Learning the Value of Editing from The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

Learning to Edit with The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself is a craft book for writers who looove to write and haaaaaate to edit (double the vowels, for emphasis). This book is for writers who love the rush of creating, pulling characters and worlds and stories out of their brains, but aren’t so interested in the other aspects of writing. It’s also for writers who don’t think editing is necessary. They think their work is already good. And–I suspect most writers fit into this category–it’s for writers who are intimidated by the edit. They know they need to do it, because everyone says so, but they’re not sure the exact reason why (and definitely not sure how).

If this is you, you need to read this book.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I expected The Artful Edit to be prescriptive do-this-do-that kind of book, but it isn’t. Instead, it is part strategy (what to look for in the macro vs micro edit), part case study (we see how Fitzgerald rewrote The Great Gatsby with help from his editor Max Perkins, including illustrative before-and-after examples), and part ode to the art of editing and masterful editors who’ve come before us (including a surprisingly interesting section on the history of editing since ancient times).

Overall, it succeeded in investing me in the importance of editing.

A warning, however: Read The Great Gatsby before reading this book. Otherwise it’ll feel like 215 pages of one of those conversations at a bar where the other two people spend an hour talking and “oh my god, remember when…?” about their favorite TV show–and you haven’t seen even an episode.

Don’t be that guy. Read Gatsby first.

The Artful Edit - Editing with pencil

 

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

“Students are generally taught to rely on others to see it on their behalf, and risk creating a dubious dependency.”

– Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

In other words, it’s up to us to edit ourselves. We must train ourselves to catch the majority of our grammar and spelling mistakes, sagging pacing, and limp characters. No finishing the first draft of something and immediately pushing it out the door to go on the agent or publication hunt. You gotta edit first.

As a heads up, this book did an excellent job convincing me that I should take editing seriously, but it did not provide much in the way of concrete strategies. That’s not what this book is for, so don’t go in expecting it.

Instead, here’s how you should read this book:

TWICE.

  1. The first time, read to soak up inspiration. Learn about how even the great F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote terrible cliches and lengthy, boring descriptions his first time through a draft. Get motivated and resolve to edit your work.
  2. After you’ve identified problem areas in your manuscript, skim through and reread those specific sections in The Artful Edit that would be the most helpful to the issue you need to solve.

Why the second read? I gained a whole new layer of understanding and skills from The Artful Edit when reading it a second time. By rereading only the sections that related to my current manuscript, I was able to read more more slowly and catch more.

And what are those specific sections in The Artful Edit?

While I do highly recommend reading this book all the way through once, for motivation and inspiration, here’s a quick list of the different skills that Bell covers in this book, if you’d prefer to just target your weaknesses.

Gaining Perspective

This section is all about how to step back from your work and literally get a different perspective on it.

Bell recommends:

  • print it out on paper
  • write by hand
  • don’t let too much time pass between draft and edit
  • or, walk away from it for a long time
  • read it out loud to people
  • change the font
  • write in a new place
  • let it gooooooo (*cue Elsa!)
  • don’t let it go yet
  • imagine your ideal reader
  • collaborate with someone else
  • hang it out on a clothes line or lay it out on your floor (who has this kind of space?)

Regardless of the method chosen, the goal is to find a way to look at your manuscript differently. Even employing a simple visual trick like changing the font or printing it out can help a writer see it from a fresh perspective–and have an easier time spotting the areas that need work.

The Big Picture: Macro-Editing

After gaining perspective, it’s time to change the things that aren’t working.

The macro-edit looks at the big-picture issues of a manuscript. While there are many things that could fit into this category, Bell covers:

  • Intention — the overarching aim of your work
  • Character — their palpability, credibility, and motive
  • Structure — rhythm and tension
  • Foreshadowing — writing a page-turner or deepening your theme
  • Theme — leitmotiv (thematic symbols “gingerly” sewn in)
  • Continuity of Tone

Bell walks us through each element above, and uses the revision process of The Great Gatsby as an example, showing us how Fitzgerald’s initial draft was lacking, where Max Perkins provided helpful pointers, and then what edits Fitzgerald made.

The Details: Micro-Editing

“The micro-edit is the once-over you give your text much more than once. You will likely encounter a greater number of errors than in the macro-edit, but they are often simpler to solve than macro-problems.”

The micro-edit looks at the small, line-by-line stuff. It “thrives on a writer’s ability to ‘read slowly'” and catch the details that would easily be overlooked in a swift, breezy read-through.

That includes:

  • Language – keep it fresh, precise, active, and real
  • Repetition – repeated words and expressions
  • Redundancy – expressed that thing more than once?
  • Clarity – do people understand what you’re saying here?
  • Authenticity – in image and dialogue
  • Continuity – in visuals and character
  • Show and Tell – cutting out summary
  • Beginnings, Endings, and Transitions

Interestingly, Fitzgerald was better at micro-editing than macro and so there were fewer instances where Perkins edited Fitzgerald by the line. Because of that, Bell was able to use examples from other writers and works to illustrate her points in this section.

Edit - just pencil

Conclusion

People tend to be naturally stronger at either the larger picture or the details. Macro-editing or micro-editing, but not usually both.

So when it’s time to edit our manuscript, we need perspective to see our work properly, and then we need to be honest with ourselves about which area is our weakness.

And then we we can’t run away from it.

“Now take your strength and put it on a high shelf. Concentrate on the kind of editing that isn’t easy for you, the kind you may even hate.”

This is how we become stronger writers–by being disciplined editors willing to face down and tackle our problem areas.

“The debate continues on whether you can teach someone to write; I know, unequivocally, that you can teach someone to edit.”

And with that, my dear writers, go forth and edit. You must. It’s an essential part of the editing process.

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