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Back in the day

In Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, Ved Mehta describes the editing routine over which William Shawn presided:

The routine of submissions for long fact pieces was as tedious as it was formidable. Whereas manuscripts that were developed from ideas discussed with Mr. Shawn went directly to him, unsolicited manuscripts were culled for him by readers, and any that looked at all promising were sent to his apartment. ... The ones he accepted would be sent up to the typing pool, and it would prepare triple-spaced copies with big margins for editing. The typed manuscripts would be read aloud and checked against the author’s originals, then sent back to Mr. Shawn, and he would put them in his own pile for editing or eventually assign them separately to one of the four or five fact editors. He would generally tell the editor how long a manuscript should be and whether it should be edited to run in one issue or several issues, If it was to run in several issues, the editor was required not only to re-identify in the later parts every person and event mentioned in the earlier ones but also to do so in a way that would orient readers picking up the series in the middle but would not irritate those who had read it from the beginning. This basic editing was generally done without consultation with the author. Then the edited manuscript was sent to the copy desk, which was restricted to making routine corrections in spelling and punctuation. From there it traveled to the makeup department and on to the printing plant, to be set up in galleys. The galleys got at least three readings besides those of the author, the assigned editor, and Mr. Shawn. They were read by Greenstein, who went over the piece for legal problems; by a checker, who made sure that every fact was correct; and by Eleanor Gould, who read them for grammar, sense, clarity, and consistency, and whose queries and notes were sometimes almost as long as the text. The galleys, once the editor handling the piece had dealt with the queries, were sent to the collating department, and there all the changes were consolidated and transferred to what was known as the reader’s proof. During that process, conflicts among various changes were resolved by the editor of the piece. The reader’s proof then went to the makeup department and the printing plant to be put into page. The page proofs were read not only by the checker, who would make any late fixes needed to keep up with current events, and by Mr. Shawn, who tried to reread everything before it ran, but also by a proofreader and an, both of whom were seeing the piece for the first time. The new changes were consolidated on a new reader’s proof and were read through again by the to iron out any new conflicts. The checker and the editor got one last look. If there were revised pages, as there often were, the whole process was repeated.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 AM | | Comments (5)


Okay! But what purpose did the editors serve? Do we really need all that in the internet age?

If you'll allow me to add something somewhat related:

"He understood the disjunct kinship of creative work — every kind of creative work — and time. The most concise summary of it I've ever heard was seven words he said just before closing my first Profile and sending it off to press. It was 1965, and I was a new young writer, and he did not entrust new writers to any extent whatever to other editors. He got the new ones started by himself. So there we were — hours at a session — discussing reverse pictors and backdoor plays and the role of the left-handed comma in the architectonics of basketball while The New Yorker hurtled towards its deadlines. I finally had to ask him, 'How can you afford to use so much time and go into so many things in such detail when the whole enterprise is yours to keep together?'

He said, 'It takes as long as it takes.'"

-- John McPhee

Bruce Robinson, I for one wish we had more fact-checkers. Case in the point: the Sherrod case. Think the New Yorker would have published that?

@Dahlink - My tongue was firmly in my check as I prodded our host.

As for the case you mentioned, it seems to me there was a rush to publish without anyone determining the source of the tape of the dinner at which the comments were made.

I wish there had been someone asking.

Craftsmen always want to provide far more quality than the market alone will pay for. If they are not allowed to provide it, they get depressed, which is bad for business.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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