Photo Thanks to Tram Mau Tri Tam
I’ve been spending a lot of my edge time editing. Edge time is time that I have on the edges on my schedule. Frankly there isn’t much. But every few years I get to edit something meaningful. I’ve been working on someone else’s stuff while also writing a few things of my own in the last months. More on that later.
One thing I’ve noticed about editing—my own and other people’s work—is that the space between the readings is the space where the writer grows. That’s particularly true if you sit with the edits long enough to learn from them. The same is true in a verbatim seminar, in a class, or in a meeting with members or stakeholders or friends. The longer you sit with what’s said, the more impact what’s said has.
Feedback is only as good as you allow it be. If it’s dispensable, you’ll dispense with it. Of course, my post is about editing. All those tracked changes can instruct you, change you, improve your ability to communicate. But you have to take the risk and let that happen.
You have to choose to be vulnerable, to admit to poor word choice, to accept that your phrase was confusing, and to surrender to another option. That option may not be what the editor suggests, what you at a different time might choose. But another option may be the route toward clearer, tighter sentences.
Another thing I’ve noticed about editing is that it helps the editing process to pause. There is always space between words in a sentence. Even though there’s only one space after periods, it’s still a space worth respecting.
Giving myself time to think through the questions of my editors or to notice my own literary proclivities or to see how many times I use passive voice will make me a stronger communicator. It’ll make me a poet. It’ll charge my words. It’ll engage me, and an engaged me eventuates into a engaged sentence.
Michael Eric Dyson’s brilliance with many things glows in this and other paragraphs as he writes about the fractures in his relationship with Cornel West. In this quote, he’s talking writing. If you’re interested in what else he says, visit here. Among our other impressions of his overall critique, we should pray for the folks mentioned here. They are part of an intellectual community that shapes and influences the opinions of our best practitioners. My point is to underline what Dyson says of the work of writing.
The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.
The role of the editor is an intimate one because she reads your mistakes and judges your intent and suggests an alternative path to your goal. As much as we think we do, we never like alternative paths. We like what we know, words we’re married to, what we’ve spent days writing toward.
An editor sees your gaps, can exploit your errors rather than clarify your efforts, and help you listen to you, to your words, and to the hopes underneath them. Like a guide, she takes in your hardest-won words and makes them better.
An editor can damage you. An editor can discourage you. Or an editor can draw a simple, clear line between your work and your end. She can look ahead and see the page when you can only see the sentence. She can show you that there’s more in you without suggesting your earlier presentation as inferior.
Her words return again and again: “There’s more. There’s more in you. Go for it. Go. See. Soar.”
Writing by Joyce Rupp
I wait out sluggish days,
empty evenings, mulish
attempts to capture words
inside the undulating sea
of my mental thesaurus,
not even remotely available
for me to scoot them
onto my fingers and
into necessary revision.
So I wait, and wait,
and wait some more
while I fumble uselessly
with worthless concoctions
one early dawn
the tide comes in
and the first word peeks out.
then they all follow,
and like a flock of gulls
I swoop in to snatch
the sea’s latest prey.
Dag Hammarskjold, a twentieth-century diplomat, advisor, and leader is a companion of mine (through the text). I read selections from his Markings from time to time. They are poems, reflections, meditations, and musings. Last night I read a few. Here’s one from 1952 that seems compelling to me today:
How ridiculous, this need of yours to communicate! Why should it mean so much to you that at least one person has seen the inside of your life? Why should you write down all this, for yourself, to be sure–perhaps, though, for others as well?
I’m in the middle of revising another draft of my manuscript. I’m walking through some thoughtful edits from Maya Rock, and the walk is both enlivening and humbling.
I’ve been sick for more than two weeks thanks to my generous son. I’m still a little congested, in the head especially, and I mean that, at least, in two ways. But Hammarskjold’s words come alongside me as I’m reading my edits, adding and cutting and thinking and shaking my head at some of the assumptions I make in my story.
I’m considering my draft in light of his reflection. How he says writing, or communicating, allows a person to see the inside of your life. How communication is for others. It really takes me out of my head, where all the assumptions are, where all the answers are, and delivers them onto the page, into the conversation, in the space where communication happens between two people.
