How Tough Does a Good Editor Have to Be? Maybe Not This Tough.

By Jack Limpert

For the editor of any high-quality news organization, one of the challenges is having to play both the role of warm-blooded nurturer (This is going to be a wonderful story!)  or cold-blooded tyrant (You’re fired!).

For those editors who don’t like playing tough, here is inspiration to keep in a desk drawer:  The Tyrant as Editor, written by Holly Case, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some excerpts that reveal who the world’s toughest editor was:

The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.

Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.

The few who visited the Soviet leader in his Kremlin study mention the blue pencil in their memoirs. Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Soviet military during World War II, observed that “Stalin usually made notes in blue pencil and he wrote very fast, in a bold hand, and legibly.”

Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin’s editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations.

All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “show a common bias: … what the editor would prefer is preferable.”

At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in February of 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, submitted his own radical edit of Stalin’s legacy. In his “Secret Speech”—perhaps the most famous, if not the only example of a head of state reflecting explicitly on editorial practice—he condemned Stalin’s hubris and cruelty, taking aim at Stalin the editor: “Comrades … it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior,” Khrushchev began. “Who did this? Stalin himself, not in his role as a strategist, but in the role of an author-editor.”

He who lives by the blue pencil must know that history is subject to revision.
One of the great American editors of recent years was Ruth Whitney, editor of Glamour magazine from 1967 until shortly before she died in 1999. Ruth was from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about 20 miles from Appleton, where I grew up, so when we saw each other at meetings of the American Society of Magazine Editors we always found time to talk.

At one lunch we were talking about how well an editor should get to know his or her writers. I tended to work closely with writers, thinking that a lot of back and forth between editor and writer helped make an okay piece good or a good piece great.

Ruth, who ran a bigger magazine, said she took the opposite approach with writers. “I don’t like to get to know them too well,” she said. “It makes it too hard to play lord high executioner.”

A problem Stalin never had.



  1. Joan Stephenson says

    Interesting post. I was pleased to see a mention of Ruth Whitney. I was in the demographic Glamour was aiming at during the period she was an editor and I was a fan of the magazine because it was much smarter than the competition, thanks to her leadership. I jumped ship as a reader when she left and the magazine was dumbed down/Bonnie Fullerized.

Speak Your Mind