What editors have in common with ER doctors

It isn’t as big a stretch as you might think. Check out the five ER lessons that will improve any editor’s skills.

When my son was 18 months old, 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 doctor 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 orderlies holding down my son and removing the hair. Not pleasant, but very effective.

I recalled this incident the other day when it struck me that editing is essentially like being an ER doctor. It’s an odd metaphor, I know, so let me explain the principles that apply.

1. 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 guarantee he wasn’t at the head of the queue.

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