The artful edit - Susan Bell


[From Introduction]

Writers live with many fears-of success, of failure, of a 10-year project garnering a one- year paycheck. Their greatest fear, however, is of their own intimate voice, and they find many ways to subvert hearing it. Before he takes up the nuts and bolts of revision, a writer must face the metaphysical challenge of gaining perspective on his own words. Let's reflect on the kind of inspiration that may fuel a writer: wrenching memories, transgressive desires, politically incorrect conceits, bad jokes and other aesthetic faux pas. These constitute that painfully intimate voice he would rather avoid. We are loath to put an objective ear to our subjective selves. But to edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgements. As we read our writing, how can we learn to hear ourselves better?

The purpose of The Artful Edit is not to devise a set editorial regimen, but discuss the myriad possibilities of the drafted page and help you acquire the editorial consciousness needed to direct them...The point is to implant the conversation between editor and writer into the writer's head; so that, when the time comes, the writer can split into two and treat himself as a good editor would.


[On clarity:]

The fear of looking stupid leads to another form of muddle: the sentence-stuffed-like-a-turkey syndrome. Many writers stuff five ideas into one sentence because they think the more the smarter. One simple idea, they believe, will sound inadequate, and, worse, banal. But when you put too many ideas into one sentence, each loses its distinction. A battle for attention ensues, where each idea kills off the other and none win. Do not be afraid of being spare. Did Beckett write many long compacted sentences? Try this one about Jordan in The Great Gatsby: "She was incurably dishonest." Four words in one clause; no commas, colons, semi-colons, or dashes. A sentence so curt, yet it conveys everything we ever need to know about Jordan. Also, the two words, "incurably dishonest," call out the very theme of the book: the incurable dishonesty of American life: the sham of America's capitalistic dream that destroys any honest love and lover in its path. Fitzgerald's sentence is simple, but hardly bland. If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly.

If long, convoluted sentences are your natural bent, though, I am not here to sway you in a different direction. I'm here to remind maximalists to think about being clear as well as complex. When you edit, check to see that you're using the long, curvaceous sentence to say something, not as a catch-all for the numerous ideas you've been unable to tease out and trim. In works by writers such as Dave Hickey, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, convoluted phrasing, in essays or fiction, succeed at conveying meaning as clear as glass. In The Spoils of Poynton, James writes, "Knowing the church to be near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way down again, passing through corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night's irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity." This sentence is the alter ego to Fitzgerald's four-word wonder. Both work. While James writes long, he grows each idea from the one that precedes it. The reader does not feel assaulted by the quantity of ideas, but drawn into the logical, linear sweep of them. Complication in and of itself does not preclude clarity. But baroque prose demands tremendous rigor from the writer. If you stuff a sentence, you must know how to do so with complementary ingredients-ideas that do not compete but play off of one another. Above all, as you edit, concentrate on determining when enough is enough.