Below is my keynote address at the 2023 Editorial Freelancers Association conference in Alexandria, Virginia.
To cite this text: Hannabach, Cathy. 2023. “Editing as Worldmaking: Critical Generosity in Editorial Practice.” Keynote address, Editorial Freelancers Association conference, Alexandria, VA, August 18, 2023. https://ideasonfire.net/editing-as-worldmaking.
I am here today to talk with you about how to build an editorial practice around critical generosity.
Critical generosity means caring enough to think deeply, act intersectionally, and collaborate interdisciplinarily.
This involves taking responsibility for the relationship between the texts we shepherd into existence and the broader communities and movements those texts can mobilize or harm.
It requires that we recognize how our work on the page shapes worlds beyond it—as well as how we can infuse our political and ethical aspirations into our editorial endeavors.
I am an academic editor and former gender studies professor, and I work with scholarly writers for a living.
Through my editing and indexing agency Ideas on Fire, I help interdisciplinary, progressive scholars write books and share radical research that fosters gender, economic, racial, disability, environmental, and sexual justice.
For 8 years I have also hosted Imagine Otherwise, a podcast highlighting the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just worlds.
Episodes feature many of the authors I am in community with and whose work I have been honored to edit, index, and champion.
In many ways, Imagine Otherwise and Ideas on Fire are how I choose to put critical generosity into practice and how I choose to embrace the sometimes messy, inherently imperfect, and always exhilarating project of worldmaking.
While justice is usually central to the content of the texts I work with on a daily basis, I am here today to talk about how all editors, regardless of our specialization or the types of texts we edit, can build justice into our daily language choices, our editorial workflows, our author engagement routines, and our reader care methods.
We do so through employing critical generosity.
Critical generosity can help guide your editorial practice whether you’re
- a cookbook editor working with chefs to hone their culinary prose,
- a children’s book editor inspiring kids of all ages to live their true selves,
- a textbook editor ensuring generations of students can explore new ideas within and beyond the classroom,
- or a nonprofit communications editor helping organizations provide critical services to communities.
Editing is a vital way that we collectively forge more just worlds.
Ours isn’t a small job even if at times we can forget that when buried under multiple manuscripts with looming and conflicting deadlines.
Our work does not stand apart from the texts we edit or how those texts move around in the world. Approaching both with critical generosity is key to building the worlds we want to inhabit.
So, what do I mean by critical generosity, and how can we put it to use in our editorial practice?
It refers to the production and reception ecosystem of a given cultural object—both the complex creation of that object as well as the embodied and generous ways audiences can engage with that object and those who created and experience it.
In his book Acts of Intervention, which is about community AIDS theater, Román writes that “critical generosity pays attention to the conditions and constraints of contemporary cultural production and to the potential of cultural production to intervene in the political and public worlds under which people now struggle to live” (Róman 1998, xxviii).
In other words, critical generosity is a method of approaching cultural productions—including the books, reports, websites, and articles we edit—that is always attentive to the broader social worlds that they come from and that they shape.
When that cultural production is a written text, critical generosity applies to all of the communities, individuals, networks, and institutions that helped create that text as well as those that read it, analyze it, debate it, teach it, cite it, and use it to create something new in turn.
In our editorial practice, we can take responsibility for the role of editors in shaping not only the futures of publishing but also the broader political and social worlds that publishing enables.
In practical terms this means embracing both parts—the critical and the generous—in our work with texts, with authors, with readers, and with ourselves.
I said earlier that critical generosity means caring enough to think deeply, act intersectionally, and collaborate interdisciplinarily.
Critique is the thinking deeply part. It means asking questions, staying curious, discerning motivations, and never taking a text at face value.
The critical part means probing how a text is working and why, and figuring out ways it can do that better.
We are not there to heap glowing praise on everything our authors ever write, think, or say. To do so is disingenuous—after all, nobody is brilliant all the time (even editors!).
But more importantly, it is harmful as it denies authors the inspiration to grow and the room to fail. The failing is important, it is the vital decomposition process that is required for a text to flourish.
