Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

by Steve Laube

LXX scroll

I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five volume work into an abbreviated 16,00 word document. Can anyone tell me where this comes from and the name of the editor? (Without googling the text!) I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day.

The number of details and the bulk of material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

Editing is hard work (sleepless nights). When at one working it looks like the editor is just staring at a page and making an occasional mark. Actually that editor is mentally juggling content, clarity, grammar rules, house style, author’s intent and more, all at the same time.

Editing has its own satisfaction. In my office is a bookcase containing a copy of every book I edited while working as an editor for Bethany House Publishers. I can tell a story about every one of them. They became a part of me even though my name rarely appears other than on the occasional acknowledgement page. Editors take pride in their work. It is important to respect that.

The Editor knows their role. The metaphor of the house builder versus the house painter is perfect. Every editor knows they are part of the process and that their job is to make the author look good. It is the same for the literary agent. That is why our slogan is “to help change the world word by word.” We are not the author, but our job it to help the author navigate the publishing industry labyrinth.

The next time you think your writing or editing trouble has never happened before, remember this ancient editor who was wrestling with the challenges of his profession over two thousand years ago. Then give thanks to your editor like Tamela did so well the other day.

23 Responses to Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

  1. Shulamit March 4, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    I’m stunned that the language (the translation, anyway) is so modern sounding. I had to reread the year, to make sure I had it right. I thought that era had only scrolls, not bound books.

    Anyway, 5 volumes? Sounds like the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. But I don’t recall an ancient abridged version. If not that, something Roman seems more likely.

    • Steve Laube March 4, 2013 at 8:43 am #

      You are correct that the translation is quite modern. I was reading a book, in translation of course, of an ancient text, which was a scroll in its original form.

      Not the Hebrew Bible or the Torah.

  2. Judith Robl March 4, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    The part of editing I find most difficult is reining in my own voice to be subject to the author’s voice. I can always find a more apt (IMHO) word or phrasing. But then it sounds like me, not like the real author.

    I cheated and looked up the author of the quote. (My first guess was way off.) Impressive!

  3. lisa March 4, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    That is remarkable, thank you for sharing this.

  4. Jodi March 4, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    It must be the bible. No other books were around. The editor? I don’t know.

  5. Cheryl Barker March 4, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    How interesting! I didn’t have a guess so I broke down and googled. I’ll let a real guesser get the glory :) Thanks for sharing!

  6. Meghan Carver March 4, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    This makes me look forward to working with an editor and soaking up his wisdom! No idea on the text, but thanks for a great post, Steve.

  7. Carole Lehr Johnson March 4, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Fascinating post. I can’t wait to hear the answer.

  8. Lancia E. Smith March 4, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Thanks for this refreshing perspective, Steve. It is always so helpful to hear the point of view of those we work with but may not always understand.

  9. Pat Jaeger March 4, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    A rejection letter, as Tamela said in her blog, can be the best career booster if taken to heart, encouraging the writer to hone their craft and instilling in them the unshakeable desire to “change the world, word by word.” Instead of defeating me, the letter I received gave me encouragement and direction. Thanks, Steve.

  10. Dana McNeely March 4, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Yes, I’m fascinated and really tempted to Google it. Other than the Bible, ancient writings I’ve read or browsed are the Iliad and Odyssey, Tacitus, Josephus, Masada, but without checking, I think all these are A.D. 124 B.C. would be during the 400 ‘silent’ years. Hmmmm.

  11. Dana McNeely March 4, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Wait! Is it Herodotus? I haven’t actually read him yet, but did download some of his translations on my Kindle so I remember the name. :) But…with the base ‘Herod’, it’s probably also A.D.

  12. Jonathan March 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    I googled it and am still coming up empty handed. The only thing that popped up was the guess I had before looking, which was one of the apocryphal books of the Bible. Now I’m just commenting so I get the answer later in the day.

  13. Starr Meade March 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    I’m guessing Plutarch.

  14. Jeff Braun March 4, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    Authors do the heavy lifting, but I did appreciate this response today to my queries: “I don’t know how you do what you do because my head is aching!”

