What makes a great editor?

By Robert Garran,

The late Robert Silver, New York Review of Books. Photo by David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, my twitter feed lit up with tweets praising, of all people, an editor who had just died.

I could have let them pass by—like so many tweets—but these tweets had great passion. So in a spare moment I followed the link.

The tributes brought a tear to my eye: some of the world’s best writers explaining why Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review for 56 years, was such an important person to them.

I love reading the New York Review, and yet I had never thought about its editors—which is the point of good editors: to the reader, they should be invisible, but to their writers, invaluable. The tributes told a universal story: what makes a great editor.

Among the recollections, Tony Judt is quoted in a note he wrote to Silvers: ‘… you will always be an extraordinary editor—by far the best I have ever known and, it seems fair to assert, by far the best there is.’

So, what made Silvers the best there was? Each reminiscence offered a different perspective— eighteen of them in the main article, plus over sixty more on the NYR website. These are some of the qualities of this best of editors, as recalled by some of his writers:

  • Silvers ‘had an infallible eye for loose thinking … There was no room in his “paper” for fuzziness or vague abstractions. He wanted examples, descriptions, and concrete thoughts. And because he was the ideal reader you most wanted to please, you gradually learned how to express yourself better.’—Ian Baruma
  • ‘Silvers believed: “Clarity of prose leads to clarity of mind. And without clarity of mind, moral clarity is impossible.”’—Nathaniel Rich
  • Silvers ‘eschewed jargon and the language of specialists, and pushed his writers to say things as simply and clearly as possible, without in any way reducing the sophistication of the thought.’—David Cole
  • Silvers was ‘able to adopt the tone of any given writer: the artist as editor. The editor as artist.’—Mark Danner
  • ‘Silvers’ essential questions were the simplest: “What do you mean? What do you really want to say?”’—Timothy Garton Ash
  • ‘His goal was not to insert himself and his point of view into a piece, but rather to enable the writer to make an argument with clarity and disposition. He trusted his writers to say what they needed to say and they, in turn, trusted him to help them do so. He knew their capacities. Sometimes he knew them better than they did themselves.’—Sue Halpern

So editors, you may not be Bob Silvers, but there’s advice here that we all could follow.

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