When we point out why this metaphor is not working, why this term can be exclusionary, why this section just needs to go, we help authors begin anew.
But editorial critique is also not the same as criticism. It is not the patriarchal practice of gleefully tearing down an author or a text in the name of teaching them a hard lesson or scoring cheap ego points.
It is not about marching into a text armed with rules and righteousness.
It is not about finding all the problems.
A critically generous approach to editing is about co-creating solutions.
Critique means taking a text, its author, its readers, its communities, and its stakes seriously. It means giving a damn enough to intellectually, emotionally, and corporeally engage rather than sit outside, at a distance, judging.
It means bringing our whole selves and our bodies to the text and to its context—and encouraging authors and readers to do the same.
It means finding pockets of agency in a publishing and editing milieu otherwise structured by white settler capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism.
In this sense, critical generosity entails an explicitly progressive politics and ethics, baking those values into our editorial interventions as well as the infrastructures we design around them.
For me, that means working with authors committed to social justice and to writing and publishing work that is responsive to and responsible for its material effects in real communities.
Remember that the concept and practice of critical generosity comes out of community theater and artmaking, where there is not a stark division between those who labor to create a given cultural production and those who receive it.
A lot of us here in this room know this dynamic well because we’ve been part of publishing movements that grew out of social movements and aim in various ways to create texts by us, for us, and about us—whomever that us might be.
Such publishing movements include projects as diverse as lesbian feminist zine collectives, leatherdyke and kink publishing houses, disability studies journals, trans oral history projects, and decolonial and women of color presses.
In such movements, we often inhabit at different times the role of author, reader, peer reviewer, editor, supporter, and publisher. Our experience with these various roles and with moving between them makes for a rich and world-changing editorial relationship.
But even those editors working with authors far afield from those they are in community with can bring empathy and critical generosity to the texts at hand.
In many ways, that situation offers even more opportunities for empathy as it requires more labor to allow oneself to be challenged and changed through such encounters with others.
Critical generosity is part of how we care for each other in community—care for authors, readers, publishers, and fellow editors alike, not to mention everyone else involved in the production, circulation, and consumption of knowledge.
There’s a reason academic publishing (and academia more broadly) speaks in the language of knowledge production.
This is an industry whose entire purpose is the creation of new knowledge, the circulation of that knowledge among and through diverse communities, and the active reception and thus transformation of that knowledge through how it gets put to use.
That tripart movement of creation, circulation, and reception is cyclical, with reception leading to more creation, leading to more circulation, and so on.
Texts are never static because knowledge is never settled; knowledge is a living and unending conversation, an ecosystem, of which editors are a vital part.
When we commit to engaging that ecosystem with critical generosity—bringing it to bear on the novels, poetry, digital content, or whatever else we edit—we join the project of progressive worldmaking.
So what does this look like in practice? How can we infuse critical generosity into the daily work we do as editors?
Approaching authors with critical generosity
Let’s start with our relationship to the authors who entrust us with their ideas and their words.
Approaching authors and their work with critical generosity means approaching a text first and foremost from the perspective of the author:
- What are they trying to do, and why are they trying to do it?
- What are their desires for this text?
- How do those desires fit into their broader personal, professional, and collective worlds?
- Who are they in community with, and who are they creating this for?
Approaching a text from the perspective of its author’s desires requires pausing before we put on our editor rule hat and start hunting for errors.
It requires deep empathy and a commitment to do no harm.
For that empathy to work though, everyone has to be on the same page.
This is why transparency of costs and process is a crucial way we can build critical generosity into our relationship with authors.
This includes things like stating your rates clearly and confidently, which makes visible the expert labor that editors bring to a text and enlists authors in the project of pay equity.
It includes using accessible language in price quotes and contracts so everyone can fully understand and consent to the relationship.
It includes providing easy exits so nobody feels trapped but also processes for ensuring that everyone gets compensated fairly for any already-completed work.
And it includes getting specific in your descriptions of your editing workflow so authors know exactly what their experience will be and can make informed choices about whether you are the right fit for their needs.
