Years ago, while working on design/build proposals for public infrastructure — think hospitals and rapid-transit systems — I always dreaded the editing of the architectural sections. Their text was starkly different from, well, everything else from project management to engineering to administration. It was . . . (insert ominous dum dum dum here) . . . artistic.
They wrote about the feelings their designs would evoke (presumably), and the sensations their choice of materials would produce (improbably). They wrote about fitting into the neighbourhood, but used high-falutin’ phrases like “visual continuity with the a priori streetscape.” They wrote about how their curated colours/artwork/design-lines would reflect/respect/restore the sense of location/history/purpose. Or something like that.
My problem was that I couldn’t tell good writing from bad: It all seemed over-the-top to me. My impulse — which I had to forcibly suppress — was to dig it *all* out, root and branch.
Team members I trusted assured me that this was not the optimal response. I struggled to learn the basics as they tried to explain them.
One wacky-to-me metaphor (transit stations as pearls on a necklace)?
Perfect! Don’t touch it!
Another wacky-to-me metaphor for the same stations, in the same paragraph (pages in a book)? Outrageous! Fix that immediately!
And so on, through almost-meaningless-to-me distinctions. It was hard to add value as I understood it — to help make the writing complete, clear, compelling, and cwick to read — when so much of it made me cringe. I could think like a project manager. I could approximate thinking like an engineer or an administrator. I could not think or edit like an artist.
At least it was only the architects who wrote about their work like this, who *thought* about their work like this.
That was then. This is now. Well, this is this past week. A recipe for a (cozy) pumpkin brown-butter whiskey cake caught my attention, and not just because it looked tasty, albeit a tad fussy for this household’s kitchen.
During the development process,
I deliberately chose to omit the usual cinnamon and spices,
and turned to brown sugar and brown butter
to channel the same warm, autumnal notes
on a cleaner canvas.
As a show of good faith, I am prepared to accept that bit about channeling “the same warm, autumnal notes,” although it reads like the back-label on a wine bottle. But “a cleaner canvas”? A CLEANER CANVAS? Saints preserve us. That is not how I think about cooking, on the rare occasions that I do so think. That is not even how I think about writing, on those rather-more-frequent occasions.
One of the key tasks in editing is to clear out the underbrush: a potentially wacky-to-you metaphor for getting rid of all the messy little words, phrases, and paragraphs that don’t add value equivalent to their weight, or that even obscure or detract from the main point. To, in effect, provide a cleaner canvas for the ideas that matter.
And as in cooking and editing, maybe too in life, eh? Maybe we can all benefit from leaving the regular spices/activities/reactions on the shelf from time to time. From pursuing a cleaner canvas.