph, let alone rejig the structure or add a section on their own—that wouldn’t really be called editing. It would be considered “rewriting” or “doctoring”, an entirely different playing field in itself, with its own rules.

Perhaps this is where the trick lies: to claim ownership of a work, but to also remember that this is a shared ownership. It is not one’s own to do what one will, but a collaboration. In an interview, a famous trade editor admitted ruefully that the hardest thing for an editor to learn is that the author has limitations. One cannot make an author write a particular book if she does not have the capacity to do so. So too with academic editing. If the author lacks the knowledge or inclination to rework the structure, add extra research, or demystify the jargon, is it really the editor’s responsibility to do so on their behalf? Because, really, isn’t that their part of the bargain? The researcher brings her knowledge of the subject to the table, the editor brings her expertise on language, structure, and academic conventions. (Of course, there’s also another kind of gifted editor who will point out that a particular technology was invented in 1983 and the story is set in 1979, or that roads are the wrong colour for that part of the country, but that’s an even rarer breed, I think.) Can one replace the other?

It is only when there is a genuine collaboration between author and editor that the real magic happens, when two experts in different fields can come together to create good work. But if it is not an equal collaboration—if one of the two parties is lacking in skill or commitment—the other cannot be held accountable. The author cannot be held responsible for a shoddy editing job, nor can the editor replace the author.

As the old saying goes: it’s all about the context, really.


On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie

Dear friend, can I borrow you for a few moments to geek out about the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie? I just finished reading “Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights” and I am in awe of his mastery. In this version of 1001 nights, the barrier between the land of the jinn and our twenty-first century world collapses, and the dark jinn invade our world, causing havoc. But this is also the story of a battle between two philosophers—Ghazali, who believes that God is supreme, and Ibn Rushd, who tries to reconcile faith and reason. And yet, this is also a story of not-belonging, or of longing for a home or a love that no longer has a place for one. Only Rushdie can so perfectly fold these stories into each other: the novel unravels revealing stories within stories, a loss here balanced by a victory there, each new revelation sliding into place perfectly, and then, when he is finally finished, voila! there it stands, the most beautiful creation, balancing perfectly on the finest point. There’s a great pleasure in reading a book crafted by a master that opens up like Russian nesting dolls—every subsequent layer is equally beautiful, and each encloses the next just so, so you never quite forget where you began, though you may forget how you got here. Even now, I find myself grasping for the names of characters, elaborate back stories fading into the mist—when the air is filled with lightning and there is a jinn in a flying urn threating to destroy the world, does it really matter whose uncle left whom a fortune? Continue reading “On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie”

On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’


Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is a novel that is crafted like a classic bildungsroman—a coming of age story where a young man’s life is thrown off its set path by a freak incident, and in a new and unfamiliar world filled with crime and opulence, he grows into his own. And like a classic nineteenth-century novel, the book sweeps over large portions of time, skipping several years between chapters, but suddenly zooming into the details of a necklace, the finish on an antique table, a long conversation with a returned friend. The pacing is often frustrating—these sudden jumps in time followed by long periods of languishing—and the protagonist, with his brooding amorality, is far from likeable.

I am not the most loyal reader, and I often abandon books midway to pick up others, or I read a few pages on a lazy Sunday morning and put the book back on a teetering pile to never glance at those pages again. What then was it about this book that kept bringing me back—that at the end of some other entirely different book, I would wonder what indeed had happened to Theodore Decker? And like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I would open the book again at the postcard which I used as a bookmark, and away we would go. A hundred pages later, rather predictably, I would abandon the protagonist in his latest drug haze and wander away only to return months later. Continue reading “On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’”

This Is Not A Sad Poem

Why does everything have to happen

right now? Why was the report due yesterday

why is there no time better than now,

why not do things tomorrow, why do

them at all? What if I don’t want to

seize the day or eat the bigger frog,

what if I do miss the bus and opportunity

never again knocks? Let the bubble

break, I’m not going to let it go,

what does it matter I only live

once, I just don’t want to

do it — I’ll live in another moment

and make hay when the sun isn’t shining;

I’ll hold on to the past and forget to speak

in a church wedding. Who cares if this the bird in hand

or the other in the bush, I don’t want to smell

the roses or forever hold my peace; I want to bar some holds

and what if I just want to fold?

Advice for women

Whatever you do, just don’t

miss the bus. You will be left behind

after everyone else has gone

alone in an empty station

with the lost luggage and full

trash cans. And there will be no way

you’ll be able to explain why

you were looking the other way

when they told you and told you

never to miss the bus

condemned to wander forever



for a bus that will never come.

Get there a few years early

just to be sure and never rise

from your spot. Don’t blink.

The bus might be early

it might creep up on you

it may have turned the corner already

just don’t miss the bus.




A Season of Exits

Dear friend,
I know you are halfway through the door
and this is just a final look over the shoulder
to check that you haven’t forgotten something important
on the bedside table. Your thoughts have gone ahead of you:
eyes already seeking guiding lights through
frosted airplane windows, your body left behind,
hand resting on the door, one last smudge of warmth
in a place you used to call home before you turn off the lights.

What does goodbye mean in this world where we only travel
in circles and not in lines; that old feeling of deja vu
I leave and you stay
I stay and you leave —
a door endlessly banging open
too old and warped to properly shut now.

What can be said when everything
that had to be said has already been said —
to the ceiling, while lying on your floor,
over a weepy phone call, at 3 AM — or is now
irrelevant because of the oppressive weight of
possibilities: what if we forget to speak
each other’s languages and are reconfigured
into two people who can only talk about that one time
when that one thing happened to someone
we once knew.

But what use is a goodbye if it doesn’t feel like a goodbye,
if it’s not for forever, but only a question
of two minutes or two years or two decades,
the door banging open again, an old feeling of deja vu
as I turn on the lights — to a new

series of entrances.



On purpose

There was a time when I felt other than myself. I no longer felt the need to push ahead and make something, primarily because something as nuanced as editing felt increasingly meaningless in a world that was rapidly losing all sense of nuance. In addition, the planet was about to be destroyed, the third world war was coming, AI was going to destroy all our jobs, and in the grand scheme of things, what does a misplaced comma matter really? During a conversation with a friend, when I was telling her about how pessimistic I was feeling, she pointed out (somewhat tangentially) that as long as I measure my work through numbers – hours, billing, etc. – I will never be happy. It is all about the quality, she said. I, my head still full of the data my various productivity trackers were tracking, completely misunderstood her and thought she was referring to the amount of work done in an hour and started to complain about how distracted I have been. Let’s just say the point went over my head by a few feet.

A few days later, I was editing an article on stone pelting in Kashmir. The article was essentially a collection of short interviews with “stone pelters” and captures their day-to-day lives. It was an article with a strong voice, but the pitfall it was headed toward was very apparent. Without any data, it appeared to be mere anecdotes and opinion. As I worked my way through the article, painfully smoothening it out word by word, the gears at the back of my head kept clicking: how do I make this more credible? How do I provide a context for these conversations? How do I keep this article from being so easily dismissed? I wanted the article to not just read well, but for it to be read and understood the way it was intended to be read and understood and not be dismissed as mere opinion. I do not know what form the article will finally take after the many drafts I foresee, but I do know this: I will be proud of the work I’ve done on this one when it does come out. But here in the tricky part. If my friend hadn’t spoken to me about quality, if that conversation hadn’t been rattling around at the back of my head, would I still feel this pride? Or would it be overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt – of having spent so long on something which should have taken half as long? “We really cannot afford to work this way,” a business part of my brain would have kicked in, drowning any sense of accomplishment the artisan in me felt. Continue reading “On purpose”