Recommended Resource: The Artful Edit
Post written by Katie Wall. This post contains an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase an item, we will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain our own.
As writers, we are constantly looking for resources that will help us with our craft. There are so many resources out there that can help with one aspect of writing or another. Today, I’m going to discuss a book that will help you train your brain to have an “editing mode” in addition to a “writing mode.”
- What is the book? The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself.
- Who is it written by? Susan Bell. From the back of the book: “Susan Bell has edited fiction and nonfiction professionally, including at Random House and Conjunctions magazine for some twenty years.”
- How is it helpful? Breaks down editing skills into three areas—gaining perspective, macro editing, and micro editing—and provides exercises and examples related to all three of these areas.
- Why should writers read this? To learn how to edit their work (better) themselves. While this book is geared more toward fiction writers, nonfiction writers will absolutely find things they can apply to their own writing and revising processes.
- When during the writing process are the insights helpful? I recommend reading this at any point in the writing process. However, many of the insights are most applicable during the revision process.
Now that you’ve gotten a short overview, let’s discuss each section of the book a little more thoroughly.
Section 1: Gaining Perspective
Bell argues that in order to see what is or is not working in your manuscript, you must be able to gain some perspective. “Distance allows you to see your work,” she writes on page 13. And then, unlike many resources I’ve seen, she does not recommend a certain way a writer must gain this perspective. Instead, she proposes a variety of methods that could be tested by the individual writer during revision, including:
- Creating physical distance between you and your project for some amount of time
- Deciding not to revise as you go, but wait to revise until the first draft is complete
- Writing your manuscript longhand instead of typing
- Reading your draft aloud to hear it in a new way
- Changing the font to make the text seem “new” to your brain
- Talking through your prose with someone else who can help you improve it
Do any of those sound like things that might be helpful for you? Bell writes, “It is worth trying some of them—even, and perhaps especially, if they are initially uncomfortable. An alien method may rattle you awake to suddenly see an unfortunate aspect of your work that you have been avoiding” (13). And while discovering a problem with a manuscript can be discouraging and overwhelming, it is far better to discover it before pitching the manuscript and being rejected.
Notes: Before moving into the remaining sections, I think it’s important to share a few notes.
- In Sections 2-4 Bell uses The Great Gatsby as the example text. Now, you may love that novel, but I have to be honest—I’ve hated it since I first read it in high school. It just doesn’t do anything for me and I cannot understand why it has such a following. When I discovered that The Great Gatsby would be Bell’s example I groaned and braced myself, but as I read through the book I was pleased to discover that the examples were so well done it didn’t matter that I don’t like the example text. So if you dislike The Great Gatsby too, don’t let that turn you off from Bell’s book.
- Bell lays out the following distinctions:
- “There are two types of editing: the ongoing edit and the draft edit. Most of us edit as we write and write as we edit, and it’s impossible to slice cleanly between the two… That is the ongoing edit…. For the draft edit, you stop writing, gather a number of pages together, read them, make notes on what works and what doesn’t, then rewrite. It is only in the draft edit that you gain a sense of the whole and view your work as a detached professional” (44-45).
- “There are three types of self-editors: (1) Arrogant and blind… (2) Panicked and too timid or too aggressive… (3) Pragmatic and cool” (45, italics original). The last is the type of editor Bell would hope writers can become through use of her book.
- By way of introduction for Sections 2 and 3, Bell writes, “we will study the two views—macro and micro—that pragmatic self-editors must apply to any manuscript. Within these two views, narrative elements function like setting on a camera lens. As you examine your work, turn the lens, and check how your writing looks at each setting” (45). She argues that though she is dividing editing into these views and checklists under those headings, it is important to use this framework flexibly so as not to force the text into rigidity as well. As she states, “It is often when we’re numb with the fatigue and emotional depletion that writing induces that we edit. In these conditions, we easily forget to address some important aspect of our work. The checklists help us remember, when we’re spent, all that we must consider. Eventually we will absorb what’s on the lists and won’t need to check them” (47). In the meantime, Bell recommends that writers post the checklists by their desks as a reminder.
