I’m closing in on finishing a book about how to see as a writer [note: wear glasses], and there’s a little section on editing in there, from which some of this is excerpted and massaged. (Porter, I feel the gorge rise: the horror! Another book about writing! But no, no, this one’s different: For the print version, the pages will be made of sloth tongue; for the ebook, every time you finish a section, a zephyr of electrons will tingle your nether parts.)
Because I’ve been an editor as long as I’ve been a writer, and that “long” is now measured by archeological tools, I feel my thoughts on editing have as much credibility [note: dubious] as those on writing, so, forthwith:
Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?
You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that clump drag what was an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, odd hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.
Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste. [Read more…]