Editing is Fun and Educational!

Caveat: I am using one sentence of a story I recently edited (it only had three errors though). I do not give the name of the author nor the title of the story. I am mentioning only what I perceived as one glitch in an otherwise talented (and I think young) author. And I am only using it to spin off the resulting ideas that it led me to. Ideas that are largely still half-formed.

I was editing a short story, and though written competently there was something that was bugging me about it. The author felt the need to be exact spatially. Valleys were a kilometer wide, X was three meters to the left, a cliff face was sixty meters, someone was three meters away from someone else, etc. There were 16 instances of this sort of exact measurement.

At first I took it as an author’s quirk and not one I liked very much (because it felt like one of my own). Then it hit me why but it wasn’t just a subjective displeasure of mine. It stood out in the following scene. There is a man standing at the bank of a lake upon a large flat rock, there is a woman in the water below and in front of him, they are talking. And then the following sentence.

She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water about two metres from the edge.

That isn’t necessary and is six words in excess. Here is what I wrote as feedback:

…it conveys mistrust of the reader’s imagination. For instance, the following sentence (the 16th instance of giving specific measurements):  “She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water about two metres from the edge. could have been rendered, “She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water.” The reader will not think she pushed off from the rock with such force that she propelled herself clear across the lake and they are now unable to see or hear each other; the reader will do the necessary work automatically with his own imagination and so the measurement is superfluous. And it shaves 6 words off the sentence!

I should have offered that it may not merely be a case of lack of confidence in the reader’s imagination (although that is the feeling the reader would get) it may be lack of author confidence (something I have unending sympathy with).

But it should be clear that the measurement of two meters is completely unnecessary. The shorter version produces the exact result with less taxation on the reader’s mind freeing it to create the scene in his own imagination. The reader is not forced to either 1) deal with the measurement (am I seeing her too far out? too close to the rock still? does it matter? how long is two meters?) 2) throwing out as irrelevant material provided by the writer.

You don’t want your reader throwing out material. You certainly don’t want the reader getting into the habit of skipping over your words.

Everything suggests importance by the fact of being included. 

I thought about this last night as I was passing out the wrong drinks to the wrong customers and calling people by names they were not given at birth. There is a general principle at work here.

No, not a rule. But a truth. And I confine it here to literature, the written fiction form only (mainly because I haven’t thought it out in any other application). There is no objective or Platonic novel. There is no Gulliver’s Travels or Christmas Carol as it really is.

There are physical copies of these books and they have certain words in a certain order and no other. But they exist in no mind the same.

You could say that the author’s vision (that ever changing thing that gets a snapshot taken of itself) is the objective story and the readers participate as closely as they can to that Form. But that is not what goes on.

Now, before the boat sways wildly to the other side as we humans are wont to do, it needn’t really be said that it does not mean that fiction is pure subjectivity. That the author writes whatever onto paper and it means whatever the reader dreams it up to mean. So if the writer said Jackie went to the store to buy ammo for her gun, the reader is not free to read that as Jackie turned into a hummingbird and went in search of nectar. No, Jackie went to the store to buy ammo – that part is objective – and the reader is bound to it. Unless, of course, somehow, the author meant one thing to mean another, but my example was of normal narrative.

The writer breaks down the whole that stands in his imagination, and we, the reader, put it back together again and in the process have an experience that is both similar and in many ways very different from the author’s experience.

This is the way it is supposed to work so the reader has to be given room to let his own imagination work. That is the pleasure of reading. Unless an item of detail is absolutely essential for the reader to understand or imagine a certain action, idea, item, etc, I would say bold strokes is the best.

Also, let’s consider my other important point.

And it shaves 6 words off the sentence!

I do not need to labor this point at all because it has been immortalized by William Strunk Jr. in The Elements of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I should note in closing that I am much better at seeing this stuff than I am in avoiding it in my own writing. My own writing usually makes me want to hide under a rock and never be seen again! Also the Strunk quote is an ideal I only wish to approximate.

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9 responses to “Editing is Fun and Educational!

  • taichiwawa

    Obviously, I have not read the story you are editing so the following is just idle rumination, not meant to be a criticism of your critique.

    The publication this story is being submitted to focuses on science fiction and philosophy. The concern you have noted is with the quantitative specificity of the narration. This leads me to wonder if the narration is in the “omniscient, anonymous” form. This is often referred to as the God’s eye view and that brings up some interesting avenues of conjecture. What is the ontological standing of mathematical interpretations of relationships between physical objects and how do they impact one’s experience of the world? If a computer were sentient, how would it “see” the world? Are there things in the world that are not quantifiable? If so, what is their ontological standing? How are their properties registered in human consciousness?

    By the way, this “God’s eye view” (the one True perspective) is also used by some to describe what Western philosophy has been generally pursuing since the ancient Greeks. Some say this (as an objective, not as a generative agent behind numerous useful by-products) has been a mistake, an arrogant rejection of unresolvable ambiguities, an intellectual reduction of that which cannot be fully intellectualized.

    If there is any connection between this commentary and the story you are editing, I will leave it to you to make; I haven’t got a clue. I was just wondering if some of the questions posed above might be alluded to in a work of fiction by means of an intentionally designed narrative style.

    • bensira587

      The story is part of a serialization; specifically chapters 4 & 5 of, I guess, a novella, perhaps a novel. I haven’t read the first three chapters. So I don’t have the whole story. But in the two chapters I worked on, I could see no indication that it served any design purpose.

      Basically this guy climbs up a ladder from an underground portal of some sort and he explores his new surroundings. It is in the first person narrative. He sees a valley floor that is X kilometers (the author is obviously from overseas) long, that thing is a centimeter long, that is two meters away, she pushed off from the rock two meters, etc.

      All indications tell me he has (probably unaware) or feels, rather, a need to be specific to such a degree because otherwise the reader will not understand what he is trying to convey. I don’t think it is a style issue either (and, as always, I could be wrong, there may be a reason unknown to me, and he can tell me to suck it). Obviously not everything we write can be chalked up to style, some are… what? It is hard to articulate. Mistakes. Misunderstanding about the job? I don’t know.

      One thing I do know is I have looked back at stuff I have read that stood out as vivid to my mind and I have seen what the author originally provided me with. The reader brings a LOT to the table (is this a subject? are there books on such things? I just make my own observations but I might be reinventing the wheel…) and there are countless ways for something to be conveyed. I just don’t think quantitative (outside of some designed integral purpose – a specific plot related reason) specifications is a good way to go.

      Some say this (as an objective, not as a generative agent behind numerous useful by-products) has been a mistake…

      That’s just Skepticism in new clothing. We have to make certain declarations with as much certainty as we can muster (through observation, reasoning, even imagination and other means) for whatever we are considering.

      Note that such a New Clothing is just as sweeping as that which it is criticizing. You have philosophers who say Reality is X, and you have the philosophers who say We can’t know X. Then along comes the modern and says the exact same thing as these two and thinks he has said something new. Well, he hasn’t, he’s just changed his target from reality to the subject (philosophy) itself.

      I take that line as an attack on man’s mind itself. It is basically saying that we cannot attain a level of abstraction sufficient to escape our own subjectivism (hence, God’s eye view) when attempting to get to the real. We can attain such a level, one man did it – Aristotle (in his fundamentals).

      In another sense they have already been answered from the other side as well. It was Kant who said we can never perceive reality apart from our means of perceiving reality, and he is most certainly right. We cannot even conceive of what it would mean to perceive a reality without our means of perceiving reality. We are locked into our categories (I say that without purchasing Kant’s particular take on categories).

      Look at how many theories and views of reality they are rejecting by such a stand. They are saying a hundred times, “no, reality is not that, no, not that”. It is really no different than the usually skeptic claims that are self-contradictory because they use what they deny.

      Man can’t be certain!

      Are you certain?

      Postscript: I also do not think everything can be reduced to a nice formula. There are ambiguities, there are mysteries, some of these, I believe, will always be just that. You cannot fully intellectualize the whole of existence except in the most basic of ways. Even what I said is God’s eye view!

      You can’t escape it! It is a criticism against the human brain itself!

      What is the ontological standing of mathematical interpretations of relationships between physical objects and how do they impact one’s experience of the world? If a computer were sentient, how would it “see” the world? Are there things in the world that are not quantifiable? If so, what is their ontological standing? How are their properties registered in human consciousness?

      Interesting questions! To be followed up in a future blogpost.

  • taichiwawa

    Regarding description in writing: What is sufficient and what is too much? Strunk and White’s proscriptive solution is equivalent to “use the right amount of words.” Easy, right? But, though all readers of fiction are along for the ride, some are there for the activity (the figurative traffic signs, movement, twists and turns) while others want to enjoy the scenery along the way. Though the reader can often “fill-in-the-blanks” as you say, he/she may also appreciate a poetic evocation, an immersion into a detailed world their own imagination may not have likewise furnished.

    As in filmmaking, the production rule of thumb is: Make more material than you need, then you will have more to manipulate (including much cutting) during the editing process.

    • bensira587

      You know this kind of thing is my favorite subject matter, right?

      If you are referring to my original post… I should amend that. I stated a personal preference with the “bold strokes” comment. I’m also not a big fan of direct description, except in small doses, I prefer the indirect, and even the misdirect, or even description by contradiction, analogy, allusion, caricature. By direct description I mean the recitation of attributes, “She was tall with wavy brown hair, hazel eyes, a straight but petite nose over full lips…”

      I see that I only gave a half a picture, the cutting part.

      The author’s detail, I thought, was unnecessary – redundant even. And it was a cold detail. I said I shaved six words off the sentence, but he could rewrite it resulting in the sentence being twice as long as the original and it could be an improvement. My version was merely an amputation of needless excess.

      That said I really don’t disagree with anything you said above.

      Except for one thing… ha! ha! ha! I don’t think Strunk and White’s proscription is equivalent to “use the right amount of words”. I think it would be clearer to say “make every word count”. And that would mean to get rid of the ones that don’t. It doesn’t mean you can’t go into the parts and beauty of the rose flower, or into the mind of an unbridled maiden, or the contents of a dresser drawer or any of a number of things.

      I think of their proscription as a tool (sort of like Occam’s razor) to keep in mind AFTER one has written their piece and are editing. I think it would be as a toxic gas on first drafts.

      • taichiwawa

        Of course, bad writing is bad writing regardless of whether it’s verbose or too spare. But professionally adequate styles (“good” is a debatable quality when it comes to matters of taste) can range from Hemingway and Clancy to Tolkien and Tolstoy.

        Too many notes.

      • taichiwawa

        “She was tall with wavy brown hair, hazel eyes, a straight but petite nose over full lips…”

        Here’s one of my descriptions from the book I’ll probably never finish:

        Then he sees her eyes — sad, kind, wise, beautiful. He has heard about eyes that can look into your soul, but this is the first time he understands. She, in turn, sees the moony expression on his face and she smiles — knowingly, but with generosity, not disdain.

  • taichiwawa

    Somewhat related:

    I was watching a program on TV about film editing and was fascinated by Robert Leighton’s account of how he edited the Chris Guest satirical documentaries. He said all of the scenes followed a loose outline but were improvised and filmed a number of times. Then each version of every scene was edited. By the end of the process, they (Leighton and Guest) had a feel for which versions of scenes belonged together to produce an integrated whole.

    • bensira587

      It is Sir Christopher Guest to you, 5th Baron-Haden-Guest, or Lord Haden Guest. I’m not kidding the guy holds a hereditary peerage.

      I love the Guest Mockumentaries. Great understated humor. Except for Spinal Tap, which was overstated, but that is the great understated joke of the film because it is about heavy metal.

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