Editing your writing – lessons from chefs?


You can pick up helpful ideas from the most unlikely places. Like cooking shows. Yes I watch cooking shows, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. I’m sure I’m not the only one, given their popularity. Sometimes they offer more than new ways with potatoes. Just last week I found myself thinking about the ways in which cooking programme judges use the term “editing”.

You can imagine the context. There is the over-enthusiastic aspiring-restauranteur. “I’m an experimental cook” they say, “I like putting unusual flavours and cuisines together”. “ All the things in the Mystery Box are so wonderful I couldn’t decide which to hero.” Or “ I want to bring all the things I learnt on my travels together on one plate and show you who I really am.” Or perhaps, “ I want to show you all of the techniques I’ve learnt while being here.” These statements are usually made direct to camera with the kind of smile that is intended to disarm and charm, if not reassure, judges and viewers alike.

Sometimes when the resulting dish arrives at the judging table, the judges beam. They gush. “I’ve never had this before”. “ Wow, you’ve done something truly original here” “ I think it’s fantastic.” More often though, the various judicial comments made as the dishes are being prepared are realised – “ It all seems terribly sweet/soft. I think we need a bit of crunch/texture/acid“, or, “I’ve never heard of putting X with Y before. I hope it works out for them.” ( It won’t.) And when the finished plate finally arrives, we all see what the judges were concerned about – smears of puree, puddles of jus and oil, a swamp containing more vegetables than you can count, variously prepared. The culinary equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities.

And what do the judges say then but “ Edit. You need to edit. Less is more.” By which of course they mean, don’t try so hard. Be more consistent. Not so many influences at once. Don’t put everything you like in one dish. Don’t try to be too clever. Get rid of some things. Don’t clutter.

So editing, in the cheffy sense of the word, is about taking control of the impulse to do whatever you think counts as accomplished and prize worthy. Focus instead on respecting the ingredients, creating flavour and a neat presentation. Sound familiar? Maybe because there’s an academic writing equivalent to the over-enthusiastic cooking competitor and their overcrowded plate.

The academic text which needs a good culinary style edit is generally the result of one of three things :

  • The writer is over excited by all of the ideas out there in the literature and wants to include a reference to all of them. This is the academic equivalent of wanting to bring too much to the plate.

This desire is understandable. There is a lot to be enthusiastic about in scholarly writings. However, an academic text works well with only as many ideas as are needed to make the argument, using only the most directly relevant and useful concepts and terms. You see, just like a plate of food, a scholarly narrative which is excessively garnished is distracting rather than engaging. Readers of the heftily embellished text often want to know whether the peripheral ideas are important or not and which. Reviewers may even ask writers to do justice to some of their tangential ideas rather than tell them to edit. But a good edit is what is needed.

  • The writer doesn’t look hard enough at the different traditions from which ideas and terms emerge. Lumping things together is the academic equivalent of clashing flavours. An academic mash-up brings contradictory ideas and terms into a text without recognition of critical differences, with no explanation or justification.

The confused textual offering can often be found in discussions of methodologies and methods and in literature work, where texts from vastly different and often warring traditions appear nestled together like good friends. Contradictory terminology and clashing concepts usually leave the reader confused about the writer’s knowledge base. Readers worry that the writer doesn’t actually know that the melange they have on their plate isn’t working.

  • The writer wants to say and do everything at once. This desire is understandable. The academy does induce an inclination to display – undergraduates and masters students in particular must show coverage and depth as well as the capacity to go off and find more information for themselves. But the rules for successful performance change at doctoral level, and particularly in relation to writing papers and books. Scholars are expected to produce something digestable and refined – a narrative which showcases key points concisely, creatively and clearly.

Now, I don’t want to labour this cooking show metaphor too much. Like all metaphors, it’s limited in its reach. But I do think that editing, in the cooking show sense, has some legs. The utility of the culinary notion of edit is that it draws attention to the need to reign in ambition, to relinquish the half-grasped idea, to control the impulse to do everything in one go. Editing does mean you have to be prepared to pare back. To cut and cut again until the text is reduced to the things that must be there, as opposed to the things could be there. So I’m pretty sure it would be helpful to read a first draft, or even a nearly final draft, with the epicurean type of edit in mind.

Some chef-like questions to ask might be:

What might I need to edit out of this text? Are there too many ideas running in this text? Too many side issues?

Are all of these ideas and references necessary to my major argument? Am I trying to impress rather than inform and explain? Have I used some references and ideas simply because I think it would be good to do so?

Is everything here broadly coherent, working in the same academic traditions? Have I made sure that I’ve not been too heavy handed with the quotations, references and citations? Have I let my major point shine through?