After publishing Richard Morgan’s account of his life as a freelance writer, we heard from someone who’d been both a freelance writer and an editor at a major newspaper. “Was there a time, a long time ago, when editors and writers weren’t at war with one another?” he asked. Although one would think a congenial relationship between the two would lead to clearer and more cohesive writing, writers and editors do indeed seem to be locked in perpetual conflict. How did we reach such levels of animosity? I looked to the historical record.
During the age of Chaucer, authorship was divided—in descending order of importance—into the role of author, commentator, compiler and scribe. Within this spectrum, a commentator was the closest to what we now consider an editor and, even then, his role was seen as secondary to the author. (Chaucer assumed all four positions, but c’mon, he was Chaucer.)
Due to the Gutenberg press and movable type, the 1470s showed a growing investment in establishing authoritative versions of ancient texts. Erasmus, the “quintessential European man of letters,” was heavily invested in print media and worked with the most important printers in Europe. With the aid of humanist scholars, who essentially acted as editors and correctors, he produced his landmark corrected version of the New Testament and the nine volumes of St. Jerome’s correspondences. Erasmus held a meticulous editorial standard and believed in getting recognition for his hard work. He was sorely against the self-effacement of the editor. Erasmus’s scrupulous revisions were not all to restore authorial intentions, but to allow the insertion of his own editorial voice. In regard to revising St. Jerome’s epistles, he noted:
I have slain with daggers the spurious or interpolated passages, while I have elucidated the obscure parts in my notes…. I believe that the writing of his books cost Jerome less effort than I spent in the restoring of them, and their birth meant fewer nightly vigils for him than their rebirth for me.
During Shakespeare’s time, the line between writer and editor was still not clearly defined. Although Shakespeare was, in a sense, very much his own editor, colleagues still helped to compile his folios. In 1725, Alexander Pope had used the term “stage-editors” to refer to play-alterers. For instance, Pope’s contemporaries would have viewed David Garrick as an editor of Shakespeare. In an advertisement to the third release of Garrick’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” he identified himself as “the present editor.”
In his 1755 Dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines editor as a “Publisher: he that revises or prepares any work for publication.” We should note that “publish” then meant to “discover to mankind; to make generally and openly known; to proclaim: to divulge.” As such, the publisher had the critical right and obligation to expose information and truth to “mankind.”
The No. 457 paper (published August 14, 1712) of Joseph Addison’s “Spectator” describes “Editors, Commentators… Men of no Learning, or what is as bad, of no Knowledge.” In the No. 470 paper, printed a few weeks later, Addison bitterly writes his “disappoint[ment] of late Years, when upon examining the new Edition of a Classick Author.” Whereas Addison’s ideal editor discovers a “different Reading gives us a different Sense, or a new Elegance in an Author,” these editors of late apparently only gather “the various Blunders and Mistakes of twenty or thirty different Transcribers.”
The first mention of a newspaper-specific editor appears in Sir George Rose’s Diaries (1803), where he mentions a “Mr. Herriot, the Editor of the True Briton and the Sun.” Rose’s depiction of Mr. Herriot points to the profound influence of the public word-and the editor as publisher.
In regard to the English prime minister William Pitt the Younger’s soon-to-be second term in office, Mr. Herriot told Rose that although “he knew the esteem and respect of the country for Mr. Pitt was higher than ever…. he would not manifest to the world his opinion of the incapacity of Ministers, a paper that professed to support him and expose them could not stand.” Mr. Harriot’s reticence is understandable since Henry Addington’s (a supporter of Pitt) brother “assisted most materially in circulating his paper.”
Already, which opinions could be merely said and which could be printed in a newspaper were dependent on networks of political and financial alliances.
Animosity and skepticism against editors did not slacken. A few decades later, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1823) condemns English editors left and right: “The fast-sinking Old Times newspaper, its cat-and-dog opponent the New Times, the Courier, and the Whig-lawyer Tramper, called the Traveller; these fellow who conduct their vehicles; these wretched fellows, their very livers burning with envy….”
Cobbett’s rhetorically inventive insults continue: “Pray, can any one pretend to say that a spade or shovel would not become the hands of this blunder-headed editor of Bell’s Messenger better than a pen?” Here already, the metaphor of butchering one’s language was well on its way.
Passionately invested in the truth-value of the published word, Cobbett’s Rural Rides describes itself as an “actual observation of rural conditions” of the English countryside. Cobbett’s personal investigation sought to dispel the lies of the sinking agricultural economy suggested by Parliament. The result? Cobbett uncovered lies that only fueled his distrust of news publications.
“There must be something wrong, something greatly out of place, some great disease at work in the community, or such an idea as this could never have found its way into print. Into the end of a cracked-skull lawyer, it might, perhaps have entered at any time…. As to the rest of this article, it is a tissue of down-right lies.”
These defenses on the importance of the written word emerged right alongside mass-publication and newspapers. In each example, one can sense the fear of ethical and “truthful” documents being threatened by partisan editing. If the future of writer v. editor (and writer v. editor-publisher) relations didn’t look so bright back then, it certainly hasn’t improved much—especially when the writer freelances and pays no consistent allegiance to any one editor.
In an early mention of the term “freelance,” a character in E.W. Hornung’s “The Gift of the Emperor” (1899) describes his state of unpaid writing: “I’ve got to be content with the honor of getting in; the editor wrote to say so, in so many words.”
He continues, “It was no easy matter to keep your end up as a raw freelance of letters; for my part, I was afraid I wrote neither well enough nor ill enough for success.” Perhaps Hornung’s insecure character contributed to a more harmonious and quiet relationship with his editor, but to survive as a freelancer even then took tremendous moxie and persistence.