I have been weeding the garden all day today. This is a chore that I usually put off until my backyard looks like a jungle. With gloves in hand, I grabbed my cup and thermos and opened the door to head outback. Unlike most gardeners who like a beautiful yard, I am reticent to put the work in that makes it a sculpted masterpiece that will land on the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. This happens to work for me as I prefer a wild British avian friendly zone. When I hear the trumpets of elephants and the roar of lions coming from the lush greenery, I know I must grab the garden sheers and begin the task, the long put off task, of making my jungle more tame. Will I have to ask the indigenous population that has settled there to move?, I wonder.
Editing is a lot like weeding the garden. Often, writers bang on the keyboard, typing as quickly as possible. This process continues day after day as they watch, in elation, the word count soar. What to do with all this stuff that grew out of your fingers? Ah yes, this is a major question.
If one pauses to edit too often, then one is over editing. This is problematic as this actually harms writing. The over editor is the person who desires to have each sentence perfect in tone and word. What truly is happening is fear. This type of writer fears to be seen making a mistake. He wants to be the Nobel Prize winner for the very first novel he writes. Fear must be left in the dustbin along with one’s belief that one’s writing is great. Let your audience tell you it is great. This over editing would be the same as setting out to weed a garden where there is only grass and one works diligently to ensure there is only dirt in one’s garden.
What if it is only done, as my garden suggests, infrequently or very infrequently. This is also a problem. Why? you ask. The editing process is not just about cleaning up the language. Discovery and idea invention also play an enormous part in the editing process. This stems from language play. Often, a person rephrases clauses or phrases in multiple ways before settling on one that seems to be desired. The key is language play. Playing with language allows a sentence room to breath. It lets a little bit of sunlight into the concrete sentence. The multiple potentialities for a sentence become possible through editing. Here, in the realm of potential, resides various forms of a sentence. Any writer who has written for a while knows that one sentence leads, like a path, to new sentences. These new sentences send sparks of thought into the dark realms of the unexplored. Here is the missing element that has not been thought about much.
The unexplored, uncharted realm of potentialities opens up to the mind while editing. The unthought becomes thought. We can reach out and grab those fine threads and begin spinning a new path for our story to take. This is why the garden must be tended. The strikethrough, the rending of the sentence, the violence that we do to each word, phrase, clause, or sentence frees it from the bondage of being and allows it to start becoming once again. We must edit, though it is a painful process. I am reminded of my garden once again. The hidden thorn from a bramble pricks me and I yelp in pain. So too should the editing process be painful. We are tearing the sentence apart. It is a sentence that grew in the ground of our mind. It formed deep roots and has become enmeshed in the living being that is our work. But all growth is painful. “Seek not safety” is the motto to live by. Safety is the place we have been. It is a well kept garden with no nooks nor crannies, no hidden paths made by cute scampering creatures. It is a sterile landscape that has no new growth. When was the last time an author reworked a published novel just to improve its language? Oh, I am sure it happens, but is that the norm or exception? So, we must play with language, and to do that, we must edit.
My garden is looking wonderful after a hard days effort. I have watered the secret places and said hello to the gnomes and garden sprites. I have bled and sworn a naughty word or two. It is still a wild, unkempt garden after a days work, but now it is beautiful.
I consider on-the-fly revision separate from normal editing process. The writer has set himself upon a path that sentence by sentence builds into something unexpected, which now has unintended consequences to the ones before. Does she go back now, or make a marginalia? That is a personal choice. For myself, I want to have a sentence that is as full of the energy and magic as I have in my head when I first imagined it. If it takes a few times to find just the right combination of words in just the right order, then that’s what I’ll do.
And I’ll probably change it again on the next read through when I see that the small patches that were knocked around don’t mesh together perfectly. Nevertheless, the flavor is there, but now it needs a tweak here and there to smooth out the rough edges.
It also occurs to me that vocabulary can be a stumbling point. As we know, the more you use it, the better you become, but at the same time, which word will make this sentence great?
I recall seeing an interview with Robert Fagles, I think it was after he finished his translation of “The Iliad”, where someone asked him about his process. One of his comments was that there were days where he would agonize over one word. On rare occasions, it would take two days to find that perfect piece to drop in. Translating is a different business from editing, but the process of word selection is the same. If the writing language is simple, it will flow out of the writer’s fingers. Elevating the written language beyond what a writer normally uses everyday can cause a few problems.
I’m amazed at how this relates to my creations of music, laser and video choreography.
Sometimes the time spent on one second of visuals takes longer than the minutes of the rest.
And as Jim points out, trying to use techniques that are elevated beyond my skills causes problems.