Editorial cookery: Artist vs Craftsman

Professional chefs have more in common with editors than you might think.

chef looking in panMy wife was recently listening to the audiobook version of New York Times best-selling author Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential. It’s a fascinating and entertaining look into the world of chefs and high-end kitchens.

One of Bourdain’s diatribes raged against line cooks and junior chefs who graduate culinary school and try to be artists when it comes to the daily delivering of the dishes the chef has created. They constantly prepare menu items differently, when the chef knows that the customers who order those plates quite likely have ordered them before; the chef also knows that diners expect that “one amazing dish” they ordered a year ago to be exactly the same when they order it tonight.

The chef needs a Craftsman who can deliver flawless execution of the chef’s vision over and over, and the rogue sous chef or line cook who switches things up by playing Artist will most likely end up fired.

That idea fits right into the world of editing. We as editors need to be aware of the times when an editorial “recipe” has already been established that we need to maintain. We also need to know when to step outside of the “recipe” and make an offer of Art.

So how do we know when to do one and not the other? Sometimes it’s obvious; the client, director, or producer specifically tells us that they want something like X Project or to feel like such-and-such a vibe. Or they may say, “Here’s the project, do your thing however you see fit, then we’ll talk.”

Other times they’ll say, “Here’s what I want,” and that’ll be it. In that case, here’s what they often mean but don’t say, “This is what I think I want. Stick with that for the most part, but if you come up with a twist or a certain moment that could make the project better in ways I might not have expected, give it a shot. If I like it, I’ll be happy. I don’t like it, I can always say ‘no, that’s not what I said’ and not risk putting my ego at risk.”

art word installationWhen it comes to creative offers, Art is an idea that means a million different things to as many different people. I do, though, have one virtually failsafe area in which I’m almost always willing to dabble as Rogue Artist:

I am always looking for a way to expand the existing emotion of a piece. If it’s happy, make it even happier. If it’s cool, make it the coolest thing they’ve ever seen, dangit. If the scene is tense, ratchet that tension up as high as reasonably possible.  Because at the end of the day, audiences will be much more likely to remember how they felt about a piece than the specific details of what the piece said.

To say it another way: as an editor who constantly switches between the roles of the expert Craftsman carrying out someone else’s vision and the mercurial Artist who says “what if we try… THIS?”… I know that if I ever have to err on the side of coloring outside the lines a bit, I will be most likely to find success in the service of amping up an emotion that will cause the audience to feel something – anything – to more firmly connect them to the piece at hand.

That is the place to take a creative risk, and the payoff can be huge.

If these ideas make sense to you, and you’d like more of them, then you’ll find the motherlode here. And if you like the idea of hanging out with storytellers who are constantly seeking to implement these kind of ideas in their projects, you should join us here.

In the meantime, here’s your butt coverage: the worst thing that can happen when you expand emotion beyond what decision-makers expected is that they’ll tell you to dial it back. And it’s much easier to pull back existing elements than to create new ones from scratch. On the upside: when you do make a successfully received offer of Art, you blow away the expectations of the people who have brought you on board. You take their projects to a different level that causes them to work with you again and again.

And that’s good for everyone.

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