Such clarity and specificity are key to building consent politics into our work with authors, clients, and team members.
After all, people have to know exactly what they’re saying yes to for that yes to mean anything, and they must always be able to say no.
In caring for authors in this critically generous way, we are also caring for ourselves, our team members, and our fellow editing colleagues as well.
Other editors look to us for examples and ideas, and when we foreground consent in our work we set an example and encourage them to foreground it in theirs.
We also are training authors in what they should expect from professional editors and our mutual responsibilities toward each other.
For those of us editors who also hire other editors, these practices are a key way we support them and do justice to their expertise. Thoughtful contracts, transparent pay rates, clear project briefs, and consciously designed workflows provide them the resources they need to do great work and to make informed decisions from a place of critical generosity.
Clarity, specificity, and informed consent go a long way toward ensuring both authors and editors are empowered in the editing relationship.
Setting clear and fair expectations and committing to direct communication are not just hallmarks of professionalism, although they are that too. They are how we create a safe and supportive environment for authors to share their work.
Building humane buffers into the writing, editing, and publishing schedule also can be a form of critical generosity and accessibility.
This entails setting clear deadlines ahead of time and providing everyone involved the resources they need to meet them, fully expecting everyone to do their part.
But it also entails building in generous cushion and flexible support structures so that if folks miss a deadline (we’ve all been there), a resource falls through (hello pandemic), or someone has an off day (we’re all human), the project is okay and others are minimally affected.
A thoughtful combination of structure and flexibility helps authors and editors alike withstand change and continue to do great work together.
Of course, the flip side of building flexible support structures that can withstand change is our responsibility to be up front with folks when we need to call on that flexibility—when we need help, when we don’t know something, when we make a mistake, or when we need to hand something off.
Being willing to be vulnerable with authors and others in the editing process is part of making it safe for them to be vulnerable too, and it’s a crucial part of critical generosity.
Being consistent and predictable in our work with authors is another part of this. It’s our job as editors to provide the structure and security that authors need to feel safe and oriented off the page so they can access the freedom to play and experiment on the page.
Building critical generosity into your editorial infrastructure privileges the broader social world that writing and editing take nourishment from and in turn help create.
Infrastructure is the part of critical generosity that might seem boring or unsexy to some people, but infrastructure is in fact vital for an ethical editorial practice and vital for shaping new worlds.
Infrastructure by definition is not flashy, and there are few awards or opportunities for public recognition of effective systems and workflows (except at awesome editorial conferences like this one!).
Sustainable infrastructure can even go unnoticed by those outside an editing business, but you can usually catch glimpses of it in how their clients rave about them, how smoothly their onboarding and offboarding processes go, how well they can roll with changes, and how extensive an impact they’ve had in in their fields and beyond.
Nothing fantastic can happen without consciously designed infrastructure, and when authors, editors, and publishers fail to meet their goals, weak or absent infrastructure is almost always to blame.
Building a critically generous editorial practice means valuing sustainable infrastructure and infusing your politics and ethics into how you build and maintain that infrastructure over time.
Another way we can use critical generosity to support authors is by approaching the writing and editing process from a queer ethics of friendship (Foucault 1998), as Latinx feminist writers Juana María Rodríguez and Emma Pérez emphasize.
This means approaching author relationships, as Rodríguez puts it, “think[ing] of the ways we’re interconnected, interrelated, and in community… taking care of each other, of being present for one another, of paying attention to what our needs are and trying to help us imagine a world where our needs are met” (Hannabach 2020; see also Rodríguez 2023).
A queer ethics of friendship in editorial work embraces the deep corporeal and intellectual ties we have to the ideas our authors work with on the page and uses those ties to shape our editorial interventions.
Now, friendship here doesn’t mean you are necessarily buddies with all your authors. After all, every editorial relationship is different and professional boundaries are an important part of mutual respect.
However, for me and many other editors here, this queer ethics of friendship is sometimes quite literal as we are in deep community with those whose work and whose ideas we are entrusted to edit.
Such bonds are built with authors and readers over decades and forged through mutual commitments to helping each other learn, grow, and shine.
