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A FEW WORDS ON EDITING

November 19th, 2020

 

It’s perhaps a grave sin to start out on a piece of writing with such a title that is destined to receive no editing. If any redemption exists, it’s in the idea and the hope that this piece of writing will describe how it would change if this writer’s eyes and ears were dragged through it’s syllables of meaning over and over, straightening the tangles, bending the arc, conditioning the shape, and taking heed of each and every word both within it’s own sentence and within the whole of the piece it appears.

 

First there’s the basic stuff.  The misspelled words, the issues of grammar and syntax - the pedantic stuff.  Indeed it wasn’t until just a couple centuries ago that such customs were somewhat standardized.  Shakespeare, for example, spelled his own name a dozen different ways, made up words when it suited him, and took the same liberty with grammar when it suited him.  As much as lexicographers and linguists like those heading up the Académie Française would prefer, language is a slippery shape shifter, changing almost as fast as we can learn it - indeed changing because new minds are learning language from different points of view, in new points of time and configurations of culture and history.  Combing through the sort of pedantic detritus that consists of purely tedious things like spelling and syntax is, unfortunately where most people think editing begins and ends.  

 

On the contrary, a robust editing process takes a rough drafts and puts it through such a rigorous gamut of stress and expansion that it begins to resemble the incongruence that often marks the shape and size of a particular species and it’s distant ancestor.  Enormous blue whales evolved from coyote like creatures that walked on land with four legs, and apparently all of us wriggly and twitching beings evolved from a particularly fortuitous eukaryote cell.

 

Sometimes, the writing just flows, and it lands on the page with rare perfection.  But this is the exception and the rule is that creation needs to be kneaded, worked, molded, hammered, stress tested, sharpened, and honed.  This process happens at all levels, from single words, to clauses and sentences, to paragraphs and chapters.

 

Perhaps the most useful concept regarding the editing process is encapsulated by a particularly grim dictate: murder your darlings.  The phrase makes more sense in the visual arts.  Say, for example you’ve drawn a beautiful hand - it’s the best part of the entire model you’ve drawn and it’s simply an exquisite rendition.  But, it’s in the wrong place.  Perhaps it’s a little too far down, or it requires the arm to be unusually stretched.  That beautiful, exquisite local rendition is a darling, and it needs to be murdered for the good of the whole.  A fairly cruel and harsh notion, no doubt, but this is how evolution occurs.  The overwhelming majority of animals, critters and slithering thing that mother nature has killed off in order to get the world to it’s current state that includes humans is beyond human comprehension.  The earth is a churning graveyard of creativity, and so must be the page for the writer and artist.  The delightful benefit that a writer alone has, is that pieces and fragments can be saved to later germinate their own creations.  The visual artist isn’t so literally lucky and mother nature perhaps misses out on such a handy copy & paste.

 

The process includes the opposite. Rough drafts aren't simply culled and whittled down.  Pieces of writing must also be given space to expand and grow.  Such later growth might again be whittled away before the piece is done, but the exploration is necessary.  The expansion of one passage might simply be useful for casting a different passage in the correct light to be improved, after which it can meet the eraser.  

 

Each piece of writing demands a bit of a dance from the writer.  It presents, by saying, here we are, now where are we going to go?  A move in one direction - the cutting of a paragraph, the rewritten sentence - changes the entire fabric, flow and feel.  The message changes - a react that ensues from any change.  The piece of writing becomes an organic, morphing thing in this respect.  Sentences and paragraphs read differently depending on how they are framed, what they are juxtaposed with and the overall culture of words being cultivated.

 

The process is, unfortunately, never ending.  Each writer invariably reaches an asymptote in the process that represents the functional limit of ability given that piece of writing at that time.  This can certainly change given more experience and a return, but for that to happen a writer eventually has to move on and try a hand with a new piece of writing.  Whether unfortunate, bittersweet or a touching tribute to the notion of eternity, pieces of writing are never really finished.  We just stop working on them after a certain point.

 


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Podcast Ep. 949: A few Words on Editing

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