Off to the Races

I’ve used every sunny moment this summer to build a deck instead of keeping up with my blog. But here we go again, and today we’re off to the races. Motor racing, that is. There’s something about writing and editing, too, so stick with me. 

To the untrained eye, Formula One cars all look pretty much alike. Shapes, engine sizes and vehicle weights are strictly controlled. So, what makes the 2019 Mercedes team dominate? Well, Lewis Hamilton, for one. With so little to separate the vehicles, the skill of the drivers counts.

He is all the untrained observer sees, but behind every Lewis Hamilton, there is a team of engineers and a pit crew. Pit crews train so that they can rotate tyres in mere seconds (the record is 1.92 seconds, for those who care to know). Short pit stops shave off precious seconds in a sport where fractions matter. Pit crews work out and even have their own physios. That’s how seriously the industry takes these behind-the-scenes workers.

This year, new regulations governing the front wings allow drivers to overtake more easily, but it’s left aerodynamic engineers scrambling to find ways to increase the downward pressure that improves traction and speed. How much more traction do these cars need, you wonder? After all, the downward pressure on a racing car is so great, it could theoretically travel on the ceiling. (Step aside Lionel Ritchie.)

Turns out, it is all about traction. This year, Lewis Hamilton won the Monaco Grand Prix by a margin of 0.537 seconds. The difference lay in a faster pit stop and in the way Mercedes decided to control the airflow around the tyres. A quick pit stop gave Hamilton the lead he maintained to the end; better traction gave him the edge that kept him ahead of his competitors by allowing him to pass slower vehicles without spinning out, as some of the other cars did. The changes to the design were miniscule, but enormous. A slightly wider front flap, raised fractionally on one side, and off you go.

In short, the backup team allowed Lewis Hamilton to race safer and faster.

All stories, plays and poems look alike to the untrained eye. There’s plot and tension; there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Easy-peasy. Once you’ve done it a few times and published something, you’ve proven your writing skills—you’re ready for Formula Writing, right?

Not so fast. At this point, you’re Lewis Hamilton without a backup team. Editors are the writer’s backup—pit crew and aerodynamic engineers rolled into one incredible package. At the level of Formula Writing, it’s about the details your backup can provide. Often, it’s about miniscule tweaks rather than redesigning the entire book. Things you as a writer are aware of, but a good stylistic editor knows at the microscopic level of an aerodynamic engineer—the tiny plot or stylistic choices that move your story ahead faster; how to control the airflow around your words and increase traction with the readers; what innovative techniques can have you and your book dancing on the ceiling. Editors help you steer your way through shifts in the rules—things like gendered language, or an awareness of privilege and cultural nuance. “Small” things that can make the difference between a book and a bestseller.

As a member of your writing pit crew, I can see you and your book to the podium safely. I’ve got that part down. Now to find a physio and a work out that doesn’t hurt as much as building a deck.