Master chefs transform humble ingredients like onions, tomatoes and carrots into dazzling culinary creations.
All proficient chefs do some version of that, though there is something deliciously satisfying about the notion of repurposing barely palatable foodstuffs into vibrant, surprising feasts.
As editors, we are like chefs: We take pride in turning words into something more substantial, stirring, sumptuous and, dare we say, salubrious.
There are plenty of similarities between the two professions; here are five ways editing parallels the work of chefs:
1. We strive for the most pleasing recipe. Just like chefs, editors core, score, slice and dice, testing the contents of the vessel and adjusting accordingly. We use skill and imagination to tinker with word recipes until the concoction is clear, concise and compelling. Portions (word counts), flavors (voice and tone), variety, balance, timeliness and the tastes of our audience all factor into the winning recipe.
2. We make do with the ingredients on hand. Generally, writers are purveyors of fine (and ideally fresh) ingredients, working with editors to create the best result possible. Other times, they are like unscrupulous fishmongers who plop a crate of fetid catfish on your stoop and disappear.
Editors find a way to make it work—even when the content cupboards are bare or they’re faced with a “Chopped”-style challenge of cobbling together a coherent creation from marshmallows, gefilte fish, relish, goat cheese and vegemite. Or just a bundle of kale.
3. We must adhere to high, consistent standards. If you’ve seen “Master Chef,” you’ve no doubt heard Gordon Ramsay yell, “Where are your standards?” or words to that effect.
If your standards are low, as an editor or a chef, you’ll probably sicken people. Whatever style you abide by—be it Chicago, MLA, APA, or AP—set a high bar to please the palates of your patrons. Inconsistency is bad for business.
4. Skillful butchering is essential. Perhaps the most painful portion of any cooking show is watching amateurs mangle a beautiful piece of fish or ineptly slash away at a prime cut. Skillful editing, however, is more akin to precise butchering—nothing useful is wasted, yet all the extraneous matter is discarded.
Editors must nimbly wield linguistic paring knives (rather than hacking away with cleavers) to methodically trim out fat, bone and gristle.
5. Attention to detail is everything. Great restaurateurs are keenly aware of their surroundings. They know what everyone else is working on, when the toilet seats need to be replaced, when the linens get washed and how often the salt shakers are refilled. They know success begins long before food hits the plate. Any slight annoyance, such as a wobbly table, can affect a diner’s experience.
Editors share this big-picture burden of having to be on top of everything. It’s our job to polish and present words in the clearest, most pleasing way possible to ensure an excellent experience. Just one typo, wonky font, extra space, punctuation mistake or misplaced image can spoil an otherwise great story. However, inserting a clever headline, scintillating teaser, punchy paragraph or timely joke into the mix can turn an otherwise plain piece into ambrosia.
So, editors, here’s to you and all the hard, often overlooked work you do to make those onion-skin, carrot-top, muffin-stump words into beautiful, meaningful prose. May your writing colleagues be of the premium, organic ingredient type, as opposed to the sketchy fishmonger ilk.
We may not receive compliments the way writers and chefs do, but we are the hand that stirs the sauce.