How editors are like gardeners

30 11 2010

One of my favorite writers on staff at The New Yorker is blogger Susan Orlean.

A veteran magazine writer who also has authored several books, Orlean now regularly writes light, often funny posts on “people, places, and things” (i.e., anything she wants). Recent topics include her pet turkeys at Thanksgiving time and the challenges of finding a good way to begin or end an email message.

Another recent post draws a parallel between editing and gardening (specifically, pruning). For many, the analogy might not be immediately apparent. For others — especially those who have worked as editors — it’s a familiar idea that rings very true.

Orlean writes:

“My impulses as a gardener are totally perverse. This is the time of year when most gardeners are in mourning, watching the zinnias nod into eternal slumber, the tomato vines shrivel, the beds turn to dust — and yet I am happy. I love tearing things out of the ground. I love digging and discarding. I love pruning.

“I might have missed my calling as an editor. After a summer of mad growth and ungovernable expansion, vines that trail on like bad sentences, small dry bulbs that erupt into sprawling, overripe flower mounds, I can’t wait for the fall editing session, when I can get to work yanking out all the dead things, the ugly things, the mistakes and misjudgments.”

Much of editing is subtracting, or “cleaning up.” Even professional writers fall into the trap of “overwriting.” Most of the time, the best way to fix that is not rewriting, but simply subtracting. Snip a word here, prune a sentence there, and before you know it, your writing (garden) looks much better.

Orlean wonders whether she missed her calling as an editor, but as a writer, she is an editor. A major part of writing is editing yourself. That’s why the analogy of pruning a garden is useful for anyone — not just editors.

Learning to combat overwriting, or “overgrowth,” is crucial to becoming a better writer. And, as Orlean points out, clearing out “the dead things” can be strangely satisfying.

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The dangers of lax editing

4 08 2010

As anyone who has edited copy for a living will tell you, it can be a thankless job.

Editors are far more likely to be noticed for the one mistake they miss than the 10 they catch. It just comes with the territory.

Well, one editor (or more accurately, one group of editors) got plenty of unwanted attention recently for a mistake of, ahem, biblical proportions.
British publisher Penguin Books had to scrap an entire print-run of the Pasta Bible because a recipe called for “salt and freshly ground black people.” The recipe for spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto was of course meant to include “freshly ground black pepper.” Readers quickly noticed the misprint and notified Penguin.
How exactly the term “black people” made its way into the recipe is unclear.
“Misprints are always unfortunate, and they are doubly unfortunate when they carry an unintended meaning,” a Penguin spokesperson said. “Normally, such an error would be picked up by proofreaders, but they would have been concentrating on checking quantities, a common source of error in cookbooks.
“The team at Penguin sincerely apologizes for any offense this error may have caused.”
As a result of the mistake, 7,000 copies of the book have been destroyed, and it will be re-released later this year when a revised edition is printed. At a suggested retail price of $14.95, that’s $104,650 of lost revenue because of one false word. The spokesperson said anyone who has an original copy of the book can exchange it for a revised edition, so the total monetary loss for Penguin figures to be even greater.
Depending on the specific cause of the error and the track record of the person or persons directly responsible, it’s possible that at least one person lost his/her job over this. At the very least, it was a massive failure by everyone who laid eyes on the recipe before it was sent to the printer.
As embarrassing and costly as the misprint is, it’s not unthinkable that something like this could happen. Considering that War and Peace alone has 560,000 words, editors review literally millions of words in their careers. The fact that it isn’t a more common occurrence is a testament to the skill and concentration of proofreaders everywhere.
As painful as this incident is for Penguin, it vividly illustrates the value of top-notch editing. So if you have editors working for you, or if proofreaders review copy you’ve written on a regular basis, be sure to appreciate them. And if you haven’t noticed them lately, that’s a pretty good indication that they are doing their job well.