Editing is playing with fire. As a rule the goal is a controlled burn. However even a spark can become a wildfire. I recorded a podcast and wrote this post about editing for a few reasons.
The first is that I recently finished a novel. The next is that I am also editing my first audio story.
In addition I am the editor for the writing team on an upcoming digital strategy card game called Planet Rise. It’s the first game of its kind to offer a complete story. We recently edited one of our drafts in preparation for the upcoming AfroComiCon in October.
Each process allows me to view the approaches I am taking and the results I am experiencing with a critical eye. The better I can understand my process the more complete I can refine my work and the work of others.
Edits are hard. Writing about editing is hard. The goal is to make the work better, but that means painful choices. That can create questions and problems. It can show you gaps that need more work and where you are being redundant. Both can be demoralizing if you are unprepared, and can still be frustrating even when you think you are ready.
I have a story on Amazon called This is a Language of Fists. It started about 18 years ago with a scene. A cold wind moving through a boxing arena in a small setting, and the fighters, and the people there to watch them. Later I added a scene about running on a beach.
That scene grew to between 25-30 pages over the next 10-12 drafts. Then I whittled them down to about 15-18 pages. Ten drafts later, I was back to 22-24. Sometime after the 25th draft, I began slowly paring back to 21 pages and then finally to the 20 pages that I published. Next, I asked classmates and teachers and advisors for their edits.
I don’t remember when I crossed the into the 30th draft because by then it did not matter. What mattered, was that each round of edits brought me closer. And that became my single goal. Getting closer. Doing it again. Looking for opportunities to make my ideas clearer.
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik
Writing and editing are very similar. According to Arthur Plotnik, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
When you’re trying to write and, when you are writing, you craft the ideas as they come. Whether you are using an outline or structure, there is still the moment of inspiration and excitement. Those moments can’t be planned. Consequently it’s the editing where writers have the opportunity to shape the story.
A fire is a great image. But the initial effect can be hard to see at first. The best signal is the smoke. When the fire catches. The bits of kindling and starter are blend under the larger pieces of wood you are hoping to burn.
Once that smoke clears, the fire is burns so cleanly that it only produces flames. The act of feeding on oxygen and the fuel of the wood eliminates the opportunity for the smoke to billow. A red-orange light begins to glow.
A fire is truly enjoyed when the light and the shadows blend with the heat. Nostalgia outlines every memory entertained by a fire. Outside or in front of a fireplace. A burning fire is something that connects people.
It’s the same with great stories. They entertain when we are children and later when we are adults. They engage us with their best representations and create a timeline in our minds of the stories that we have enjoyed.
This became true for me while I was working on the first draft of a novel and many of the pieces that were coming together began to crowd my storytelling. And, I realized that I needed to find a way to set myself up so that the story would allow me to come back in. But, that when I came back in it would be with direction and purpose.
So I employed a tried and true method of writing my ending and then walking away. Then when I came back to finish that draft I could see the pieces that needed to be filled in and the threads that I needed to connect to that ending in order for the framework of it to be maintained.
As a result my first draft would have these many through-lines and an ending, that I could then begin working with as I edited.
It was helpful because that period of breathing allowed the smoke to clear. For any confusion, I might have been experiencing at that moment to abate. And by stepping back and allowing the flames to burn, and knowing I had already set up this fire so that it would reach the ending, which would be, in my mind, roaring and burn with all of the excitement that it had begun with.
That stepping back and letting it breathe meant that the smoke could clear. And as it began to burn in my mind with what I had developed, with what I had built on top and everything all I had been reaching for then the pieces became clearer.
The missing threads were easier to see. I could identify all of the trees in my forest that I had not described the way I wanted to in order for the story to be complete. And now that they were identified. I could go back in and work on them with a purpose.
That if I had not allowed it to happen, that value might have been something I rushed passed towards something else that I assumed meant completion.
Because I was able to enjoy that period of waiting, the anticipation and the sense of, well, definitely of relief and also a sense of comfort. When the smoke began to clear I could see the flames, much brighter than they had been before and that was a guiding light.
There’s a really great quote below that illustrates editing your words the moment you realize what is wrong.
“Making love to me is amazing. Wait, I meant: making love, to me, is amazing. The absence of two little commas nearly transformed me into a sex god.”
―Dark Jar Tin Zoo, Love Quotes for the Ages. Specifically Ages 19-91.