I’m behind some very personal goals. Since last week I’ve been under the very good weather in our city. It feels like I’ve had too much to do at my church. I’m ending a semester at Garrett-Evangelical. Trying to fight back to my clearest head, I’ve looked at my work in progress and heard it calling for attention.
I’m in front of a few deadlines with work from my secondary lives. So I’m a week or two away from turning myself to the strong but patient voice of my manuscript. I’m looking forward it. I got a nudge last week in the form of feedback, and I’ve been thinking of it since I read the email. I’m turning things over in my mind, changing and cutting and keeping and guessing and imagining.
Tonight, after Bryce was in bed, after throwing a chicken in the oven for Dawn’s post-class snack, I fell into the chair. Energy gone, I looked over facebook, opened my inbox, and started planning details of tomorrow. I wanted to plan to write, but it won’t be there. So instead, I searched through one of my folders, looking for another prompt, something that would remind me of why I write even though I wouldn’t be able to write. I found something better. I found a compliment. A woman had read one of my first novel-length manuscripts, the story that is very much present but now gone. I read her email to me.
Among her first words was this: Your manuscript is a treasure…You must know that!
Years sit between me and the time I first got this message. It was from a published novelist who became a friend for a time. I read it last night to remind me of the treasure at my fingertips. Whether or not that story or the current story gets couched between a publisher’s covers, there are things I must know. Those are the things that will bring me back to the work in progress. I hope you have things worth remembering about your work, be it writing or otherwise.
When we talked yesterday about your writing–about the list of books in your mind, the list you went down without any effort, the list that included chapter outlines, themes, and topics in you like blood–I hope you heard me despite my firm and sometimes spicy presentation. I hope you heard in my words the evidence that there are people waiting for you to get the work done. I hope you heard, in me, the readers who would not only be open to your book(s) but who would be excited about it. Interested in it. Generous with it.
I hope you never lose the sense that you are not done until you are faithful to the conviction you told me about, that long strand of material sitting in you and expecting to be given to readers of your printed words, listeners to your spoken words. I hope you are upset in an essential way until you respond.
I hope you connect your head, your heart, and your hands, and that the work of your hands proves to you that it’s about those accepting your work with gladness as much as it is about you completing something so internal to you. I hope you realize that whatever has stalled you has stalled those of us who will read your stuff.
I hope you get through your resistance, your fears, however real they are. I hope that you write and that you publish and that we can laugh about how hard I came at you even though I really didn’t have the right to say what I said. I hope I was speaking out of my own reactions to the welled up, stored up, waiting up work in you but also for the audience that is expecting.
This is one of those quotes that is about writing but can be about everything in life that requires preparation, work, revision, and the courage to surrender the results. Anything where we choose can be around these words. Anything that calls forth effort is like writing and requires careful editing. A decision where to take the person you love for a quiet, meaningful conversation. The answer to a penetrating question. Picking what to where for an important meeting. Not rushing is essential because it means we run through the slow work of foundation-building. From Writers Digest:
But building a career requires that you lay a strong foundation of only your best work--and nobody’s first draft is the best it can be. Careful editing is the mortar that holds the story bricks together.
I’m finishing Victor Lavalle’s latest novel, The Devil in Silver, a story about inmates in a mental hospital who befriend each other while fighting a known but unknown devil and an increasingly unresponsive health system. These videos aren’t about Victor’s novel but writing itself; he reads a good bit of a story in the video and discusses it the way he would in one of his classes. I hope you learn from him. It’s helpful if you’re writing now or revising.
I’ve read Nathan Bransford’s blog for years and find it a chest of treasured tools. He wrote recently about revision, a lovely mess I’m in the middle of, reflecting on a post by Jennifer Hubbard.
The best way to deal with revision fatigue is to trust in your heart that it’s a very useful and necessary feeling: what better time to turn a critical eye on your book than when you think it is an affront to humanity?
