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The Literalist and The Humorist

by Marsha Marks 



I once worked on a humor piece with an editor who was a literalist, literally. I would write the line, "People were laughing their heads off." And she would write back, "I have a problem with rolling body parts." Or I would write, "...we jumped out at them." She would ask -- seriously ask, "Did you really JUMP? Maybe you fell." Or (and I'm not making this up, these are actual examples) I would write dialogue ending with  "...said Laurie." And she would change "said" to  "Said Laurie Anxiously" or to "answered Laurie."  Her point was, "to help with meaning."  (She didn't realize the search for "meaning" is death to humor.)   

Just an aside writing lesson here, for those who don't see the problem with "said Laurie anxiously" or "answered Laurie."  There is a simple rule any writer worth their humor salt knows -- cut the "ly's". And never use an active verb to describe who is speaking or how she is speaking. Humorists rely on what is actually being said, to convey humor, - the writer of this piece said, horrifyingly. 

The literalist and I fought from our first encounter over her quest for "meaning" -- and my quest for style.  At first I could not figure out why we were having such a difficult time.  In the course of my writing career, writing articles, and books, I'd been edited by over 30 different editors and never had the discussions - screaming wobbly discussions - like I had with her.  (It was me who screamed. She had one of the sweetest temperaments I've ever encountered. She was kind. She was passionate. She was dedicated. Why then, did I end this project needing hair plugs to put back what I'd pulled out?) 

Finally I realized I was being edited by my mother-in-law.  In my book, If I Ignore It--It Will Go Away And Other Lies I Thought Were True (Under the chapter title "People will know I'm exaggerating") I describe my first encounter with my mother in law and the literal weather report.  Facts are important to my mother in law -- far more important than the "story."   In similar fashion, my editor saw her job as extracting actual "meaning" from my stories.  On the last morning of our working together -- I had been reading essays by Dave Barry, and realized -- if this editor were editing Dave Barry, she would have looked at his line about taking a baseball bat to a low-flow toilet and asked him if he really took an actual "bat" and to "explain low flow" to the readers.    

I am happy to say this editing experience did not end in actual death to me or my editor. She in
fact was so gracious that she allowed her "better judgment" to step aside and let my creativity flow. 

But the experience of working with her was the most agonizing editing experience -- and one filled with learning opportunities for both of us.  A clue to me, should have been her passion for copy editing.   

There is a rule I now employ when I first meet an editor.  "Can you spell or punctuate?  I ask them.  If they say, "Yes, I have a passion for copy editing. "  then I know they are not the content editor for me.   

The best content editors I've ever worked with are like the great Michael Korda (editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster) who admits to this day he can't spell or punctuate.  If you have a passion for copy editing -- you should not be a content editor, and vice versa.  The two do not mix.  One requires a literal mind set, and the other requires someone who would take a bat to a low-flow toilet. 

Marsha Marks is the author several books, including the May 2005 release, Flying by the Seat of My Pants: Flight Attendant Adventures on a Wing and a Prayer.   Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers.  She may be contacted at

2005, Marsha Marks, All Rights Reserved