Section 2: The Big Picture: Macro-Editing
For this section and the next, I’m going to list the headings Bell covers as well as a quote or two that I found especially resonant. If you want to more fully understand each of these elements—and get examples—read the book!
- “Without intention, we can prepare and explore, but we cannot tell a story. Once there is a story, there is an intention: a will toward a particular—if supple—end… It is in the editing that a writer clarifies and confirms her intention. You may take a while to know what you really mean. Fine. No hurry. But however difficult it feels to do, before you’re done, create a main line for readers to go down in your work” (51).
- Character: palpability, credibility, motive
- “Writing teachers like to say a story is in the details. But is it not only in the details reveled, but in those left unsaid that we learn about a person. Just as it is not the telling of our past so much as how it infuses our behavior that expresses who we are” (53).
- “So say you’ve made your character’s economic and social status credible, you’ve made her physically palpable, and given her behavioral tics that represent her state of mind. Still, with all that, she isn’t coming clear, doesn’t slip off the page and into your life. If it isn’t time to ditch her, it’s time to work on her motive. To test a character’s motive, ask yourself: What is it that she really wants? Motive, in this context, means raison d’être, a reason for getting out of bed each morning to face the day. Every character needs one. Go back and create a motive for any character who feels flat; if her motive is recognizable but weak, strengthen it” (61).
- Structure: rhythm, tension
- “Ask yourself if you have organized your material to best fulfill its purpose” (65).
- “Editing structure of any kind can be overwhelming. This is because it can be extremely difficult to see a structure that has become hidden by the incidents, characters, and concepts that constitute story… If we cannot find it, we cannot correct it” (66).
- “Actors have an expression for the mere facts an audience must know to understand a story—they call them the plumbing. ‘I’m not doing the plumbing,’ some will protest, when asked to say a few lines that explain plot or character history but stick out from the action. Similarly, the plumbing of a novel must not stick out. At its best, a book’s pipes are laid into the work so suavely that the reader will not notice them function” (70).
- “Structure, then, is not a straightjacket for your words. It is an architecture that moves readers through and allows them to pause, not randomly, but with direction” (76).
- “Whether we are science writers, children’s writers, or art critics, we have to compel readers to the end. Foreshadowing is a good tool for it, and editing is an ideal time to introduce and hone your foreshadowing” (78).
- “Foreshadowing can work in both obvious and subtle incarnations. If a reader feels like a huge mechanical hand has lifted her up and moved her from point A to point B, it’s a good bet the foreshadowing is too obvious” (78).
- Theme: leitmotiv (leitmotiv: “a recurrent idea or image in a literary work” —Oxford English Dictionary)
- “Leitmotiv grows out of a theme, or it is gratuitous. You don’t want an image of light recurring throughout your story if the idea of light has no bearing on it. Ask yourself then: What are my themes? A theme is not a message. It is an idea written in invisible ink on the backside of your text. Choose a theme you want to emphasize. Then think of what image could represent it. Make it nonliteral—do not dumb own your theme with a cliché, such as rice for the East or corn for the West. Metaphorical symbols, such as color, texture, fragrance, or sound, may work better. A leitmotiv should not speak so much as resonate” (84-85).
- Continuity of tone
- “Continuity of tone generally holds a text together and helps it move forward. Sometimes, though, the tone of a work needs to be jumpy. When you edit, ask yourself if your tone fulfills your intention” (87).
Section 3: The Details: Micro-Editing
- “Many writing mishaps could be avoided if a writer thought harder about the notion of necessity—in other words, about language that is, or isn’t, necessary… This exercise in verbal economy might well be applied to editing text. We might edit away much of our prose and see how our scene plays spare. With potential excesses removed, we can compare before and after versions to see which works better. Sometimes it’s a toss-up. Both versions may sound good. That’s when it’s useful to recall the actors who did their scene in silence and ask: Is this word, phrase, paragraph necessary?” (102, italics original).
- “Repetition of words or expressions are only acceptable when the author designs them for a reason” (106).
- “Words are not the only issue. Take care not to indiscriminately repeat a turn of phrase. Avoid, that is, overusing one particular sentence structure, such as, for example, a clause, then a colon, then a list. Single out the structure you unwittingly repeat, enter it in a notebook marked ‘patterns to break,’ and make it the only thing you look for on one or two read-throughs” (108).
