Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Editing on Instinct

Page edited by Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
Photo from allposters.com

Whether you do it yourself, ask a friend, or hire a professional, editing creative writing is essential. While some authors, C. S. Lewis for one, can have managed to be successful without much care for editing, there are dozens who scrupulously edited their work. Balzac, the French realist, famously edited his own writing with detailed notes, massive deletions, and intense self-criticism as the copy of one of his manuscripts to the right attests. Tolkein, Goethe, and Wordsworth revised and edited their own work for decades, producing numerous editions or revisions. Fitzgerald spent over a year working on The Great Gatsby while James Joyce added his masterful short story "The Dead" to Dubliners years after he finished the other stories. While it is certainly possible to over-edit a text and second-guess oneself (Wordsworth was often guilty of this) most texts benefit from rigorous editing. As a writer who has edited his own work and that of others, I feel I am in a position to offer a few comments on the subject with a reasonable degree of authority.

In making all necessary changes, you will have to be careful to keep the author's artistic vision in mind. While considering the reader's impressions and the potential appeal of the work you are editing is important, editing too much can strip a work of its author's original intent. The editor must balance the writer's goals with his own. This is a difficult task that requires practice and patience on the part of editor and author. Even if the author and editor are the same person, it is possible to stray from one's original goals or ideas. Sometimes, as with great acting, the best writing can be spontaneous. Tolkein subconsciously scribbled the first line of The Hobbit while he was grading a student's exam. As an editor, you must be careful not to stifle the originality of the author. The best way to avoid this is to learn the author's vision, absorb the ideas of the book, then do what I call "editing on instinct." Assess what the work (be it a novel, a short story, a play, or a poem) then decide what seems "true" to the spirit of the work and what is not. That which is not "true" to the work should be changed or deleted, that which is should be preserved at all costs. This philosophy should be kept in mind when following the steps I suggest in the following paragraphs and (even if the particulars I recommend are disregarded) should be kept in mind. Approaching an author's work from this standpoint is essential.

The first step to editing creative writing, whether it is your own or someone else's, is to read the work, noting your impressions and correcting major errors (Microsoft Word "track changes" can be a very helpful tool with this step). If the work does not leave the emotional or intellectual impressions the author desires, this should be noted. General impressions are important at this stage as these will help you develop the instincts necessary to edit the book. Is the tone serious, sentimental, or silly? Do the characters feel realistic or exaggerated? Does the narrative progress in any particular order? The answers you give to these questions are vital. If the effect of the piece seems inappropriate or inconsistent with the author's stated purpose or the work's subject matter, revisions may be necessary. If you have identified an issue, take it up with the author and focus on specific instances where the problem seems to occur. If, for example, you are editing a novel about a cancer patient and you find the author's occasional bouts of levity disrespectful, consult him or her and point out specific passages. It may be the case that only a few sentences  throughout the work need alteration or you need to change your point of view as editor or perhaps the author needs to make his purpose more clear from the outset. In other cases, details may need to be added to enhance character depth and make imagery more vivid. As always, the overall vision and feel of the work should be your guide.

Once major issues in the writing have been addressed, it is time for you as editor to focus on sentence structure, vocabulary, punctuation, and spelling.  Ordinarily, proper English grammar rules and spelling should be observed but in some cases, the author may need to break rules intentionally to achieve certain effects. For example, characters (even narrators) may need to use incorrect grammar to create a better mental image of their personality and background for the reader. I have personally added slang and grammatical errors to dialogue in a novel I was editing in order to make the characters feel more real. Again, you should trust your instincts as a reader (or writer) in determining what a character should say or do.

While I do not believe the process of "editing on instinct" is revolutionary, I believe the idea can benefit many aspiring writers and editors. Ultimately, the concept is a good one because it respects the author's vision while still taking into account a reader's impressions. The editing process relies upon balance. The author's instincts as a writer, and the editor's instincts as a reader are both critical guides. Obviously, the more skilled the author is and the more well-read the editor is, the better their instincts and the finished work will be.