In addition to such author considerations, we can also approach readers with critical generosity by learning about and taking responsibility for the broader social life of a given text.
One concrete way we can use critical generosity to care for readers is to pay close attention to the politics of citation.
After all, who we cite, who we signal-boost, and who we draw inspiration from are deeply political choices in that they are imbued with power relationships and can perpetuate historical violences or challenge them.
Obviously citation is a key part of scholarly writing and publishing and thus of scholarly editing, but citation is at work in every other type of writing too.
The cuisine inspirations that cookbook authors note, the cultural references that novelists employ, the quotes that journalists obtain, and the links that website authors choose to include are all forms of citation, and they all reflect whose ideas and whose lives are imagined to matter.
Citational justice movements demonstrate this well, noting that authors, media outlets, publishers, editors, and tenure committees alike share responsibility for increasing diversity in citation.
For example, the I Need Diverse Games (n.d.) and We Need Diverse Books (2023) movements challenge video game designers, publishing houses, readers, and creators to lift up the games and literature of marginalized folks—to buy it, to fund it, to cite it, to promote it, and to bring more of it into being.
Cite Black Women (Cite Black Women Collective n.d.), the Op Ed Project (Orenstein n.d.), and Women Also Know Stuff (2023) similarly challenge writers, publishers, and media outlets to amplify the brilliance and expertise of marginalized authors so their work can be read, taught, paid, and valued.
As an editor, approaching citation from the framework of critical generosity means asking:
- Whose worldviews, ideas, and experiences are represented here and whose are absent?
- How are those worldviews, ideas, and experiences treated in the text, and what effect will this have for members of those populations—including readers, editors, and other authors?
- Which readers will be hailed by the way this text treats these populations, and which readers will be turned off?
- Finally, what editorial interventions can you make that will help your author do justice to those readers and those populations?
When I interviewed her for Imagine Otherwise, Cite Black Women cofounder Christen A. Smith (2021) described this as “think[ing] otherwise about knowledge production” (Hannabach 2021; see also Smith et al. 2021).
Noting citation patterns or gaps, and offering robust alternatives, is a concrete way we can care for readers and contribute to citational justice.
Approaching readers with critical generosity is also at work in our edits regarding conscious language (Yin, Conscious Style Guide 2023), alt text and captions, sensitivity reads, and helping authors productively respond to the racially gendered labor of peer review.
Now, as editors we may not always have control over the style guide or formatting that a publisher requires for a given text. And, of course, it is always the author who has the ultimate responsibility of making choices about their work.
It can sometimes be frustrating when our own political and ethical commitments conflict with those publisher requirements or author choices.
But even those moments offer opportunities to engage with critical generosity and care for readers, offering robust options when and where we can and then making tough decisions about whether continuing to work on those types of projects in the future is the right use for our time and energy.
Caring for readers with critical generosity is not a one-time thing. Rather, it requires continually asking how readers can or cannot access a given text and whether or not they would even want to.
When we place those reader concerns alongside author concerns, we are tending to the broader communities and worlds that texts enable.
Sometimes caring for readers can look like shouting from the rooftops when we finish editing an awesome text that our communities should know about.
Working on projects we truly believe in and proudly promoting our authors’ work to readers because it can help them make real change is critical generosity in action.
Sometime caring for readers can look like turning projects down if we are not the right fit for a text and there is some other editor out there who could do better justice to those readers.
For white, straight, cis, neurotypical, or non-Indigenous editors this might mean recommending editors of color, queer editors, trans or nonbinary editors, neurodivergent editors, or Indigenous editors who are already in community with the readers a given author is trying to reach and who would bring a much keener eye to the text at hand.
Caring for readers can also look like building resources and spaces for other editors to thrive so that they can support readers as well.
