On editing your own work

Editing is both a discipline and an art that centers on clarity and on aesthetics at once. The question of how we express ourselves in writing is problematic and obscure, but we know good writing when we read it and abhor bad writing when we must suffer it. New writers tend to think that a thing is done and written when the words have hit the page and the assignment is done, yet older writers, writers who have been to hell and back and had many things rejected, know that this is only the beginning of writing and that editing must now commence in earnest. It is no crime to change what you have written, and it is no crime to throw away that which obscures our prose or chokes the flow of our ideas. A writer must be his/her toughest critic, unafraid of questioning everything unto the last comma, the last period on the page. Though we may be enthralled, nee, pleased with what we have written, having gotten off a witty idea or turn of a phrase, we must always ask the hard question: does this actually add to our ideas, or have we started off down the road to perdition, to chaos, to a dead end. Perhaps all good writing (and in turn, good editing) starts with a clear objective–a thesis. Obviously, if you don’t know where you are going, there is no chance you will ever get there. A clear thesis can save your writing from a prolonged and agonizing death and make editing both easy and a pleasure. It is never clear, however, that even a good thesis will save a chaotic, fragmented argument from itself. Good editing is often akin to trimming the fat from a good piece of meat: some fat will add flavor and contribute to the aesthetic value of the dish, but cutting too much will cause it to lose it flavor, turning it into a soulless journey through an empiric forest of subjects and verbs that get the job done, but that have done it by stripping away both character and personality from the prose. In other words, editing walks a fine line between producing an edible prose that both delights and teaches and a non-consumable protein dish that you cannot chew and will not swallow. If a text has no life, no character, no spark, then it will bore, and bad prose is doubly bad if it at once bores and wearies no matter how good the ideas might be. The thesis and the supporting evidence will not make it out alive if they are condemned to a dull, dry existence, bereft of adverbs and adjectives, condemned to live without imbedded clauses, infinitive phrases, hopping gerunds, and lively predicates. How does one become a good editor and not a syntactic executioner? I think that the good editor is first a dedicated reader, reading everything, new and old. The old writers have survived because they were well-edited, and the new writers get attention because of their avaunt-guard and innovative ways. Granted, there is nothing new under the sun. This has all been said before, but it is never too late to edit, never too late to re-think your conclusion, never too late to polish up that thesis, never to late to cut an errant adverb or insert a missing adjective. And when you have read it too many times, it is never a bad idea to have someone else read your work and suggest edits, and quid pro quo, why not lend your own editing skills to a friend who might be struggling with their work. Editing is often about the conversations we have with others, so pay it forward, gently offer your help to others. What you learn from their work may be of enormous help when it’s your turn to ask for help.