Editing as an Act of Compassion

From Ray Bradbury’s book “Zen in the Art of Writing”.

Up until recently, editing for me was a process tinged with a feeling of “losing something” or of being a “bad writer,” especially when it came to cutting out more than half of my book.

I started thinking about how I feel while reading different books, blog posts, and articles.

There are some pieces of writing that make me want to run out and buy every book the author wrote, read or recommended. There are other pieces that lead me to feel foggy and confused, perhaps even before I’ve gotten all the way through them.

Which Writers Keep You Coming Back For More?

For me, it is not about genre or even content. It is about the writer’s ability to seamlessly take over my world. Their sentences go down smooth and easy. There is nothing out of place, nothing that demands extra effort. I am reading a finished product and yet I feel that I am just breathing, or walking into a room of my home that I never noticed. The hours of editing are invisible because they were successful.

The desirable writer is using more of their time in order to respect mine.

Every useless sentence that I cut from my book is another moment of someone’s life that I am refusing to waste. The reader is trusting me to distill the good stuff, and my goal is to not let them down.

From Tom Waits’ song called “Time.” Tori Amos does a great cover of it.

Coming To Terms

This is the hard part. If I want to make editing decisions based on the integrity of my writing and my reader’s time and energy, then there are a lot of mistaken notions to let go of. Some of them include:

  • I wasted my time writing this whole draft.
  • I am a crappy writer because, well, look at all this stuff I have to cut out!
  • This is nuts and I should keep it all because every sentence is valuable and the editing is making it worse.
  • At this rate, I will actually just never finish. Ever.

I know that these things are not true. In fact, it may even become easier to move forward with my book because now I have in my hand the knife that can chisel away at those useless sentences and cut the brilliant designs into the ones I do choose to keep.

My readers are important. I intend to respect their time just as much as I am respecting my words and experiences.

Is Editing Harder For Me Than For Others?

Maybe one part of the underlying cause for this issue is the fact that reading good writing feels like reading easy writing. “You make it look so easy!” is the phrase often said to those who have actually put thousands of hours of effort into their craft; whether it is writing, biking, running, spinning fire poi, or anything else.

We spend our lives reading good writing, thinking that the authors just spilled it out on the first try. It seems logical that our writing should be just as easy to create; just as effortless as we perceive theirs to be. In doing this, we are attempting to live in a fantasy world. Of course, we are writers, and living in our fantasy world is precisely what we are good at! But in this case, perhaps we are best off fessing up to reality. We can extract the most powerful components from our work and leave the rest behind so that we may inspire other potential writers to think it is easy and join us in this world where magic tricks are performed in the shadows of every paragraph.

All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration.” – Ray Bradbury

What kind of writing keeps you coming back for more?

Do you have mistaken notions to let go of concerning editing for your blog or book?

How has your idea of editing changed throughout the course of working on your writing?

I am curious!

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49 thoughts on “Editing as an Act of Compassion

  1. As I write more and read better quality, I edit more heavily. It’s true that no one wants to waste time reading heavy sentences. A few of those in a row and we start skimming.
    I like writing that creates an emotional connection to me, yet feels effortless. And then, content seems almost secondary.

    • Exactly! I feel much the same way. There’s just such a palpable difference between reading an edited book/blog/article and reading one that just came out as is. It’s fun to have something to strive towards!

  2. A very timely post for me! I am in the last stages of a line edit of my novel. The last draft, perhaps the best of the incarnations, came in at 90,200 words. Chaff comes to mind! I am down to 82,200 with perhaps several chapters to go. I am not only saving time for my potential readers, as you suggest, but I am also saving myself some embarrassment! It’s a tough but necessary lesson. I hope it is beneficial. I appreciate your perspective of not wanting to waste people’s time – it makes it easier. I’m helping someone rather than stroking my own misplaced ego!

    • Haha exactly! Thinking of others helps me as well. Of course, I did save a version of the wicked long unedited cut so that I can see it whenever I want…it just doesn’t have to be what the general public witnesses :)

  3. I don’t recall ever hearing such wonderfully concise and applicable principles for editing in any of my high school or college level courses. Kudos. For me, editing is no more or less what the sculptor does to that block of marble or stone in which he clearly sees a face, a form, and chips away until it emerges. Freedom for me is the key. Freedom to play, to cavort with words with a background awareness of the beholder’s eye – which awareness you beautifully capture with the idea of compassion for the reader. Thank you, Jennifer!

  4. I enjoy and look forward to the editing process. Editing uses a different part of my brain than I use when I am writing raw material. I think (hope) what may change as I mature further as a writer is that I will become more efficient at it, more wise to my own shortcomings and to common pitfalls I’m vulnerable to. And to avoid the sense of having wasted time on material (oh, the witty, clever, brilliant material) that ends up needing to be cut, I paste it into a jumble of a file I call “the boneyard” and save it there. So you see, I don’t “kill my darlings,” I just put them into storage. I will probably never use 99.9% of what’s in there, but this approach takes some of the sting out of hitting the “delete” key for me.