For instance, I see critical generosity at work in
- the endeavors of editors like Karen Yin, creator of the Conscious Style Guide (Yin, Conscious Style Guide 2023) and the Editors of Color (Yin, Editors of Color 2023) database that contest the white bias of mainstream publishing;
- in the endeavors of editors like Megan Milks (n.d.) and E. Alex Crawley (n.d.), who bring trans and queer characters, theories, and texts to life in all their complexity;
- in the endeavors of editors like Alex Kapitan (n.d.) whose radical copyediting (Kapitan 2023) foregrounds access, inclusion, and liberation;
- and in the endeavors of editors like Minal Hajratwala, founder of the Unicorn Authors Club (2022) that coaches and mentors writers of color to decolonize the writing and publishing process. (For more on Hajratwala’s decolonial approach to “writing like a unicorn,” see Hannabach 2016.)
We are working from a place of critical generosity when we set ego aside and ask: What would most benefit readers and the worlds we collectively are trying to bring into being?
This way of approaching readers with critical generosity through our editorial work is what legendary feminist anthropologist Dána-Ain Davis calls a “grounded feminist practice of collectivity, thinking together and with each other” (Hannabach 2021; see also Cite Black Women Collective et al. 2019; Davis and Mulla 2021).
When we approach readers and texts this way, we draw on feminist critiques of the white masculine myth of objectivity, as we recognize that no text and no editorial intervention exists outside of politics and power.
Our feminist investment in the ideas, communities, and worlds of a given text is a major strength, and bringing such feminist collectivity to how we care for readers is yet another way we can build critical generosity into our editorial practice.
Approaching yourself with critical generosity
So, we’ve talked about authors and readers and how we can build systems to care for them as part of living our ethics and our politics. But what about ourselves as editors?
I am going to encourage us to apply that same critical generosity to our own actions as well.
Remember that the critical part here is not about blame or condemnation and the generous part is not about empty praise or ego.
Given that, what would it look like to critically examine your own role in your editorial practice from a place of generosity?
One place to start is by holding ourselves to standards that we define for ourselves rather than just copying what other editors are doing.
How we design those standards will necessarily be personal and rooted in our unique corporeal, familial, communal, financial, and intellectual needs.
We need to look hard at how the editorial business we have already designed enables or hurts us, and we can make changes to better align it with our needs.
We are bodies in the world before and after we are anything else.
Because we run our own businesses, we have the enormous and unique privilege of creating a workplace around that.
For instance, if we know that we get exhausted by meetings and have limited spoons for interpersonal engagement, we can care for ourselves by designing a business where those are minimized.
In that case, we can build sales processes and client communication practices around email or another form of engagement that feels more comfortable.
We can decline to jump on calls whenever an author wants us to, and instead have pre-set alternatives to offer that better fit our unique physical and mental health needs.
We can send authors elsewhere if their workflow or communication preferences are not a good match for our own.
We can lean on community for help with ending toxic client relationships or navigating tricky work issues.
We can experiment with marketing efforts that are aligned with our needs and comfort levels and that that yield more of the types of projects that bring us joy and light us up.
A super concrete way we should all be extending ourselves critical generosity is by embracing radical rest, a concept that comes from disability culture and women of color feminism.
In her awesome book dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss (2024, 139–41), disability studies and critical ethnic studies scholar Mimi Khúc points out that rest is one way we reject the culture of hyper-productivity that demands we always be on and always do more (see also Khúc 2019, 2023).
Khúc and Hersey point out that rest doesn’t mean taking breaks so we have more energy to do more labor later on. It means resting to rest, because we are bodies, and there is nothing we need to do to earn it.
Approaching ourselves with critical generosity also means committing to the ongoing labor of reflexivity and the constant process of knowing ourselves.
It means figuring out how we work best and building an editorial business around that instead of around somebody else’s model of success.
It means learning what we are not great at and what we don’t like to do, and being confident enough to send those opportunities to others.
It means identifying what resources we need to do a good job and asking for those up front.
It means recognizing what our triggers are, what they are teaching us, and how to get the support we need to navigate them in the business we have built.
And it means communicating all of this clearly and honestly with colleagues, authors, and others.
Approaching ourselves with critical generosity also means not letting ourselves off the hook when we mess up but also not tearing ourselves down because we’re not perfect.