Note the pause. It only took saying it once for the speaker to realize where their mistake had occurred. Then wisely to backtrack and fix it by applying two little commas. By doing so, not only is the meaning changed, but so is the intention.
I think it is a great set up for this quote by Bernard Malamud. He won both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award, but I still know him best as an author of The Natural, which captures a snapshot of baseball during it’s earliest heyday.
“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” – Bernard Malamud
Two different approaches to examining your work after it’s been produced.
One is the quick recovery, a verbal adjustment or correction. Or even a written correction. One that immediately follows to show just how quickly the desire is to fix where mistake.
The other approach takes longer form. It goes back to that idea of the entertainment of the fire. Knowing what you are creating is part of the excitement in building a fire.
Knowing that it is the small pieces, the starter material, and the kindling, and finally, the larger pieces which let the fire roar and reach its crescendo and then a resolution glowing with the soothing warmth of the coals.
Denying yourself that pleasure removes one of the aspects that Malamud points to here regarding the idea of revision.
What that fiction wants you to say. It’s a pleasure of writing. It’s an opportunity. It’s a gift because it requires time.
Time seems to be one of those resources that we are always in short supply. But, by dedicating time to this pursuit, we are actually taking pleasure in using our time for something that gives us pleasure.
The chance to take what we are writing and to make sure it’s saying what we believe, the best way we want it to and the best way we know we can make it sound.
None of this means that editing is easy. Or that the parts that are easy will guarantee that the rest of it, if it does get easier, will stay that way. It only promises that there will be hard choices.
Steven King loves to say, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Even if you are not egocentric about your favorite moments, they are your darlings for a reason.
They brought you to a place in your storytelling, that has added value. Removing them challenges the work that you have invested. But your intention is to make this your best work. Particularly to follow the approach of writers like Malamud by understanding the story. Then working to make that knowledge broader, makes the hard decisions necessary.
And it can give you the incentive to push past personal attachment or even emotional attachment to those darlings. Just because you are editing them from this piece of work does not mean you are removing them from existence. There is comfort in having a small notes file that allows you to look back on them with kindness and fondness.
Even if it just ends up being in a piece about all the things you did not get to use while writing that book.
And I think knowing you haven’t really killed them is important. You’ve moved them to another plane of existence and potentially they can be reincarnated, recycled, or whatever the philosophy works best for you.
They can be repurposed into your writing. And you might never know when that will happen or if that will happen. But, that their possibility will always be alive as long as you keep them in that document.
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”―Dr. Seuss
When it comes to any final thoughts about editing it’s important to keep in mind why we do it. And the real purpose behind editing is the reader.
There is a very sweet quote from Dr. Seuss that says,“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
It starts with the idea that the writer is creating too many words. Accordingly more than is necessary, but it ends actually, with an interesting warning.
Because, not only does it become a chore for the reader, but it becomes a chore for the reader who reads.
A reader who reads is a reader who pays attention. If they recognize that the writer is using more words than they need, they will believe that the writer is actually making it harder for them.
And that is going to challenge the reader’s thoughts regarding the investment of their time. Especially into a work that is not respecting their time. Or the investment they are taking.
And whether it’s worth that amount of work.
That can make the difference between the reader finishing what you have written, or deciding that it is simply too much work to try and understand what you might be talking about. But, what you have not made clear enough to them to help them understand, with a reason that helps them as they continue reading.
By asking the reader to invest their time, you are telling them you are going to share something with them that they didn’t know or that they can now understand in a way that they didn’t consider before.
Or many of the other revelations that can come from your writing that is beyond your initial intent.
That can only happen when the writing has been edited to a point where all of those possibilities are clear enough to be seen, and when it comes to getting that writing in front of someone’s eyes, making it difficult for the reader can prevent your writing from moving beyond the editor’s desk.
There’s another great quote from J. Russel Lynes that says,”No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.”
If you are trying to get your work past the editor’s desk, the amount of time you invest in editing before you send it off it will improve your chances. Together with the best work, the best writing, and confidence that the idea that you have now begun to understand even more clearly, has been presented more concisely.
It’s because of the many attempts and approaches you have made to make it transparent for them with as little as effort as might be possible. Inviting them to understand, to engage and more importantly, to continue reading all the way to the end.
Seth Singleton tells stories for one reason. Stories are the common thread that connect us all. In the end, everyone has a story to tell.
To contact him about a writing or podcast project email email@example.com