Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gettin' Shut o' Doin' Things Rather-more-or-less.

Wow.  It is not as though editing were the most interesting subject.  In fact, for most editing is the worst part of writing, something most would rather not do - professional writers as a well as amateurs.  One of the great things about having an editor is that they are willing to edit ... and where it comes to schlock material I write for magazines, I am happy to lean on them.  Let me warn the gentle reader, however, that editors will edit anyway, no matter what you fix first.  This is true everywhere.

If you have any artistic inclinations, you will want to edit your work.  Here is where having a solid understanding in grammar is most helpful.  Here also is where not being in love with every word you write is an absolute necessity.  And here, finally, is where you will be broken on the rocks of your self-doubt.

For certainly the one thing that setting out to edit will cause to wither and die is your ego.  If you don't find this to be true; if you don't find the need to question your value as an artist and as a person as you apply the red ink to your work; if editing is a breeze ... either you're not cutting enough, or you haven't learned to invest your being into your work.  Editing is hard.  It is self-abusive.  It is taking something you've written in a moment of genius and recognizing in the cold light of day that it is all worthless.  Writing is passion.  Editing is passionless.

Some people can't do it.  They can't bring themselves to cut a word of their work, or they can't bear the proof that their writing is clearly something loathsome that no one should ever read.  There are thousands of would-be writers who never write anything but first drafts ... and because of that, they never write anything anyone would read.  If you will be a writer, you will need to understand that editing does more than destroy your bad work.  It leaves behind your good work.  It allows the good work to breathe, to shine, to lift itself up from the ground and fly. 

No matter how painful, think of editing in these terms:  you are pulling a fast one over the reader.  The reader overseeing your edited work doesn't know what you've thrown out; they see only the carefully crafted words you've polished and straightened out.  As far as they know, this IS the way you write.  It will seem to them to be effortless, for how can anything so beautiful not have been written that way from the first?

Ask yourself, do you question great works from the standpoint of what they must have been when the writer first set down the words, or do you make the assumption that the writer was just that smart?  Consider the opening of Shakespeare's 57th sonnet:

"Being your slave, what should I do but tend
upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
nor services to do, till you require."

Do you truly believe these were the first words he set down when he began to write?  Or do you realize the hours and nights he reviewed them with angst, again and again, questioning the use of every word, replacing them, changing them back, reordering them for the right meter, and so on?  Being Shakespeare, we will never know.  They may have been written in this way, as he was struck by the muse all at once, but I doubt it.  Poetry is an editing hell.  No one, ever, edits like a poet, if the poetry will be more than words, but music too.

It's strange to think of some poets editing.  Anyone can imagine the effete Lord Byron burning the midnight oil over his poem Darkness, but can the reader imagine the gruff, military Kipling struggling to fit his words in order?  Consider this from The 'Eathen, a favorite of mine:

"An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons which isn't glad to go,
They moves 'em off by companies uncommon stiff an' slow."

No great writer has ever lived that did not write the same awful refuse you find yourself looking at in your own work.  The difference between you and they is only their willingness to tear and shred their work to improve it, bring out what was good and cut off what was bad.  You cannot do as they did without bearing down upon yourself just as hard.  You may not want to face it, but every begger must ... and everything else that Kipling says.

To not edit is to not have appreciation for what you have written that is worthy of being shunt of all that you've written that ought to go.  It is finishing the job.  It is writing well.


  1. I think my blog could benefit a lot from some real editing. Currently I have the terrible habit of using stream of consciousness writing. Partly due to lack of time investment (short breaks at work generally) and partly due to bad habits.

    Generally when you do blog posts, I'm guessing you do a degree of editing. How would you say your editing compares to that of your other writings?

  2. My blog isn't really writing as I would judge it from an artistic viewpoint; this is closer to me speaking about something I love, so there is a minimum of editing. A novel or something I ready for publishing is something else; that I work at and rework until I'm still not satisfied but I have to quit and move on.

    I'll be speaking more about this towards the weekend.