  15. Peter DeHaan March 4, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    My closest guess is Maccabees. The timeline may be right, but there are only four volumes (to my knowledge) and I’ve only read the first two. They may not be massive, but based on first and second Maccabees they could certainly be condensed.

  16. Jan Thompson March 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    I want to guess that the editor is Josephus because he was such a prolific historian, but then without googling, I cannot tell whether he lived around that time (124BC), so I am probably wrong. Sorry.

    Steve said: “Actually that editor is mentally juggling content, clarity, grammar rules, house style, author’s intent and more, all at the same time.”

    I think a good editor is hard to find. As a writer, when I edit someone else’s work, I have to warn myself never to put my own thoughts into what I’m editing. I usually end up only minimally editing, focusing on the grammar and usage, rather than the thought process.

    I’d rather just edit my own work.

  17. Steve Laube March 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    It is time for the “great reveal.”

    Peter DeHaan is right (kinda sorta). Dana McNeely was close, having the right time frame.

    The passage above is from 2 Maccabees 2:24-32. The editor is not actually named, so that was sort of a trick question. In verse 23 the editor is saying that he is abridging the five volume history of the Maccabean revolt written by Jason of Cyrene. That five volume history has been lost and there are no existing copies of it left. All we have is the abridged editorial work.

    Second Maccabees was included in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) around 100 B.C.

    There are indeed a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Maccabees, but they are not a series of related books, like 1st and 2nd Kings. The history found in First Maccabees is usually the most familiar.

    2nd Maccabees, from which we quoted above, is an abridged story that focuses mostly on the early conflict in the region. Chapters 1-7 cover the history you can find in chapter one of First Maccabees.

    3rd Maccabees is a much earlier story in the history of the Jews between the testaments and is left out of many canons. (It tells the story of the conflict between Ptolemy IV and Antiochus III when Ptolemy tried to ride elephants into the Temple at Jerusalem.)

    4th Maccabees is an expansion of the extraordinary martyrdom stories found in chapters 6 and 7 of 2nd Maccabees.

    I have been teaching Old Testament history in chronological order at our church for the last six or seven years. We started with the Judges and late last year ended with the building of the walls of Jerusalem found in Nehemiah. And that is where the Old Testament ends, chronologically. Our class agreed that we should study the “400 Silent Years” of history before the New Testament. The books of that era are known as the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonicals.

    It is a fascinating study of what happened with the Hellenization of the Middle East under the Greek empire and the revolt of Israel against their Greek rulers in 165 B.C. That event is celebrated as Hanukkah or The Festival of Lights by the Jewish People.

    Later came the Romans, the Herods, and the “Time that had fully come.”

    • Dana McNeely March 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

      That would have been a really helpful study. I’d like to write a Biblical fiction series from Elijah’s time, 875 B.C. on to at least the fall of the Northern kingdom…then reassess my momentum. I’ve been going it alone. Fun. Hard. Reading, drawing charts and timelines, with tons of big thick tomes piled up around me. I feel like one of those hoarders on reality TV. “Tales of women who hoard concordances and books on ancient Israel.”

    • Peter DeHaan March 5, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      I have recently “discovered” the Apocrypha and have enjoyed it, especially the books of Judith and Tobit (and two additional chapters for Daniel). 1 and 2 Maccabees are bloody accounts, more gruesome than some of the atrocities found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

      One thing that amuses me with Maccabees is that when reporting troop numbers, there’s often a count of the number of elephants involved in the battle.

      (I wish I could be there to take part in your class, Steve, as these books were not part of my biblical education.)

  18. Susan Karsten March 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Perhaps it’s Histories by Herodotus?

    • Susan Karsten March 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

      oops, I missed the reveal.

  19. Nancy B. Kennedy March 7, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    One of my favorite quotes (from Frederick Buechner’s “Godric”):

    “If it please you, the lady’s name again?” says Reginald. His quill is poised. If God had come to Reginald and not to Moses in the burning bush, he would have asked him how to spell the great I AM so he’d be sure he had it right.

    Steve, I think you’ve given our adult Sunday class an idea for the next term! My husband teaches it… he’ll have some studying to do!

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