A friend recently asked if I could recommend any good essays on editing. I was hard-pressed to think about editing at all because, although it is not something I hate, it is something I consider with a little bit of fear.
Editing has become easier with computers, of course. But this power of easily deleting a paragraph or a page or a whole essay or short story is all-powerful and not to be taken as lightly as it is. There’s no recalling lost words (unless, of course, you scour your temp folders or patiently “undo typing” in Word). But is it so bad to lose words in the first place? Clearly, something compels us to get rid of the awkward, the ill-phrased, and those not-perfect musings on the page.
Because many compose their work on computers, editing and writing seem to go hand-in-hand. Delete, copy and paste, start again. This style of composition and erasure also works with our multi-tasking minds. Write, re-write, delete—but when do we look at the whole? How can we re-write and delete while composing? Don’t we have a hard enough time coming to a blank page without our own worst enemy—ourselves—taking away words before we’ve even had time to appreciate their structure and meaning? Are we constantly removing the bracings and framing before the whole house is built?
The hardest thing with writing is to let our minds wander freely. We set out intent to follow the course of our original idea. Our brain always has other plans. It sets out with a topic, but is easily distracted. The coffee smells divine. The sun is hitting the writing table just so and the whole tableaux reminds us of another time writing on another subject and off we go. Then, we must admonish ourselves. We got distracted. The brain then reminds us of preposition usage. It questions if what we wrote is really important and necessary to the piece. It asks one of the most damning questions—will readers even be able to follow us? Do we make sense to anyone but ourselves?
When we are unsure of ourselves, rules can be comforting. Surely we can’t let our brains run freely on the page. What if we let others see what we are thinking? What if we are wholly exposed to our own selves?
I’ve returned to mostly composing on paper with pen. It is slower and, sometimes, I do lose my train of thought or find that my hand and pen cannot keep up with the flow of my thoughts. The benefit of handwriting for me is that whatever I’m working on is more connected to me as a piece of art (not to be confused with being “precious,” which is a topic for another day). This is a kind of creating for me that I thought for a long time was possible only with oil paints and pastels. The feel of a pen on paper, the idiosyncrasies of my own ever-changing handwriting—these things keep me in touch with the feelings I have for the piece I am writing. Is my writing slanted because I’m rushing to get the thought out? Upright and loopy because I feel dreamy and am lost in the possibilities of the piece?
Afterward, I look at the piece and make some initial corrections. I don’t even consider this the editing process yet. Simple things like noticing spelling errors and drawing sloppy arrows to this paragraph here and moving this other block to the second page. The next step is transcribing what I wrote onto my computer. The goal is to leave the piece relatively intact as I move from paper to bytes, but I do try to compose and transcribe the same day to keep the original intent and feeling of the piece.
Editing comes in a day or two because, I will admit this, I am so in love with what I wrote I need to take a break. It’s not the piece, it’s me. I lack perspective. Being in love with a piece doesn’t mean I won’t get rid of anything. But I won’t get rid of anything while sitting at the computer. It’s old-fashioned, but I print the piece and go through it with a pen or pencil. If it’s a challenging piece, I take scissors to it and lay it out on the floor, thinking about which parts better go together. With this round of notes in hand, I return to the computer to transcribe again.
Lastly, I am fortunate to have an amazing grammarian and copy editor in my husband, who goes over each piece with his red pen. Sometimes, he asks a question or inserts his own voice into conversation with mine as marginalia. The grammar edits I accept; the other comments, I pick and choose. Being able to understand when a comment will help the piece or take me in a direction I don't want to go in has been the biggest part of my self-awareness as a writer. Now when I work with journal editors, I am able to implement suggestions that will augment my piece as well as discuss why a certain change won’t work. In the end, we all want the best piece that I can write and everyone is on my team.
For me, composing and editing must be separate processes. When I allow grammar rules or self-recrimination (“Really? Is that the best way to write this?”) to sneak into my writing time, it interrupts my brain in an unpleasant way. And, if I let the editing brain in long enough, the piece is abandoned as stupid and unworthy of being fully written, killed before it even has a chance to sprout. I’m tired of tending the garden of neglected ideas. I’d rather plant seeds where I can and see if anything comes to fruition with a little bit of love and time.
Suggested Essays/Further Reading
Revision Advice from the Judges’ Table by Caitlin Horrocks
On Keeping a Writing Notebook (or Three) by Randon Billings Noble
On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion