Monday, July 22, 2013

Edit, don't Analyze

As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot about the “art” and “craft” of writing. I tend to like the simpler, Neil Gaimanesque advice that basically says if you want to be a writer, start writing. Start writing words down on paper, one after the other.

It’s rare to find editing advice that’s as valuable and pithy as that. May have found some today, in the form of a letter sent from historian Bernard deVoto, sent to H.G. Merriman, a University of Montana professor, concerning the craft of editing.
Here’s the pithy bit:
I suppose a born editor has a faculty of judgment that is not analytical.
That really seems counterintuitive, given what most of us think about editing, and, indeed, given what Mr. deVoto himself writes about the craft in this same letter. He does offer a few tidbits into what he means, however:
[A good editor] must know good stuff when he sees it, and good not only absolutely but also relatively to the magazine he works for and its audience. What is more important, he must be able to see the good elements in a manuscript that may be obscured by the bad elements or by inexpert writing. He must be fertile in suggesting areas and subject which are topical, or which can be interestingly written up, and he must eventually develop skill, or perhaps intuition, at knowing who can write about them or get interested in them.
Yes, absolutely there is a lot of the analytical in this passage. But I like what he says and what he intones about intuition – a good editor, like a good writer, just knows what works and what doesn’t, and aims his or her craft at winnowing out what doesn’t work and preserving what does.
He also says this:
People who talk a hell of a lot about writing, and especially those who talk about exquisite perceptions, style, or, in general, “the esthetic” are likely to be neither [a writer nor an editor], and are pretty certain to fail if they try to be editors.
Interesting, interesting. He sees writer-editors as separate beings – indeed, cautioning would-be editors not to associate with would-be writers, but rather with musicians, artists, the learned, and “important passersby from the great world” where they can hear and interpret the news and the world not through the eyes of writers which, I have to confess, are typically accompanied with blinders the size of Dumbo’s ears.
This, of course, makes sense. Writers tend to congregate, as do artists and musicians, but that tends to bring us into echo chambers where the mediocre continue to wallow in mediocrity (unless you can find that rare group, such as the Tolkien/Lewis Inklings where brutal honesty is the norm). So. Wide and broad associations.

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