I knew I needed a break when I looked at a fortune cookie and the first thing I saw was a comma splice. Instead of reading the fortune, I immediately started looking for superstar word wielder Marcia Riefer Johnston to get a second opinion (we were both at Information Development World). Once my assessment was confirmed – she also said “comma splice” before making any other comment – I started thinking about editing and how to identify good editing.
Over the last month or so, we have been busy producing books in a new series. While the series has several editors, including Marcia, I have also done some editing.
Most of that editing consists of production editing, making minor wording changes to avoid bad line or page breaks in the print edition. We use an XML production process that does not let us do the kinds of detailed tweaking that a tool such as InDesign can do. We can’t squeeze in an extra line on just one page or adjust the letter spacing manually. Therefore, we sometimes need to reword after the copy edit is complete.
Normally, this kind of rewording is pretty easy. You can (almost) always rewrite a sentence to make it a bit longer or shorter. For example, you really don’t need the words a bit in the previous sentence, pretty in the first sentence, or really in this sentence. Normal editing might remove those words, but while shorter is usually better, longer may be better if a paragraph would otherwise end with a two-character suffix dangling on a line by itself.
However, I’ve discovered that the better the editing, the harder it is to tweak the text. A few weeks ago, I spent an hour trying to figure out how to shorten, by one word, a paragraph written by Val Swisher and edited by Marcia. Lengthening is easier; adjectives are cheap, plentiful, and mostly harmless if used sparingly. Yet, the better the editing, the harder it is to lengthen a passage without making it noticeably worse.
In the movie Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II complains about The Marriage of Figaro, saying, “And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few, and it will be perfect.” Mozart’s response, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” reflects the way I feel when faced with a well-edited book. While I refuse to believe there is an irreducible, ideal wording for every idea, in music or in prose, I do think we may have yet another yardstick for good editing; the better it is, the harder it is to change.
Richard L. Hamilton is the founder of XML Press, which is dedicated to producing high quality, practical publications for technical communicators, managers, content strategists, and marketers and the engineers who support their work. Richard is the author of Managing Writers: A Real-World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, and editor of the 2nd edition of Norm Walsh’s DocBook: The Definitive Guide, published in collaboration with O’Reilly Media.