It’s also about realizing that worldbuilding is messy, even in editing.
As editors, we mess up in small ways and big ones.
Sometimes we fail spectacularly and in public, like when we see full pages of glaring errors we missed find their way into a published book or when we have a dramatic breakup with a client or a colleague that reverberates through our communities.
But usually we fail dully and in private or at least in small groups, like when we realize we underquoted an author and are now stuck with an unfortunate per-word project rate because we did the math wrong or when we blow a small deadline and are responsible for the fallout.
Being critically generous with ourselves in these moments means that we keep trying and we keep learning.
And we can make the scary choice to trust that our colleagues, clients, and community members who witness those failures will approach us with critical generosity as well.
Extending critical generosity to ourselves also means looking to community for inspiration rather than comparison.
Resisting the comparison trap can be really hard, especially for early-career editors or those who are struggling to grow their editorial practice.
Professional events like conferences can sometimes bring that out as we see so many impressive folks doing so many impressive things and it is easy to slip into thinking we could never be as impressive.
But we can rewire that thought by remembering that we are all at different places and no one who is travelling the exact same path in their editorial business.
We can instead learn to value what other editors are doing on their own terms and see their practices as a vital resource that can spark new ideas for our own endeavors.
This is a much better use of professional community than comparing ourselves to others’ journeys or lecturing others on what we think the right way to do something is.
When we see an example of how an editorial colleague is doing something, we can ask:
- Why have they designed it like that, and what does that design tell me about their goals and desires?
- What ideas here might be useful for my own editorial business?
- How might these ideas help me care for my authors, my readers, and my communities?
- How can I tweak, hack, or modify those to fit my needs, my embodiment, and my team?
- How can I cite and credit those from whom I draw inspiration and help them to shine as well?
Rather than uncritically copying or ungenerously criticizing, we can participate in the labor of community—the labor of worldmaking.
Imagining and creating that otherwise is crucial to critical generosity in and beyond our editorial practice.
As I mentioned before, for the past 8 years, I’ve hosted the podcast Imagine Otherwise.
Many of my guests on the show are authors with whom I’ve worked deeply for years, sometimes decades, and with whom been privileged to develop the mutually supportive, critically generous editorial relationships that I’m here talking about today.
And for 8 years, I’ve ended every episode with one question in two parts: What kind of world are you working toward? What kind of world do you want?
I discovered the power of this question over a decade ago in the classroom. I was teaching a course about intersectional queer feminisms at Temple University, and that week I had assigned Amber Hollibaugh’s book My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (2000).
In the foreword of the book, queer Southern novelist Dorothy Allison (2000) recalls the first conversation the two of them had in a coffee shop, the one that confirmed that this would be a power femme friendship for life.
Allison writes, “revolutions begin when people look each other in the eyes, say ‘I want,’ and mean it. We meant it” (Allison 2000, xiii).
I asked my students what they wanted, what kind of world they wanted to build.
At first, I got nervous giggling and brush-offs. Some made jokes about wanting a good grade in the class or building a world without homework.
But I waited.
And then the outpouring came.
These students—who were also novelists, activists, journalists, community organizers, and media makers—they wanted to build feminist, queer, BIPOC, disabled, trans, Indigenous, and noncapitalist futures. And they wanted to use their whole selves and whole bodies to do so.
But most significantly, many of them told me they had never before been asked what kind of world they wanted.
So many of my authors, many of whom are senior scholars and world-renowned artists and leaders of entire transnational movements, echo this—they tell me they’ve never been asked and how much they love the opportunity to answer.
Imagining new worlds has material stakes. Far from pie-in-the-sky distraction, imagining otherwise—editing otherwise—allows us to challenge the systems that erase and oppress.
I think one of the best ways we can practice critical generosity in our work as editors is to continually be asking our authors, our readers, our colleagues, and ourselves: What kind of world do you want?
It is this question that guides my own editorial practice and one I want to challenge us all to consider today.
How can your editing practice—the entire ecosystem of it—help build the world you want?
Let the answers to that question guide the worlds you build every day on and beyond the page.
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