Longtime fans of outdoor writing are not surprised to find humorous pieces in state wildlife magazines. The latest issue of Arizona Wildlife Views upholds the tradition with a funny boating story called “The Big Green Boat,” about the author’s misadventure on a spring break road trip.
Humor has a long history in outdoor publications. When you venture beyond the safety of your own front door, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up, fall flat on your tail and laugh at yourself. Writing about your own misadventures is almost as fun as reading about the mishaps of others.
When I started working for the magazine almost 10 years ago, our humor writer was the esteemed outdoor communicator Bob Hirsch. Patient with my new-editor learning curve, he taught me a lot about editing humor. It’s very hard; harder, I think, than editing technical writing. A fact is either correct or incorrect, clearly stated or muddily phrased. Fixing it is generally a matter of checking reference sources or tweaking punctuation. Humor, on the other hand, relies on the nuance and rhythm of words and paragraphs. You can easily break that rhythm if you start fiddling with it. Suddenly, the humor is gone, victim of your heavy editorial pen. Encouraging it to return is like trying to lure a shy rabbit from a hole.
This is why I approach editing our current humor content with care bordering on trepidation. I have broken a few pieces. When that happens, there’s no cure but to go back to the original and start over.
To prevent that, when editing humor or any other type of writing, I constantly ask myself: Is something really broken here, or am I just fiddling with it? Am I trying to impose my own rhythm on top of someone else’s? In other words, instead of editing, am I rewriting another writer?
An editor’s essential skill is asking the right questions, those that spark the writer’s fruitful thought and lead to productive change in the work. If I find myself moving words around or making cuts or additions instead of asking questions, I know I’m straying into dangerous waters. Editing is about teaching the writer to fish, not handing him a carp.
The creative music that plays in our minds as our fingers dance across the keyboard or slide a pen across the page is not always pitch-perfect. If it were, editors would be unnecessary. Humorous writing needs as much careful editing as any other type of writing. But the editor who tampers with a writer’s rhythms, especially those of a funny writer, does so at the peril of breaking the funny.
How to edit humorous writing? Carefully.