Murphy And Elie Tackle The Art Of Editing And The Life Of A Journalist

Last Thursday night, Dec. 3, Cullen Murphy, the current editor-at-large for Vanity Fair, and writer Paul Elie sat in conversation in Devlin 101 with English professor James T. Lester during “The Art of Editing,” part of a series by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, where Lester is a visiting fellow. The event was co-sponsored by the American studies and English departments. Lester, who has worked previously with both of the editors, teaches a journalism course that is also called Art of Editing.

“One of the things that you have to bear in mind is that your reading environment or your intellectual environment has an effect on your mind and on your editing,” Murphy said.

Murphy has worked for more than 20 years as the managing editor of The Atlantic. He is also the president of the Amherst College Board of Trustees. Elie worked as a senior editor at publishing firm Farrar, Straus and Giroux for almost 20 years, and is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.


“First, you’re mediating between the writer and the audience, and two, you’re also mediating between the writer and his work. They’re not the same thing, but they both pose different challenges.”


Both Murphy and Elie fell into editorial work by way of their interests in writing. Murphy’s idea was to get a stable, low-level editing job that would allow him to keep writing on the side. He talked about how he enjoyed the process of streamlining the flow of written ideas.

“First, you’re mediating between the writer and the audience, and two, you’re also mediating between the writer and his work,” Murphy said. “They’re not the same thing, but they both pose different challenges.”

Elie discussed how he found editing a welcome venue for making strides in journalism without falling victim  to what he dubbed the “journalism machine”—he desires to direct content rather than simply to attract customers.

“I felt like I could contribute or do something with it. I was really drawn to the service aspect of it, coming out of a Catholic background,” said Elie, who graduated from Fordham University in 1987.

Murphy said that an important part of being a good editor is understanding the process holistically. Editors have to know how the multiple levels of revision fit together. To him, the process is an effort to manipulate both form and idea.

“There’s a lot that you pick up by osmosis and much of this is a matter of hierarchy and being clear about hierarchy,” Murphy said. “From big issues like who you’re writing for [that are] often lost sight of—what is the basic idea?—and these are very large conceptual blocks, and then they break into smaller components—what is the architecture of this thing?—and then sentence by sentence.”

Mediating between the audience and writer does not necessarily mean adhering to expectations, according to Murphy and Elie. Murphy shared a story about one author, Eric Schlosser, whose editor helped him create a thoughtful narrative in his book Fast Food Nation. They experimented with form by reversing the order of events in the book.

At the end of the day, they said, editing is really an exercise in mediation: between detail and big-picture, author and audience, and realizing the potential in a book that the author may not have articulated. But it also means building a relationship with the author, as well as between the author and his or her work.

“Writers are so in need of basic appreciation—‘This guy read my pages and understands at a basic level what I’m trying to do,’ Elie said. “It’s amazing to me how many editors forget that opening ‘I understand you. I understand what you’re doing. We’re talking about the same book here.’”

Elie’s advice for writers, to which Murphy nodded in agreement, is to treat work like their editor would. But, it should not be all mundane revision, he said.

“Reading and editing your own work is one of the most pleasurable parts of it,” Elie said. “And any trick you can do to…put yourself into that reader’s spot and enjoy it, grab that.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins/ Heights Editor