editing & writing

by Sara Jenkins

Editing has certain features in common with cutting hair. The client presents raw material in need of clarification, shall we say, which is most often accomplished by skillful subtraction. Of course you can add color and texture and adjust the overall organization. But essentially what the client brings to you, be it hair or text, is what they, and you, have to work with—although a clever operator may create an impression of fullness and body that suggests more than is actually there.

It is good to begin cautiously, inquiring about any special sensitivities; just as some people react negatively to fragrance in hair care products, some authors object to acronyms or the serial comma or lower case initials for eponymous terms. With experience you are guided more intuitively, simply by the feel of the material. Washing, untangling, combing, cutting, even coloring and curling, have their analogs in dealing with words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

It is the mark of the amateur to be influenced by her own preferences, often presented as what is “right.” The professional doesn’t think in terms of right and wrong, but, fully cognizant of the available options and the arbitrariness of style, sizes up the situation, then chooses what is best in the light of many factors. In a way, the professional doesn’t choose at all but operates in an alert, neutral mode, responding in each moment not from the mind, but from a deeper sense of the whole.

Conversation may or may not be involved; that should be up to the client. When you finish, clean up any mess—stray marks, post-its, eraser crumbs—and offer assurance that the job is complete and ready to be seen by the world.

Whereas editing may be like cutting hair, writing has a lot in common with arranging flowers. You’re on your own, and what you work with is yours — not that you literally create the raw material, but from a given body of efflorescence, whether plant or imaginative, you select what to work with. Just as you would gather an armload of flowers from a garden, so do you record pages of written notes, gathering from your experience what attracts you, what is there to be used, placed in a new form, seen in a new context, which you create. Trimming stems and discarding wilted and imperfect specimens is like going through your notes and deleting the obviously unusable so you can see more clearly what is there. More may be needed; you return to the garden for greenery or a few more of a particular blossom, just as you return to the desk to bring into consciousness and onto paper a transition or a figure of speech or a conclusion.

You try the flowers, or the words, this way and that, endlessly patient, seeking the most suitable form for expressing the beauty and truth of your material. As you consider different vases and the shapes of the flowers and foliage, so do you experiment with organization of and within chapters. Sections are moved around to display the main elements to best advantage. When the basic arrangement is in place, increasingly subtle adjustments and refinements are made.

The process takes many, many times longer than you expect. It seems as if you will never get it quite right, but eventually it is finished. The final product may bear little resemblance to the splendid floral arrangement or compelling piece of writing you originally envision