- “Good readers don’t need to be told something again and again, if it is suggested or told clearly in the first place. Do not confuse redundancy with leitmotiv. While leitmotiv repeats a theme undercover… redundancy brazenly repeats an idea on the surface of the text” (108).
- “If you cannot say clearly what you mean, you are not clear about your meaning. Clear thinking makes for clear writing” (111).
- “Editing is the place where we sweep away the confusions we felt as we wrote. We force ourselves to narrow down our possibilities, to declare our mission, know clearly what we do and don’t want to say and sound like” (112).
- “A common obstacle to clarity is the fear of looking stupid. Many of my students… want to be subtle. But subtlety can lead us astray. As commonly preached in every beginner’s writing class and worth repeating: do not assume the reader knows what you know. Also, don’t forget process: to end up subtle you may first need to place your heart (or brain) on your sleeve, then selectively pull it off bit by bit, until only some tiny potent piece is left there. It is very hard to see the right tiny piece to leave until you see the whole thing spread out in front of you” (115).
- Authenticity: image, dialogue
- “In writing, we are what we eat, drink, wear; where we sleep, dine, etc. Details give your work texture, depth, and credibility. When you edit, ask yourself: Would this character really drive an SUV? Eat crème fraîche? Sit in an Eames chair, wear pearls, use a fancy pen, sleep on a futon, drink cheap Scotch?" (120).
- “When you edit, remove the random details. Significant details are the ones that describe more than what is visual… Choose the detail that has an echo behind it” (121).
- “Dialogue, like detail, offers the chance to build or destroy a character’s credibility” (122).
- Continuity: visuals, character
- “Continuity is best understood by discussing its opposite. Discontinuity shows up when a black dog on page 4 is brown on page 200. Or a woman tells her husband on page 10 she’s going to the doctor on Tuesday afternoon, but on page 120 she refers to Tuesday afternoon’s bridge game. It is hard to recall every tiny thing you put down, and keep it right a hundred pages later” (125).
- Show and tell
- “Structure is a critical ally when you are telling instead of showing: in other words, when to tell is as important as what to tell. When you edit, take note where your reading slows down. Then decide if that section is weak because you are explaining instead of enacting an idea” (128-129).
- Beginnings, endings, transitions
- “Many writers do not find the first sentence on their book until they edit, because only then, on reading their draft, do they discover that the beginning is hiding on page 3 or 4” (131).
- “We need to think harder about not just the first words of a book or story, but of a chapter, section, or even paragraph that we are writing. Beginnings occur all through our work, again and again. To edit is, in part, to check if each beginning is sound, or if you’ve allowed in throwaways” (131).
- “In short, when you edit, add authority and sway to your beginnings; see if your chapters and paragraphs end with finality; and relate one paragraph to the next” (134).
Bell concludes these two sections with a caution: “try hard to hear the editorial wind when it shifts to worsening, not improving, your work. Then stop, undo the last edit, and applaud yourself for having brought your writing to a state of laudable imperfection” (135). Or, as book coach Jennie Nash calls it, the “good enough” manuscript.
Section 4: Master Class
In this section of the book Bell includes discussions by three writers and two artists of their revision processes.
Section 5: Servants, Dictators, Allies: A Brief History of Editors
The final section, as you can tell from the title, contains a brief and interesting history of editors. Bell concludes by writing, “In the last thousand years, editors have roughly gone from servile to celebrated to censorial to collaborative, and finally, to corporate. The most superb editors in any era cannot always come through for a writer. They may be brilliant, but coercive, like Pound; patient, but autocratic, like Shawn; or well intentioned, but squeezed for time, like most editors working today. Therefore, we must read our own drafts with strict care and pride; the way we read, not just write, will matter immensely” (210-211).
I highly recommend this book to any writer who wants to develop their own editing/revising skills. Even though the book’s prose is a little denser than some, the resources found within are well worth the time and effort it takes to read it. While I’ve highlighted some gems here, another very valuable part of this book is the exercises found throughout. Pick up a copy today!
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