On Editing

I’ve been doing some editing, and have been thinking about how I’ve always done it this way — I go as fast as I can through a draft, slashing things everywhere (ouch), trying to replace weak noun/adjective combinations with better nouns, or find stronger verbs, scrawling in the margin things like “more details here,” “some business here” (which means the dialogue is too long), hoping when I input the changes I’ll find those details and that business. Today I realized I’ve used the same formulation for a person getting up and going someplace way, way too many times and began to think of new ways to do that. One way I know I’m doing what I should be doing is when I find things I loved writing, but know immediately they’re too flashy, and so I cut them out, thinking to myself that Hemingway thing about killing your babies, that being what good writers have to be willing to do. **In fact, it turns out that it was not, after all, Hemingway who said this, but Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose name must be made up, because it is so ridiculous. What he actually said was: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

As I considered my slash and burn style of editing, it became apparent that I actually have no idea why I edit the way I do. It is instinctive, a little bit like writing, but not blind — informed, rather, by the many great books I’ve read and the rules of grammer, which I actually pretty much know, not because I diagrammed sentences in the fifth grade, but because you internalize good grammar from wide reading. In fact, I think when you’ve read a lot of good writing, and you wait a little bit until your writing is not quite so close to you, your sense of when something’s going off a cliff is actually pretty good. Ditto when something sounds stiff, or weird or wrong. You just know. It’s as though you have little alarms under your skin, alarms that got there from reading a lot of Austen, and Dickens, and John LeCarre, and Dorothy Sayers, and Yeats and Woolf. Still, maybe it would not be a bad idea to read a little about editing. Who knows, maybe I’d actually learn something new!

Little House on the Prairie Report. Yikes. I forgot about Walgreens. Does shampoo count? We don’t actually eat shampoo, and it’s too late for me to be making it out of lye. And William is awfully dirty. Shampoo counts.

Going to the new Trader Joe’s is likely to be the biggest thrill of the day, followed up not by a trip to see Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, as was my initial proposal, but a trip to the back yard to play ping pong, in a grand, competitive, parents vs. children tournament, mostly because I HATE losing to W, so it’s better to have him on my team. I’m okay losing to preadolescent boys and an eight year old. I can always pretend like I let them win. W knows better — he knows I don’t let anybody win. Ever. Apparently this is both a curse and one of my many charms.

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7 thoughts on “On Editing

  1. I know just what you mean about giving yourself time and then being able to see what works and what doesn’t — you can read your work as though it were someone else’s. Your editing system seems like it works perfectly well! I’m enjoying your Little House updates, by the way.

  2. I was so interested in what you had to say about editing! I never look forward to it and then when the moment comes I adore cutting. All the bits that never worked, all the words that didn’t fit, anything half-baked or overdone, it all goes in the bin. It feels like the very best kind of spring clean. I’m enjoying the LHOTP updates, too!

  3. Hello dear Dorothy, yes, that’s the thing, when you wait long enough, your work seems like it belongs to an entirely different person and then you can have at it.

    Litlove, it is sort of fun, isn’t it? Much easier than writing in the first place. And when you type up your changes, it does feel like you’ve done a big spring cleaning.

  4. I edit professionally and that’s a brilliant description of how I do it – “little alarms under the skin”. It is largely an instinctive process.

    I’m also loving the Little House on the Prairie project!

  5. Quiller-Couch, or ‘Q’ as he was most often known, was one of the great professors of English and his essays on writing should be standard fare for anyone who wants to write good, plain, effective English. I don’t know if they’re still available. My edition was published in 1946 and cost one shilling (about two and a half cents at today’s exchange rates) but I wouldn’t part with it for a fortune. Everyman put out a collection of his lectures in 1943 so it may have made its way into the new series. Do look for them. They are really worth reading.

  6. Ann, You can tell from just this little excerpt that Q-C was a clever, funny guy — and I’m so glad to hear about these essays. They sound terrific. I think some of them must be online, because that’s where I got this excerpt and it was part of a much, much larger piece.

    That is the funniest description of editing I have ever read, Archie. Thank you for that!

    Hi Charlotte, I’m so glad you’re liking this little sojourn on the prairie! xo, BL

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