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What is editing

It occurred to me the other day that editing is a lot like personality, you can only describe it clearly if the person you’re talking to already knows what it is. I mean, you can say that personality is being happy, or charming, or mean, but these are all just behaviours really but somehow we instinctively know that a person’s character is not just a sum of their behaviour. It’s something nebulous and wonderful and it just is.

Editing, I find, is a little like that. People will give you techniques (“start big and edit towards the small!” someone once told me in hoarse voice as she watched me put the madness into my method), and pro tips (like don’t absent-mindedly pick up a pen lid and eat it because it’s next to your food, don’t do that) but nobody will tell you exactly what it is without fidgeting in their seat and making the poopy face for ten minutes.

What is editing

Editing is tinkering, and it is a way of making things better. It is cutting, and adding, and adjusting everything. It is correcting typos but it’s also correcting entire chapters. It is staring at the same word for three whole hours trying to find not just a word but the word. The one that somehow clicks into place on a cosmic level. It is reading notes written in the margins and wondering what exactly you had taken when you were typing this. It is finding what is written between the lines.

Like the traits that make a person, however, these are really just a list of actions that editing could be and not what it is. The only things I can tell you for certain is that is is hard — sometimes you’ll look down at your fingers and wonder if you’re inadvertently writing the worse thing that has ever been written in the history of ever. You’ll stare through the screen and worry that somehow, maybe, just somehow, you’ve accidentally written something that is in fact somebody’s own life and how terribly awful is that because not only is it really sad in places but also the grammar is appalling at this point. It worries you that somebody’s life could lack decent grammar. Without it, life what is?

I think, really, editing is a meditative exercise. It’s sitting for hours, and reaching deep, and finding the meaning behind what you’d just written. It’s tugging on a rope dangled into the darkness and seeing what pulls back.

What’s editing to you?

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Mia Hayson October 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Editing is when the real story emerges. Editing is pointlessly rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Both of these statements are true.

People often push endless editing in response to bad fiction by wannabe novelists, but for some writers the editing needs are very light. Lawrence Block reports on one professional writer of westerns who composed his novels on the linotype machine, the fiction coming out of the man's head already ready for publication. It takes time and discernment for the writer to discover their own writing nature, how much editing they should do and what kind. This is a journey of discovery, and requires lots of hot tea and chocolate snacks.

Thanks for the insightful blog post.

Mia Hayson October 28, 2013 at 4:18 am

Editing is hard for me too, especially because I always write too much and I want to keep everything. I heard about a writer who kept an "extras" file on his computer where he put all the lines and passages that he cut from his manuscripts; I created my own extras file so that I don't have to give up everything.

Mia Hayson October 28, 2013 at 11:40 pm

That was a lovely definition. I agree. Although I admit I was hoping this would be one of those posts where you would comment on what ever hilarious thing Google said about editing. 🙂

Mia Hayson October 29, 2013 at 9:29 am

Best definition I've read in a while! Yeah, it's all those things.


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