Editing is Translating

Editing is translating—translating someone else’s thoughts and technical language into something practical and useful.

Someone recently told me that knowing Hebrew will help me read government documents because they’re written in a foreign language. Academics and lawyers alike don’t write in English; they compose documents in specialist-English. Even specialists don’t like to read the work of other specialists. That’s why they hire graduate students, paralegals, assistants and interns to summarize things for them. They want the raw data. So why do we hide the raw data behind bad writing? Because it’s safe.

If you can’t understand what I have written, you can’t argue with me. If I’ve modified one phrase five times, how will you know what I’m really saying?

Unapproachable is unhelpful, unless being unapproachable gives you and your work clout. In that scenario, it’s job security.

I fight this battle every day. I take the words of other people and I translate them. This makes what I write, edit and publish easy to attack. You know exactly what I’m saying. You know exactly what hills I’m willing to die on. And if you don’t, then I haven’t done my job.

Clarity is vulnerability. Translating is a risky business.

At one point, someone told me that I should read an author whose writing was so complicated that I had to pay attention to every word. They thought it would make me smarter. I declined.

I want to read books written so well that I have to pay attention to every word. I want to read material that is so well edited that there are no unnecessary words.

I want words to work for me, not protect me. I don’t want safe, boring or complicated. I want daring, edgy and simple.

Take a risk. Write well. Edit well.

What hill are you willing to die on? What words are standing in your way?

2 Responses to “Editing is Translating”

  1. Jessi March 18, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    I remember as an undergrad feeling like if my writing was more complicated, my prof might not realize that I didn’t know what I was talking about. That trick failed every time.

    You might think you’re masking your inability to grasp the subject matter, but you’re really just illustrating that point.

  2. John D. Barry March 18, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Thanks for commenting. Has anyone else had a similar experience?

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