Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Editing 101: Make Your Darling Bleed

Writers of all sorts often find it necessary to "kill their darlings" by removing well-written passages that don't contribute to the plot, trimming sentences, cutting entire chapters, or scrapping the whole thing and starting over again. I've heard the "kill your darlings" advice countless times in the past decade, and I'm only now beginning to fully grasp it. As a writer, a part of you must remain objective and focused. Objectively, does everything in the work contribute to the purpose of the work? Are you focused on your assertion, your structure, and your goal? Your love for something you created is irrelevant. If it's not working, your love alone will not save it. Sometimes, as they say, you have to be cruel to be kind. I'm finalizing Put the Body on the Slab: The Anatomy of College Writing this week. We're pushing up the release date, and I've been working hard to make sure it's presentable. After the second draft, I was pleased with the content, but not happy with the work. Despite Jasie's reassurances, I didn't feel like it was the best it could be or the best I was capable of. I set it aside for a little while and focused on other projects, but a few nights ago I knew it was time to return. I wasn't going to kill my darling, but I knew I would have to make it bleed red.

I chose these two pages at random. It could have been any two pages because no sentence was spared my wrath. If the sentence was passive, I made it active. If a sentence contained my favorite filler words, especially just, I deleted them. If it began with And, But, or Because, I rewrote it. Honestly, it wasn't a hardship. I love revising sentences and dealing with other level two issues. How you say it is as important as what you say. Ninety percent of the sentences I revised were grammatically correct and contained necessary information (the other ten percent was just crap). I didn't change the content, I didn't cut any content, and I didn't focus on structure. Yet, I trimmed approximately one thousand words, and the book is better for it. The prose is tight and it flows well.
It's not easy or quick. As a process, it takes time, patience, and attention to detail. The manuscript is only 15,000 words, but I spent an entire night working on it. At least seven solid hours without a break or distraction. Not everybody has seven solid hours to spend on this sort of project--but I do and that's why I'm happy to spend the time on your work as well. I consider myself to be a good writer. I make a living as a writer, I enjoy writing, I teach writing, and it's my number one passion, my only true hobby. But I'll never be so good that I can just churn out a single draft and declare it satisfactory. Very few writers are that brilliant. Even grammatically correct sentences may need more work. Editing isn't about fixing mistakes, catching typos, or destroying the work you love. It's not about "killing darlings" at all, as a matter of fact. It's about elevating your work to the highest standard.

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