Monday, August 6, 2012

Another Kind of Editing

Everyone who has ever been a writer, or done any kind of creative work, is well aware of the true bane of such pursuits…editing and revisions!  Actually, I think we can all admit that editing is not that bad; it’s just that it’s a never ending proposition, so we easily tire of it.   

However, since I’ve been editing all summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process.  In some ways I think that we prove ourselves real artists when we make the commitment to critique and perfect our work, five times over if need be.  It’s easy to act on the original creative impulse, after all.  Going back and channeling that creativity into its best form is much more of a labor of love, since it’s time-consuming and monotonous, and we have to look at our own efforts with a severe eye. 

Young artists are a bit like ducklings: cute and clueless!
I’d imagine that young artists in any genre feel reluctant to do serious editing.  I know I felt that way until even this summer.  On the other hand, I was always aware that I needed to edit my prose, even if I wasn’t as active or motivated about doing it as I should have been.  Poetry was another matter altogether.

I consider myself a novelist who dabbles in poetry.  Inspiration for a poem comes to me fairly regularly, and I spend a day or two getting it recorded and tweaking it until I’m happy with the way it reads.  Then I save the file on my computer, share it with friends, post it to deviantArt, and that’s about the last I think of it.  As a dedicated writer, I knew that I should be going back later and editing the poems to smooth out rough spots and correct word choice and such, but I never did.  Poetry for me seemed more like a sort of inspired burst which refreshes my mind and gets my creative powers working, rather than something to pursue for its own sake. 

That doesn’t mean I haven’t considered attempting to publish my poetry, though.  Most people who read it tell me they like it (some more than my prose, which is a touch discouraging, I admit), so I figured that I probably could polish it up and eventually make a small collection.  Probably that would even be a good exercise for me – to treat my poetry with the same commitment I treat my prose, in other words. 

The chief problem about this ambition, though, was that for years whenever I did review my poetry I always thought, ‘Well, really, this is pretty good.  Do I even need to fix it?’  I lacked a critical eye.  Also, I made the excuse that the original inspiration for the poem had been totally expended in writing it.  I couldn’t possibly go back and find that inspiration again in order to dismantle and rebuild the poem with it!  Oh, the excuses we make for ourselves…

This summer has brought a breakthrough, though, I’m happy to report.  Perhaps because I’ve also gained enough experience as a writer to realize that when I edit my stories I need to be able to cut out extraneous and non-essential material, it suddenly seemed much more imperative that I be able to do the same thing for poetry.  I think the skills for revision actually cross between genres. 

In a fit of industry a week or two ago, after several hours of editing The Art of Dying, I suddenly thought, ‘I should open up my favorite poem and see what I can do to improve it.’  I was expecting maybe 20 minutes of work, but instead I ended up spending some 2 hours reworking almost every line.  The end result says the same thing as the original form, but I think it says it better – more naturally, more fluidly.  Since then I haven’t yet had time to look through other poems of mine, but I’m feeling optimistic that I’ve reached a point where I can preserve their meaning while perfecting their form. 
My poem was about the beauty of a springtime landscape like this!
Now, you may ask why I’m telling you all this.  Everyone knows that editing is important, of course, so maybe it seems that I’m preaching to the choir.  However, I do have a point to make. 

An idea which is important to me, and which has perhaps snuck into many of my blog posts, is integration.  I find that if I make all the different aspects of my life work together, instead of segregating them, I get more done and enjoy better results, and I'm not alone in this, I know.  This even applies to editing.  If I keep a watchful eye on all my creative endeavors, instead of just one, then I develop the habit of revising and perfecting work, and it becomes much less of a chore – more of an automatic reaction. 

I even edit my cooking, though these muffins were perfect!
I like to sew and to cook and to write prose and poetry.  All of those undertakings require editing: in cooking, maybe some spice wasn’t adjusted quite right, so next time the dish is made I have to use a more careful hand with it.  In sewing, I don’t get a set of seams lined up quite right, so I have to rip them out and try again.  In writing, of course, we have a general sense of what didn’t work in the narrative, and we revise it with more or less grumbling. 

If we aim for perfect work in all these realms, though, don’t you think we'll learn to recognize perfection when we reach it?  That way, our task will become much simpler overall.  We’ll develop a sense for things, so that we can easily identify when a project is good enough and when it’s not.  That sense will become honed with plentiful practice. 

That at least is my experience: my practice in editing has led me to be able to revise and improve all my writing, even finally my poetry.  It’s a good feeling, and one which I hope all my fellow writers and artists share with me.  


  1. this was really interesting to read! I am both a novellist and a poet and yes, I would wholeheartedly agree that revision technique crosses the genres. I have to say though that I find poetry revision a lot easier to do that novel...! for me poetry is the refresher when I need a break from long fiction. all the best with your revisions! I will try and pop back here regularly - thank you so much for your comments and like at my blogs!

    1. Thank you for the comment! I'm not surprised you find poetry revision easier - I think if I practiced it more, I would too. It's just...I am lazy about editing, heh. I'm working on being better though!

  2. Once when a Hhmumm...vanity publisher edited a piece (that didn't get included in the ridiculously overpriced volume because I wouldn't buy a copy of 40 gazillion other poets just to see my name in print for one poem)they completely and utterly 'messed up the form and format' - I generally only write a page worth at any given time and most of the time I am satisfied with it...perhaps that comes with writing for over forty years? I guess I could try editing some of my *hahem* older stuff - but to have someone else edit 'my babies' or to pay someone else to do it...I'm not ready to take that flying leap just yet. But then I'm also not to worried about getting paid for what I write because I just have so much darn fun doing things the way I've been doing them.
    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful read.

    1. On my latest novel I was following your editing method more. I wrote a 2 to 5 page chapter and then I went over it and polished it right away. I feel much more confident about the writing quality about it than any of my older stuff, actually, so I hope to continue in a similar way with future writing!

      Also, even though I do want to be published, I too feel great reluctance about handing over my writing to a professional editor. It's a nerve-wracking thought, but it also inspires me to try to make my work as high quality as possible so that hopefully not TOO much editing by others will be needed!

  3. Just poked my nose in your draft and other poem I'm not sure which is the first - I like the draft better because I think it tells more of a story. But then that is coming from one who likes to craft story verse. Cheers.

    1. Actually after letting both forms of the poem rest for a couple of weeks, now I'm conflicted because I like the original version AND the new version - but for different reasons. So I'll just keep both I guess! The hazards of editing...