The good news is, as Jennifer says, it means you’re almost done (at least for now). The danger is getting discouraged by your fatigue and just calling your work finished and turning it in before you’ve given yourself some time to utilize that fatigue. It can be demoralizing, after all that time and effort, to revisit your work and be unsure of what it was all for.
Just know that the feeling will pass and instead let yourself simmer in it for a while. Power through and keep working. You’ll be glad you did later.
Nathan’s post is here.
A first draft is a funny thing. A stack of questions waiting to be answered. Seven thousand, one hundred twenty lines to be reviewed with patience you don’t have. Words to be heard aloud, doubted like a thief walking through your favorite room, turned over in the mind, changed for something tighter, or left alone like that one lavender flower growing in a field of green.
All the judgment sits in that pile of paper. You see it differently when it’s paper. As a file it’s just like anything else on that tap tap tap laptop. It’s something in a screen. It’s real but still less real. When it’s printed, it zips across your all-in-one and each scrimp of the printer is a question and a hope and a prayer about you taking every letter to the next level. The articles, verbs, and characters join together into a choir, one you love and hate. They sing to you as the printer forms their melody in the faint, terrible background. You’re enchanted and afraid of their music.
Lift the language. Tighten the plot. Excise the unnecessary. Describe. Take your time. Strengthen the dialogue. Add this scene. Delete that. Say it better. They sing things like that, and their collective voice takes the tone of a friend. Their instructions and encouragements collapse the way jazz does, unexpected and delightful. Go. See. Soar.
You wait because you gave yourself a waiting period. A break. It’s helpful even if it claims the three ounces of sanity you think you still have. You hate waiting, at least, for the work of revision. You remember that conference workshop where the presenter said revision was seeing again, looking again, searching again. And her broad smile finds you while you wait. She was a white woman, her face plumped like the rest of her body. She wore red and, though red was a color for fire and heat and summer, you imagined her cool as stood at the podium to speak. She was joyous as she spoke. Joy was calming, cool. Joy was the collection of possessing your words and your characters and your vision for the story. You thought of her as you waited because her coolness was what you needed while you watched that stack, the pile with 96,504 expectations. Each word commanding to be the best.
You got tired thinking of those words. You cherished them. But they made you a little sick. You wanted time to pass before you saw them. Even when you clicked the manuscript open, you couldn’t read. You saw the blur of that first page and closed it quickly. The X from Microsoft Word pressed into your mind. There would be enough time to do what needed to be done. It just wouldn’t be now.
I started writing a bit about my editing process for the current Work In Progress. If you’re interested in reading the previous posts, click here for pt 1 and here for pt 2. I’m still working on the WIP. My editor got the revision two weeks ago and last week emailed me several questions she needed answered or issues I needed to address before she finished with the line edit.
I thought two things when I read her email. The first was how pleased I am to have connected with an editor who understands my manuscript (i.e., ms) and who can look at the ms for what I’m hoping for without editing it into something else. That’s a rare find from what I can gather in the collective reflection of wannabe published writers on the internet. It’s hard to capture someone else’s vision for a project when your role is to critique it, even though critiquing work requires that you grasp it.
The second thought was how long, windy, and difficult the path to publishing can be. I am gladdened to read of shorter routes for the author who wrote that first story, met an agent at some function completely unrelated to publishing, talked about that one exceptional piece while spinning a chocolate martini in one hand, and left the evening with the agent’s invitation to submit pages, only to have that agent represent them to a book deal with a great publisher. That’s the process for most writers. And inside that process is the gritty nitty work of fighting words, punching away at an idea, asking characters the same questions when they have yet to answer, focusing on the plot, sharpening that focus when it’s become unclear, and on and on.
My story is stronger. I feel like it is. My editor says so as well. I believe us both. And I’m looking forward to last edits, which really aren’t the last edits since the agent in my future will have a revision letter waiting for me and since a publishing in-house editor will also offer edits for the ms when it’s purchased.
So, I’m getting used to editing. I’m getting used to editing while thinking about that other project, to say nothing of that other life of mine which includes church-leading, teaching, husbanding, and parenting. I’m editing while trying to balance garbage removal, toy collection, sermon preparation, and diaper changing. Perhaps that’s the summary of the whole thing.