What Does Editing Have to Do with Potatoes?

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.

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14 thoughts on “What Does Editing Have to Do with Potatoes?

  1. Periodically I go through phases in my writing when the ratio of hairs-to-panache seems to get especially unfavorable. But, I’m not sure why. It’s hard to step back, recognize what’s missing or ill-conceived in the word spuds, and then make the right corrections. At those times I do think about paying for the help of an editor.

    If this ebook can help me during those times, and put the cloche back on my writing, SIGN ME UP.

    And congratulations on this launch, Tom!

  2. Annie, my writing ALWAYS needs a good shave, but sometimes I let it parade about with the five-o-clock shadow unshorn. You can make a thing too perfect sometimes. Though of course, I don’t speak from personal experience.

    If the ebook doesn’t help with your editing, you can always print it out and make the hat out of it—I included a pattern.

    thanks for the congrats (but I actually haven’t done anything congratulatable [note coinage] yet). Soon, methinks….

  3. My favorite editor always manages to pull meaning out of the hot mess I like to call my first draft. It never ceases to amaze me. Still, I’m always looking for resources that help make me a better writer, and to help make her job easier.

    Congrats on the launch, Tom. I’d be happy to help spread the word. Keep us posted!

  4. “Pulling meaning out of the hot mess”—that’s a good one, Brigid! Any editor would be happy to have that be their tagline (or perhaps their theme song).

    And I’d chime in with a “me too” when I’ve seen what skilled magazine editors have done with some of my pieces. That’s when I’m not chiming in with a “WTF? How could they have cut THAT out!”

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Ah, I see by your last comment that editorial destruction of your carefully crafted copy can make you boil (like potatoes). Other times, you might mash two articles together and whip them (also like potatoes).

    And, of course, sometimes both copy and copywriter need a good hot bath (like french fries).

    Happy launching. I shall endeavor to locate bacon-flavored champagne.

  6. Jodi, you are the consummate word chef, and you probably don’t even have a grease spatter on your keyboard. Not sure about that bacon champagne though—but I will risk it for science.

  7. Will this buttery goodness be available in hard bound as well as e?
    There is something about an editor who uses the word “kerfluffle” and then puts a top-hat on mashed potatoes, that just seems worth the added investment.

  8. Dorothy, “kerfuffle” is one of my favorite words! I didn’t use it in this post, but I try to create commotions periodically so that I can describe the incident as a kerfuffle. (By the way, do you think “kerfuffle” sounds like it might be a spreadable topping?)

    As for the paper-based guide, yes, I think I am going to put it through Amazon’s Create Space or something similar in the POD line, but that’s a bit later. It’s taken me so damn long to get this together (and set up the sales process) that I just want to finish this stage. Thanks for the butter, T.

  9. You did use “kerfuffle” in the preview version of this guide and won my heart, or at least my attention.

    I think “Kerfuffle” might be a good name for more of a blend-in than a spreadable. Not unlike the Dairy Queen “Blizzard” only for mashed potato. You could have a variety of Kerfuffle offerings–hopefully none with hair– preferably some with bacon.

    Though I rather like the idea of having Kerfuffle Cakes for breakfast, so perhaps pourable? But only if you have some really good pancake recipes.

  10. I love that thought, to find out what’s missing on the plate. Very good to keep in mind when revising.

    Next time I eat mashed potatoes I’m going to think of the Derby hat.


  11. Tom, you are the cheese cracker kerfuffle on my mashed potatoes.

    I just may, for the first time in my life, spend money on an eBook. Even though one of my business goals is to engage you permanently as my editor-in-residence for not just my writing but also my clients’, I still wanna have a laser to aim at those passive sentences I’m so good at.

    As you might guess, the day this thing hits the electronic streets, it’ll be all over Someday Box and anywhere else I visit.

  12. Dorothy, Kerfuffle Cakes—I can see the concept going viral. Have you noticed the boutique cupcake shops that are now in many cities? And I mean just cupcakes, no nonsense. Kerfuffle Cakes seems like a step above. A soft, angel-food like step…

  13. Joel, I think we can come to some sort of gentleman’s barter on the ebook: you provide me with that plutonium bust of Winston Churchill you’ve been lugging around forever, and I’ll give you a hot copy of my ebook. With all the trimmins.

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