Editing analogies

When talking about what my medical editing services can provide, particularly to new clients who are trying to get a sense of my understanding of my job, I usually end up making an analogy. I can talk about finding errors (both linguistic and scientific) in medical writing, providing consistency in materials, applying style guides to the language and to references, but there’s nothing quite as demonstrative as describing what I do in terms of something completely different, even if that sounds counter-intuitive. These are my three analogies for what I believe my medical editing is like.

1. Diamond polishing
This analogy is perhaps the most straightforward of my examples. An editor is the equivalent of the diamond polisher: with skill and precision, the editor takes the raw diamond (in this case, the first draft by a writer, which took hard work and perseverance to extract from the mountain of clinical reports, scientific literature and discussions with the client about messaging) and polishes it so that the inherent beauty of the diamond is revealed intact; in the editing context, this means eliminating typographical, grammatical, scientific and inconsistency errors, ensuring consistency of tone, language and message, and finally leaving a piece of material that is well written and expresses clearly and succinctly a strong idea. The hard work of the diamond was finding and digging and extracting; the polishing, while still hard work, is simply making the diamond look as good as it can, without admirers complaining about visual flaws. Similarly, when an editor has finished, the material has been honed to (near) perfection and the reader doesn’t get distracted by errors in the text, allowing the message to shine through.

2. Railway tracks
This analogy is a little stretched, but allow me to explain. Despite living in London, I use the overground train to get into the centre of town, where the offices of my freelance clients tend to be. The underground is a great thing, but it’s hot, packed, stops everywhere and it is claustrophobic being in the dark for the majority of the journey. The overground trains feel more civilised: windows can be opened to allow ventilation, they don’t get as packed because there isn’t as much room to stand as there is in underground carriages, they don’t stop at as many stations, and you are mostly outside with scenery and sunshine to accompany you. The only problem with the overground is when it doesn’t work, because you don’t have very many alternatives, especially in south London where I live and there are very few underground stations to help. To the analogy: when travelling on trains when they’re working, you don’t notice anything – it’s smooth, carefree and does what it’s supposed to do, namely get you to your destination at the prescribed time. When things go wrong, all you notice is how bad everything is. My stretched analogy is that editing is like the train tracks: they keep the train running smoothly and accomplishing its function, so that you don’t notice anything apart from what it’s achieving. Editing keeps the writing running smoothly so that it accomplishes its function of delivering the message that the writer intended to convey to the reader. When there is something wrong with the tracks (and there is the running joke in the UK about the wrong kind of leaves or wrong kind of snow on the track causing the rail network to come to a halt), everyone notices immediately, and usually complains just as loudly. If the editing does its job, nobody notices.

3. The Silence
The last of my analogies is the most tenuous, but my geek side loved it so much, I had to share. If you are a fan of the recent Doctor Who television show, particularly the Steve Moffat-led era, you will be aware of The Silence from the 2011 series – they are creatures that live in parallel with us but we don’t notice them because as soon as you stop looking at them, you instantly forget they ever existed. As usual with Steve Moffat villains, it is a particularly creepy extrapolation of a simple idea and provided some suitably chilly moments in the series. Now, I’m not saying that editors are The Silence – we are nice, friendly and don’t want to take over the world (probably) – but my analogy is with their effect: while writers are aware of editors looking at their work, it is tangible and real as errors are pointed out and their mistakes are highlighted, leaving them feeling anxious or uncomfortable (only in that initial realisation; good writers are very grateful to editors in the long run); however, as soon as the editing has been completed, writers (and therefore readers) are totally unaware that it ever happened. Good editing should be invisible – the ultimate compliment to the editor is when nobody says anything about the finished job because there were no errors to spot; the only thing a reader should notice is the message. It’s as if the editing never existed …

There you have it, my three analogies for editing: a simple one, a tenuous one and a way-out-there one. Let me know if you have any interesting analogies for editing – I’m always looking for different ways to explain what a freelance medical editor can do for a client.

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