When someone repeated to T.S. Eliot the canard that editors are failed writers, he answered, “So are most writers.”
Evidence to support Old Possum abounds on the internet, where — lapses in grammar aside* — one finds text after text that is dull, unfocused, repetitive, and slack. It falls to editors, wretches who toil anonymously, to attempt to make the unreadable readable.
One of those wretches, Rob Reinalda, who worked for the Daily News in New York and Chicago Tribune and is now operating online, shows what an editor is up against in Why Editors Drink: A snarky look at common, often hilarious, writing blunders (Word Czar Media, 64 pages).
Let’s go right to one of his prime specimens:
If your content isn’t getting the likes, shares or views you were hoping for, it’s easy to blame a number of factors.
Perhaps you didn’t get featured in the publication you were hoping to, or maybe the design wasn’t right. These may be legitimate issues, but content flops are often because of one fundamental flaw: It didn’t resonate with people.
Mr. Reinalda comments and prescribes: "This is throat-clearing on a bronchial level. There are 46 needless words leading up to the key point. Let’s delete them.
"Content flops are often because of one fundamental flaw: It didn’t resonate with people.
"I’d tighten it further:
“Content flops when it doesn’t resonate.”
Editors heal with the knife, as in this:
Technology is often a driving factor of changing needs because it acts as a catalyst for change.
Mr. Reinalda: "A catalyst, by definition, induces change. That makes three references to change in 17 words. Absent questioning the assertion itself—or seeking greater specificity—this boils it down:
“Technology can change people’s needs.”
A necessary reminder here: If what you are trying to say is obvious or commonplace, your editor can’t fix that. An editor cannot make a text better than its inherent meaning. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.”
Of course, it’s not always too many words. Sometimes just the wrong word chosen out of pomposity, pretentiousness, or simple inattention crops up:
Great media analysts develop an intuitive sense of what rings true …
Mr. Reinalda: “It seems to me that intuition is innate, not a skill one can develop.”
There is the perennial threat of writers who imagine that they can take a cliché and make it fresh again:
I’m not going to say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a video must be worth a million". You’ve likely heard that phrase before and rolled your eyes—but what I will say is that video on social platforms is proven to generate great engagement.
Mr. Reinalda: "For the love of Tom Collins, don’t waste my time telling me you’re not going to say something, saying it anyway, and then projecting my response to it.
"Try serving it straight up, Cedric.
"Video generates great engagement on social media platforms.
“Clutter such as that original undermines the writer’s credibility, seemingly in the name of a chummy, ‘personal’ approach. It’s treacle, and busy people don’t have time for it.”
Think about your reader, on whose time you are imposing, try to write a little more tightly and a little more precisely, and when an editor enables you to say clearly what you meant to say, buy them a drink.
* It is entirely possible to produce a text that is grammatically impeccable while remaining meandering and pointless.