Make an art of editing

Table of Contents

Back in 2003 I spent a week at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, where they plied us with fancy wine, late-night movies and even the literary magazine’s signature martinis. (I always liked what the founders said about the magazine’s artful attention to design: “A literary journal doesn’t have to look like a communist manifesto.”) During the days of that summertime week we’d work, either in workshop examining manuscripts or in seminars. One of the latter was led by Susan Bell, who promised us a book would appear from her in-progress notes from The Artful Edit.

While you can’t buy The Artful Edit just yet, the notes from the New School’s faculty bio on Bell promise the book is forthcoming “in 2006” from W.W. Norton. I still put her seminar handouts up on my Editor’s Desk from Levenger. Bell talks about doing a macro edit, along with the more traditional micro edit, on your own work. The notes stand up as useful when looking at a manuscript, like our Wednesday night workshop is doing this week before responding as readers.

You can read for intention: the overarching aim of a work that guides both writer and reader. It is the central idea, the mind’s highway that runs clear and wide from first to last page — while circuitous, pebbbly paths lace around it. Check to see if the writer has created a magnificent forest, but no road into it. The intention needs work if that’s so.

You can read for motive: What do the characters want more than anything?

You can read for rhythm and tension: Does the writer develop a crisis, to draw you into the story? Does the path to the drama feel too short (schematic and false) or too long (which can kill the impact)?

You can read for structure: order and proportions of scenes. Are the scenes which reveal coming too early? Or is scene coming too late, after the you needed information to understand a character?

You can read for theme: something possible to determine even from a few chapters. Bell calls it a leitmotif, a recurrent theme throughout a composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

Finally, you can read for continuity: coherence of tone, characters that feel consistent, an authority to the writing that flows from playing on a single field.

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