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April 29, 2019  |  Editing and "meatball surgery"  |  935 hit(s)

Before M*A*S*H was a TV series and before it was a movie, it was a novel written by someone who'd obviously been an Army surgeon in Korea. I read the book as a teenager, and weird little bits of it stuck with me over the years.

Warning Potentially distasteful content—surgery, unpleasant metaphors.

One that remains oddly relevant to my work is the idea of meatball surgery. Here are a couple of those bits, which concern Captain Pinkham, a newly arrived surgeon who's still trying to get the hang of field surgery.

Captain Pinkham, in particular, still tended to get bogged down in detail. He would become completely absorbed in repairing damage to a hand and ignore or sublimate the obvious fact that the patient could die of his abdominal wounds. Once, in fact, he spent six hours on a case that should not have taken more than two hours and managed to miss a hole in the upper part of the stomach. The patient almost died, early, from too much surgery and, later, from the missed hole.

After Hawkeye catches and fixes this error, he takes Captain Pinkham aside and offers him some advice:

This is certainly meatball surgery that we do around here, but I think you can see now that meatball surgery is a specialty in itself. We are not concerned with the ultimate reconstruction of the patient. We are concerned only with getting the kid out of here alive enough for someone else to reconstruct him. Up to a point we are concerned with fingers, hands, arms and legs, but sometimes we deliberately sacrifice a leg in order to save a life, if the other wounds are more important. In fact, now and then we may lose a leg because, if we spent an extra hour trying to save it, another guy in the preop ward could die from being operated on too late.

I don't do surgery, obviously, and my work doesn't involve life-and-death decisions. (Thank goodness.) Still, this passage stuck with me over the years as a lesson about prioritization.

We normally maintain a doable pace for our edits, and articles get one or more development edit passes and a couple of copy edit passes. But now and then we'll have hard dates, as when articles need to go out that are keyed to an upcoming trade show or product announcement. At rare intervals we might be asked to review something that needs to go out, like, tomorrow.

This type of crunch-mode workload—and especially the hard dates—forces us to prioritize. Or to echo Hawkeye, we might have to practice a form of "meatball editing." If I have 120 pages' worth of articles that will be referenced in presentations starting next Monday at 9:00 AM, I'm going to worry about editorial issues that have big impact. Are the product names right? Are we saying something dodgy about security? Are the code snippets missing or mangled? Are there sentences that just stop halfway through? Under circumstances like these, I usually can't afford the careful scrutiny and multiple re-reads (not to mention the iterations with the author) that are required in order to sort out issues like whether we actually need to include this paragraph, or whether this table would be better as a list, or whether that's an infelicitous use of the passive.

It's not that we don't care about these issues. Given a more leisurely schedule, we'll dig in on the text. (Sometimes, perhaps, to the exasperation of the author, haha.) And we do often get a chance to go back to the pieces that got only a meatball edit and do a more thorough edit.

The expression "meatball surgery" is distasteful; it suggests a crude way to do something that requires finesse, and I hesitated about using the expression "meatball editing." But as explained by Hawkeye, sometimes you need to address the big issues and deal with the small ones later. True for battlefield surgery, and sometimes true for editing as well.