Writers Talk About Writing
Five Emergency Room Lessons for Writers and Editors
When my son was 18 months, he suddenly started walking with a pronounced limp and he became wild whenever we tried to look at his foot. Concerned, and because it was a weekend, we took him to the emergency room at our local children's hospital. The emergency doc took one look at my son's foot and said, "Ah, he has a bad case of sleeper toe!"
This strange malady occurs when a piece of long hair or thread in the foot of a child's sleeper slowly works its way around the child's toe, essentially garroting it. Fortunately for us, the treatment was simple. It involved a team of big strong guys holding down my son and removing the hair. Not pleasant, but very effective.
I was recalling this incident the other day when it struck me that editing is essentially like being an ER doctor. Let me explain...
Deal with the most serious problem first. ERs use triage, which means that someone evaluates the patient and then rates the severity of the situation. The doctors then attend to the more serious problems first (life-threatening injuries, heart attacks and strokes). I can't remember how long it took for my son to get his sleeper toe fixed, but I can guarantee he wasn't at the head of the queue. Similarly, when you're editing, you may be faced with a whole host of problems demanding repair. Phrases may be awkward, your prose may be riddled with clichés and your punctuation may be non-existent. But if your structure sucks, well, you're in trouble, sweetheart. Attend to that first. You can deal with the smaller problems later.
- Have a system for evaluation. In the marvelous book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a hospital emergency in Chicago that decided to develop a checklist for evaluating potential heart attacks. The doctors hated it, feeling that their years of expertise would allow them to make a more sophisticated, nuanced, and accurate diagnosis. Turns out they were wrong. A trial proved the simple checklist to be much more effective and accurate at predicting heart attacks. In the same way, it helps to have a system for editing. Mine involves (1) taking a break of at least a day from the writing before I edit it, (2) reading the work out loud, (3) running the text through MS Word's readability statistics.
- Don't be too quick to prejudge the outcome. ER doctors have a bevy of tools. For any given case they may prescribe drugs, do stitches, offer surgery, or do more tests. As editors, we must be similarly open-minded about what needs to be done. I know I often resist the "major surgery" option — and while it's wise not to overreact — it's also important to do what's medically necessary to improve a piece of writing. Sometimes a total rewrite is the only thing that will work. Occasionally, major amputation is required!
- Be patient in the face of stupidity. ER doctors see lots of dumb stuff — kids who've put beans up their noses, teenagers who've gone skateboarding through traffic, grown adults who've fallen off ladders they should never have climbed. The doctors don't judge; they just fix. When you edit your own writing, you need to take a similarly distanced attitude. If the writing didn't work out, don't beat yourself up; fix it. This is not the time for lectures, self-loathing or value judgments. Just put on your scrubs and get to work.
- Remember that some things improve with the tincture of time. When you go to an ER, you may be surprised to get no treatment. The doctors may say, "Hey, we just want to wait and watch this a bit." Similarly, with your writing, it's wise to take a break before you leap to the conclusion that it needs major repair. Many times I've left a piece of writing — convinced it needed to be thrown into the trash — only to return a day later and discover it was far better than I thought.
The message? Don't presume aneurysm, when all you may have is a simple case of sleeper toe.