It all started respectably enough. Publishing courses at Ryerson, EAC workshops and conferences, the Banff Book Editing Workshop. I’ve had rock-solid editorial training. So what have a rap artist, an ad man and a sex hotline taught me about writing and editing? Some pretty useful things, it turns out.
Eminem: Write and edit like a motherf**king technician.
Regardless of what you think of the guy, Eminem has a way with language, and not just the parental advisory kind. A master technician, he considers his wordplay both craft and science, shaping words to his will, like his many rhymes for “orange.” For Mr. Mathers, words are like puzzles; he leaves nothing out of place. As a result, his lyrics are a marvel of concision and efficiency.
In our tl;dr world, such qualities are critical. The ideal lengths for Internet content are dismayingly short. Readers are still capable of book lengths, but there’s no doubt less is more. People’s time (and attention) is precious, while information is, well, not quite so.
Do your readers a solid — channel Eminem in your writing and editing. Make every word count. Eschew the vague and limp. Ensure the puzzle is a snug whole. Whether you choose to channel his subject matter is your call.
David Ogilvy: Never mind the rules.
One of our prime directives as editors is to be the readers’ advocate. Content, diction, tone, design, format — every decision you make, you make for the reader. It’s been an easy mantra to follow.
Until I moved to the dark side.
Over here in advertising, representing the reader sometimes means being ungrammatical or, worse, defying Chicago. Some of the calls I’ve made … hmm … let’s just say I’m not proud.
Then one day I read this gem from advertising legend David Ogilvy: “I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.” This helped assuage my editor’s guilt: the correct decision isn’t always the right decision.
Not that long ago, I would have been the asshole insisting “No! It must be ‘Do you have milk?’ ” I’ve changed. Don’t get me wrong. I still fight the good fight, but I’ve learned that sometimes, in the name of your reader, you must let it go. In “Can Marketing Break the Grammar Rules?” Lisa Gerber points out that you have little time and few words to get the message across. The mission is to deliver the point quickly, and in a manner that speaks to your target. Along the way, rules may be broken. Nobody’s going to listen to a grammatically prudish pedant.
For a good time, be careful who you call.
I have the ignominious distinction of having edited a catalogue in which the phone number was incorrect — it went to a sex hotline. The writer had typed it afresh and I’d glossed over it. We always included that number. Surely it was right, right? The rest is one very surprised customer’s history.
The lesson? Don’t assume. Ever. About anything.
Read the small print and the boilerplate copy. Look at the running heads and feet. Check headlines, labels, captions — all the bits of copy a designer is likely to rekey. Double-check dates on the calendar, numbers in lists. Call phone numbers, click links or try URLs if proofing hard copy. (The Calgary Zoo’s first fundraising letter after the devastating flood urged people to donate at a .com, when it was actually a .org.) And of course never, ever leave it to spell-check. Just ask the respected agency who submitted an RFP to Citybank.