    • Ah yes, I save my cut-out pieces as well! I figure that perhaps they can find a home in a short story someday, or simply be there in case I feel the need to read them. And like you, I also hope to become more efficient at writing concisely. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel that I’ve improved a teeny bit in a few short days. A good sign, indeed!

  5. “Using more of their time in order to respect mine.” What a brilliant way of looking at it. You make some excellent observations here, because I think we all at times wonder if it’s this hard for everyone else. It’s comforting to know it is :)

    • Ah yes, and I really should have mentioned that part of my inspiration was seeing your post “The Miserable Bits of Memoir Writing” [http://writerreaderbakerbride.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/the-miserable-bits-of-memoir-writing/#comment-1118]
      I had been reading books on writing and tips on writing, and suddenly things came together as I read your post and realized that yes, I can cut things out for other people and it actually is for their sake, not mine, and I can be less attached to those words that have already served their purpose merely by coming out of me. That was truly wonderful!

  6. That’s such a great point Jennifer. It’s a refreshing look at editing. I hate editing personally. I feel like I should be getting it right the first time. But your article inspires me to embrace it xx

  7. Very good post – as always, makes me think. That concept on editing for your audience as to not bore them with unnecessary aspects of a written piece – I don’t think I ever thought of editing in that kind of like. Really interesting and well thought out. In regards to your questions, I’ll bite – The kind of writing that keeps me coming back is a style that is unique to that particular author. Of course, it would have to be entertaining, partially humorous but serious when necessary and keeps you guessing and ensnared in the imaginative plot. However, I really enjoy writing that is different. Anyone can write something – but not everyone can write differently than anyone else. Sometimes you can read several different pieces from several different authors, and with the tone, the writing style and the word use, you could almost believe that such pieces were conceived by the same writer. So, uniqueness – that is what does it for me.
    Moreover, my editing notions – I would like to think I have them under wraps. If I was been serious though, I would have to say that I am not a serious editor of my pieces. It ain’t that I purposefully leave spelling errors and bad grammar lying around – it’s that I still can’t really chop out pieces of my writing that is unnecessary. In university, I was taught one thing by my Media Writing lecturer. John Weldon his name was, and he called this particular editing style ‘killing off your darlings’. Basically, you find that one sentence in the entire document you have made which makes you think ‘wow!’ And then you terminate it with extreme prejudice. Supposedly, after removing your fav line ever from your piece, removing everything else will come easy. I however am still yet to master this concept, along with the concept of deleting parts of my work period.
    Furthermore, I would like to imagine that my editing style, although has not been perfectly refined as mentioned in the paragraph above, is more experienced and mature than from years past and that I can make my writing more literally interesting and accurate with proper grammar and a wider vocabulary. People to this day ask me to proof read their pieces and I would like to think it was due to this – I remember last year, a fellow student who I had a crush on, asked me to critique her assignment for one of our PR classes – and in the end, she received a higher mark than I did!
    Anyway, their just my opinions, and again, very good post!

    • Thank you for such awesomely formed comments! :) I like your style, and uniqueness is important for me too. Especially when it is readable and actually thought-provoking, instead of being incredibly full of shortcuts that I don’t understand. “Killing off your darlings” has me laughing. I considered doing it as I was editing my book today, and found myself finding my second-favorite sentence to kill off, and then realized that I love those darlings too much to let them go! But it is fun to think about and to consider, and I really like the point of it. I have a very hard time chopping things, and even being able to tell what is necessary and what is not, but it is cool that we all have this experience in different ways, and that we all improve at it. Very cute story about the girl :)

  8. yeah, u do make this look so easy! :)
    I agree with u. U know, I realized very recently that more editing than writing does not make me a bad writer, rather it polishes my skills..

    • Haha if I make it look easy, I must be getting better! Some of my older posts are so unedited, I feel silly looking back at them. And yes, it is so easy to think that editing for hours means we are bad writers, but really, it is the only way to be a good writer! Unless you are one of the magical ones that gets it right the first time…which is probably hard, if not impossible. :) Thank you as always for coming by and reading these words!

  9. Thoughtful post. I think this concept is also true for webinars and presentations. When I listened to one today, I felt the originator was wasting my time. She talked too much and said too little. She was selling coaching and another event, but I decided not to further waste my time, If she’d taken the time to edit her talk and cut back on repetition and “sales pitches”, it would have been far more interesting. You’ve given me food for thought for my own writing.

    • Giving people food for thought is pretty much my priority, so thank you for making my day! I was reading a little while ago that one sign you are a good writer is if you can spot “bad writing.” I don’t necessarily fully agree with that, but one thing that is great about going to a talk like you mentioned is that you yourself will be far less likely to give a presentation of such a nature. So that’s good!

  10. Pingback: The edits I need to make « Heart Mama

  11. Thank you for this. The older I get, the more obsessed with editing I become. Honestly. I’ve started to edit my thoughts before they even reach the paper. Ugh. It’s a hindrance for me, but I feel like I can’t do it any other way.

