Monday, March 12, 2012


This is a useful perspective on editing from the wsj


To be a writer is, in effect, to be an editor as well. This is true whether you are the sort of writer who throws on the page everything that runs through your mind and later carves it into shape, or the sort that fashions and perfects every sentence before moving on to the next.

It does not follow, however, that every decent writer is a good editor. Even some justly famous writers are known in the trade for regularly filing dog's breakfasts that require many hours of labor on the other end: unpacking, parsing, cutting, shifting, reordering and so on. I feel for the editors whose working days are thus burdened, but what has made me try to be my own editor is more laziness than generosity. When I turn in a story, I want to be done with it.

Therefore I strive to start with a decent lead and achieve a justified and logical conclusion. I try to stick as close to the word count as possible without violence. I make sure that everything is spelled correctly—without assistance from a spelling-check program, which will accept "peak," for example, when what you mean is "peek." I stay on guard against grammatical errors, inconsistencies, unfulfilled promises, lopsided or superfluous imagery and logical tie-ups. I attempt to keep my paragraphs more or less the same length; a paragraph shorter than the rest is usually missing something important.

“Imagine someone you know—a mean teacher, a bar-stool wit, a smart but uneducated acquaintance—reading your work critically.”
One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn't just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don't trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

Some people like to hand their work over to another pair of eyes for an objective view. This is not always possible, however, and even the most loving partner will have limits, so I prefer to slip another set of eyes over my own.

It's a bit like method acting. You choose someone from your life who is reliably opinionated but very different from you (preferably a number of people: a mean teacher, a bar-stool wit, a highly intelligent but uneducated acquaintance) and then read your work imagining what they would see. One of them will call you out on the overwriting here, another on your groundless assertions there, a third on the fact that you never make good on your claim at the top. With only a small bit of imaginative exertion you can hire phantoms! They won't expect anything in return.

Cutting words is always beneficial and often necessary. If you set yourself an arbitrary number of words to eliminate, you will soon find all kinds of excessive verbiage, semi-relevant anecdotes, references that won't make much sense outside your circle of friends, and instances of showing-off you would later regret anyway. Finally, you must be mindful of every writing choice and be prepared to account for it. Some editors will always feel they have to meddle, but having already considered their objections, you'll be able to head them off at the pass.


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