Editing. Not a concept that fills most writers with joy. For many, it’s the unpleasant yet necessary shadow accompanying the act of writing itself, sort of how a painful rash can follow a good… um, hike through poison ivy. And I see why many of us feel that way, I really do. Or I did. Lately, along with extra wrinkles around my eyes and greyer hair at my temples (okay, not just my temples, but we don’t need to get all TMI, do we?), I’ve begun to appreciate editing for what it is. I’m not talking about the editing I do for others, necessarily, although I could be. No, I’m referring more to my own process in that regard. Something dawned on me: I’m starting to enjoy it. Now, either I am growing more masochistic than I ever believed possible, or my new realisation has actual substance. Again, for TMI-avoidance purposes, let’s go with the latter.
Here, I’ll just say it: editing is an integral part of the creative process and isn’t really qualitatively different from writing. What we tend to call “writing” is in fact “initial drafting” and what we often think of as “editing” is just a deeper form of “writing”. Every bit as creative, and potentially just as satisfying. At its best, it’s the layers of paint over the pencil sketch. I realise there may be folks reading this who are kind of looking askance at me and thinking “no, duh, did you just receive your first clue via a Wells Fargo stagecoach?”, and to those people I hold up my hands, guilty as charged: what others have perhaps known for a goodly while genuinely occurred to me, like, yesterday. Look, I’m a slow learner, okay, but at least I’m a learner.
So, what do I mean? Well, the best way to get something across is to demonstrate it, to literally show and not tell (don’t hurt me, Linton). So, I’ll write a quick draft of a fabricated passage from a non-existent fantasy novel, here:
The men rode up the hill, the army of trolls behind them. They paused at the top and looked across a burning landscape, the distant city sending smoke high in the grey sky. Everything seemed hopeless. Ear’o’korn faced his men. “This is the moment. All paths have led to this. We must defeat our enemy or perish. Prepare the last stand of Condomia!” Stirred, the men renewed their faith and turned toward their pursuers, ready for battle again and prepared to fight to the last man for the Good and the Righteous.
Okay, I wrote that literally without pausing or second-guessing, which is how most of us either write or are told to write. In other words, bring on the heavy editing artillery long after the first draft, never during it. So, imagine I’m done my draft and am now returning to the passage in question for the first time. And I’m so not kidding, this part is fun. Either that, or I’m an incorrigible word nerd. Hmmm. Yeah, probably the latter. Oh, I should point out there is no one perfect way to edit such a passage; in fact, the possibilities are probably close to infinite, so don’t attack my somewhat exaggerated style or you’ll be missing the point (he says, covering his butt far too glibly).
Here’s one way:
The men rode to the summit of the hill… I prefer this as it negates the need for “at the top” in the next sentence …the troll army following. Again, it feels more efficient and works better rhythmically. Pausing amid a cloud of dust… This engages the senses, adds verisimilitude …they looked out across a ravaged landscape, at the burned forests and the columns of smoke rising from the distant city. A little more description, just enough to conjure a scene, but allowing the reader to fill in some of the detail of what a ravaged landscape looks like. Dismay and horror crossed their faces like shadows. This isn’t great, but it’s still better visually than “everything seemed hopeless”. You could probably lose one of “dismay” or “horror” if you wanted it tighter. Raising his voice, Ear’o’korn spoke. “Faced his men” is too Hollywood, too inorganic, he’s in the middle of a disorganized, demoralized party of weary soldiers, after all, not giving a fresh battle speech at the outset of a conflict. “Men, this is our moment to defeat despair. We have arrived here together, having traveled many paths. Two choices now remain: vanquish… we used “defeat” far too recently, and it has a nice balance alongside the upcoming “perish” …our enemy or perish in the attempt. In the name of all that’s good, for the sake of all we hold dear, prepare the last stand of Condomia! Fight as the brothers we are!” Sometimes we add words, sometimes we eliminate them. This is an example in which the passage requires more length, his speech needing to fit the “high speech” mold of epic fantasy, and rather than tell the readers his men were moved by it, we allow the words themselves to do the job, bolstered by a simple description afterward. As he spoke, the soldiers grew taller in the saddle, slowly turning their horses to face their pursuers. Jaws set, weapons raised, they roared in unison, each man welcoming the final charge, the possibility of his own death. Now, again, this isn’t perfect or even great, but you get the idea that each time we lay down another layer or another shade of paint, we hope to improve the bigger picture. Of course, this leads to another huge question outside the purview of this post: when do you stop? If you daub too many layers, you end up with a muddy, sloppy mess of words and a ruined picture. Anyway, for comparison purposes, I’ll paste the edited version here.
The men rode to the summit of the hill, the troll army following. Pausing amid a cloud of dust, they looked out across a ravaged landscape, at the burned forests and the columns of smoke rising from the distant city. Dismay and horror crossed their faces like shadows. Raising his voice, Ear’o’korn spoke. “Men, this is our moment to defeat despair. We have arrived here together, having traveled many paths. Two choices now remain: vanquish our enemy or perish in the attempt. In the name of all that’s good, for the sake of all we hold dear, prepare the last stand of Condomia! Fight as the brothers we are!” As he spoke, the soldiers grew taller in the saddle, slowly turning their horses to face their pursuers. Jaws set, weapons raised, they roared in unison, each man welcoming the final charge, the possibility of his own death.
Yeah, okay, still needs work. I kind of cheated, too, as this type of writing is almost built on cliché, so I didn’t have to worry too much about that aspect, at least. But hopefully you get my bigger point, that this is writing every bit as creative and enjoyable as that first rough sketch, perhaps more so. That it’s all part of the larger process. It’s work, but it’s also play.
Once again, an analogy from my other favourite art form—music—rides in like Ear’o’korn to rescue us at the death. Far from being drudgery, what we term editing is really a re-working, is in fact not so much an edit as a remix. And as such, it can be truly radical. If you’re still skeptical, go track down R. Kelly’s original “Ignition”, then listen to “Ignition: Remix”. Clue: one is possibly the greatest song of the new Millennium, and the other… uh, isn’t.
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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type. He also occasionally adds his stuff to the website BlergPop.[subscribe2]