Saturday, January 14, 2012

Editing a chess master

If you want to practice editing, go find something written for a fairly narrow audience by an expert in a field other than writing. Such publications usually don't get the degree of editing you'd expect for books or magazines that sell many more copies. 

Today's "needs editing" entry comes from what might be the best advanced chess instruction book since... well, maybe ever. So please understand I'm not giving How to Reassess Your Chess, 4th Ed. by Jeremy Silman a bad review. It's a terrific book for chess players. But I'd have edited it more tightly, especially in the areas that don't relate to chess.

In this excerpt from page 45, Silman talks about things we like that are bad for us:

The hot fudge sundae that makes your taste buds scream in bliss--it also carries about two million calories. My wife's favorite old (but classic!) MG sports car--it's fun to drive but tends to catch on fire from time to time for no reason in particular.

"scream in bliss" doesn't work for me. I think of bliss as a quieter state of mind than the word "screaming" evokes. I can see screaming "in joy" or "with delight," maybe, but not "in bliss." Still, I wonder why Silman's reaching for such exaggerated effect here. I think he's trying too hard.

On the other hand, the "two million calories" line doesn't bother me. I think that exaggeration works. 

Now look at the last line. "tends to catch on fire" implies that the car doesn't catch on fire every time, so "from time to time" is redundant. "For no reason" is also implied to me, since no reason is stated, and "in particular" strikes me as useless in this sentence. In my opinion, every word you write makes your text either stronger or weaker. So if the words aren't making your text stronger, "weaker" is the only remaining option.

Here's my suggested revision, with help from co-publisher Bethany:

The hot fudge sundae that makes your taste buds sing carries about two million calories. My wife's favorite old (but classic!) MG sports car is fun to drive, but tends to catch on fire.

Co-publisher Bethany points out "carries" might not be the best verb for the sundae. I think it's good enough that I'd rather stick with the author's original wording, even though I agree "packs" makes more sense.  On the other hand, I agreed that "scream" should be replaced with "sing." Bethany likes putting "for no reason" back in. I disagree only because in this case, I think shorter is funnier and the reader's imagination gets more involved without those three extra words.

I think our revision is less cluttered and flows better. If you've got different ideas on how to revise the original, I'd love to see them.


  1. The hot fudge sundae that makes your mouth sizzle carries a hefty two million calories. My wife's favorite old (but classic!) MG sports car is fun to drive but is prone to fits of spontaneous combustion.

    I changed taste buds to mouth for a few reasons. Taste buds just sounds awkward. Many times I hear the expression "mouth watering" but I never hear taste bud watering.
    I went with sizzle to augment the word hot and to convey a feeling instead of a sound.

    I like carries better than pack because I use the word hefty. We know how carrying something hefty feels, and we can identify. I also like hefty because it sets up the two million calorie bit. We're more ready for it, and it's still exaggerated, which is fun.

    I write prone meaning: "having a natural inclination or tendency to something". I use fits based on this definition: "get very angry and fly into a rage".

    Now I'm personifying the car, as if it gets angry and bursts into flame periodically.

    What's an owner to do? That's a damn unruly car. Maybe it's upset at all the extra weight on its axles?

  2. Thanks for the edit! I like your text better than the original. My only concern is that, generally speaking, we don't like to alter a writer's original language past a certain point.

    There's no right answer to how much you edit a text that has problems. The closest we've come is our own credo: we don't want the author to feel like we're rewriting his/her story to make it more like we'd write it. All editors have to draw a line they won't cross, and that's ours.

    Having said that, I wish you'd helped Jeremy Silman out on the humor parts of his chess book, because I like your jokes better than his.

  3. Oops. You did say revise, not rewrite. I misunderstood. Or I just wanted to go nuts, so my eyes saw what they wanted to see. =)

    I'll do better on the next one. Probably.