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 drag an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, derby 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.
Seeing What’s Missing from the Plate
Another skill possessed by a good editor is recognizing when something’s missing. If you don’t provide the reader with a fork, they can’t fully enjoy those potatoes. Some pieces of writing are strong, but they might have gaps in logic, or need to be buttressed by a few more starchy facts. Good editors notice if the writing meal is missing ingredients, and they know how to persuasively suggest adding them so that the writer chefs promptly step back up to the stove.
Of course, editors should always recognize when that potato serving is too big. I remember one of my first copywriting jobs out of college, writing catalog copy for an outdoor equipment retailer that sold a lot of camping goods. One of our products was the Backpacker’s Bible, which was a tiny book that gathered some of the most powerful/popular Bible verses (no “begats” allowed). My first round of copy for it had the line “The best of The Book with all the deadwood cut away.” [Note: for some odd reason they didn’t use my copy.]
And editors recognize when something’s just off. If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce! If writing has a certain rhythm established, and the rhythm, without context, goes awry, a good editor will re-establish that rhythm. And the proper bra color.
You Don’t Mean He’s Trying to Sell Us Something?
Why is he going on like this, about potatoes and bras? Easy. I’m getting ready to unleash The Write Word’s Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide on the world, perhaps as soon as this week. It’s a 55-page ebook chockablock with editing potatoes and other good stuff. And unlike my first couple of ebooks—available here for free—I’m going to charge money for it. But it’s worth it, because it will keep the hair out of your potatoes, while preserving the stylish hats. The guide is filled with editing tips, so that you don’t have to pay me to be the potato masher. Look for its buttery goodness soon.