    • Maybe that is what really works for you? I’ve been reading “On Writing” by Stephen King and there is one part where he says that he learned the first draft is for him, and then the next one is for the reader. That mentality is still hard for me but it does work well for fiction. I’m sure everyone is different though. Being aware of different ways of doing the process helps me a lot, and I bet that if you wanted to do it differently, you could, by trying to intentionally do something else :) I do recommend the “On Writing” book, even though I’m less than 1/2 way through it. Thanks for coming by!

  12. I think for me, the hardest part of editing is learning to turn off that inner voice that just says “Oh, my god. You suck. This is the worst thing you’ve ever written. Scrap everything and never write again.” :)

  13. I agree with wordhaver that editing is a form of sculpting. I often think of it as a liquid format. You need an outline, or form, but you also need creative space to allow for spontanaiety. I think of it more like clay than marble, because I often picture slapping on a huge layer of clay before going back and carefully sculpting what I want to say. And sometimes, I smudge that away. Editing is a continual process that is never done.

    • Ah, yes. Perhaps “done enough” is the magic point. I like the idea of clay as well. And maybe reading things about editing is like getting new little sculpty tools instead of only having your hands.

      • The nice thing about writing instead of sculpting is that you can have your ‘boneyard’. I keep a file too. It makes the removal a lot easier. It also means you can put something back in after you change it.

  14. Jen…donde esta? I have missed you voice…and your wonderful mind. I am leaving for Peru in a week and will be gone for two weeks. Keep in touch! And…keep writing! Steve.:)

    • Aw Steve have fun!! I am looking at your blog now, I have been thinking about it but it always gets swamped out of my reader with other posts, I suppose. But I’ll catch up on what I’ve missed, I hope you have a fabulous time! Bring back some lightening bugs!

  15. This post makes a great point. If I’m perfectly honest about my reading habits, I *start* reading as many as 40-50 blog posts a day and make it to the bottom of less than half. The reason I don’t make it to the bottom is that the writer usually goes off track or simply takes too long to say a very simple thing. I get bored and click the X button.

    Good editing is a huge help. Keeping your readers in mind, as you brilliantly suggested, is a key component of that. Another helpful tip: Write a focus sentence for whatever you are about to write and do NOT deviate from that. If a sentence, phrase, or even word, gets in the way of getting to your point more quickly, cut it. Cut it with a vengeance, like it is the very thing stopping you from being the amazing writer you are. This is generally more helpful for shorter bit of writing like blogs, magazines stories, news articles, and short stories. But maybe it could be applied on a chapter-by-chapter basis to longer works.

    I’ve also heard that “kill your darlings” phrase before. It’s a good one too.

    • This is such a good thing to think about. “Cut it with a vengeance, like it is the very thing stopping you from being the amazing writer that you are.” I absolutely need to read that each and every day. I will probably make a little card that says it and stick it on the wall near my computer. Also, the one-sentence thing. That seems like it could be useful even for longer books, especially making a new sentence chapter-by-chapter.
      I share reading habits with you – I start reading a lot, and then sometimes, I’ll skip to the end, or read the first sentence of each paragraph. You can tell when you are reading writing that someone put care into, I think. Even if it’s not grammatically correct, it doesn’t even matter. If it’s good and well-executed, then it feels nourishing to read. Otherwise, it feels like I stumbled upon someone’s diary, and that they don’t even know I’m there. And that is just…uncomfortable.

  16. very important points raised. I have same issues regarding my editing though I more haste in publishing my blog posts. The content without doubt is the key and especially what the reader wishes to read but the writer shouldn’t get bogged down due to it. Writing form me is always about freedom. Things which I want to talk about, things which I like and it is nice when people come to one’s blog and like what you have posted. :)

  17. I think the above comments need to be edited: :)

    very important points raised. I have same issues regarding my editing though I am more haste in publishing my blog posts and comments. The content without doubt is the key and especially what the reader wishes to read but the writer shouldn’t get bogged down due to it. Writing for me is always about freedom. Things which I want to talk about, things which I like and it is nice when people come to one’s blog and like what you have posted :)

  18. One of the suggestions that often crops up in “how to write” books is to read one’s work aloud when beginning the editing process. I’ve started doing that, and wow, it’s amazing how many errors I find.

  19. My biggest editing hurdle is the desire to start editing too soon. I began serious voluntary writing with poetry so would write a few hundred words thinking carefully (sometimes for minutes) about each one, before starting editing. This does not work so well for prose, so I am still working on bashing out the first draft before going back to make changes.

    One technique that helps me let go of a negative perspective is versioning: instead of replacing the draft I copy it into a new document and create a new draft based on the old. The previous drafts might never be read again, but knowing they exist as a version of the work prevents my inner critic from claiming I throw away much of my work, so must be a bad writer.

    • I like that method! I’ve been doing that lately as well, and also trying to notice my favorite sentences. Often times, it seems that my favorite sentences that I’ve written actually make other things harder because of what they imply, and getting rid of them smooths things out..it’s strange. Such a process!

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