The Story of a Story: Editing as Creative Pursuit

by Maria Harrast | 9/27/17 2:20am


It’s happened to the best of us. Sitting in Berry at 11 p.m., earbuds jammed in and coffee an arm’s length away, we slide out our laptops and open up an unfinished essay, prepared for a long night of re-wording paragraphs and restructuring sentences. As the night drags on, the comments in the margin begin to blur together and the words on the screen start to lose their meaning; we skip over a few passages and forget to refine our focus, add a word that’s out of place and confuse our voice. We miss out on fully developing our work because the final draft is due tomorrow, and we don’t have the time nor the energy to fully devote ourselves to the process. As the hours pass by, and we reach the end of our attention span, we ask ourselves the evergreen question: why didn’t I start editing sooner?

The process of editing is one that students often overlook, but in many regards, it is a process that should be given the same respect as the act of writing itself. Whether it be a creative piece or long-form magazine article or fiction novel, the editing process plays a central role in all kinds of written work.

For professional writers, the revision process takes an extended period of time. English professor Jeff Sharlet, editor and frequent magazine contributor, said that a long-form magazine story is tirelessly revised before publication. For example, Sharlet said that an article in The New Yorker easily goes through 10 to 30 drafts before appearing in the magazine.

Regarding his own writing, Sharlet dedicates extensive time to the editing stage to ensure every aspect of the piece fits and flows.

“[My editor and I] spent months on a story that was maybe 8,000 words … we would talk on the phone for 45 minutes about one comma — going back and forth, thinking about it and digressing, arguing,” Sharlet said. “We [would read] the words out loud, trying to hear the breath and trying to imagine how the reader [would] encounter them.”

But in a process that may take professional writers months or years to complete, how do they know where to begin? English professor Thomas O’Malley, director of creative writing, believes that the writer must be fully involved in the work before even considering starting revisions.

“Usually the editing begins in a place where you’re already very immersed in the work,” he said. “It’s almost telling you what is absent and needs to be fully realized. Editing isn’t a process of simple revision, it’s rather a different type of immersion, a fuller immersion.”

Similarly, English professor William Craig believes it is a mistake for writers to begin editing before completing a first draft.

“There’s a certain amount of editing that is almost physical,” he said. “We’re playing with the words as we put them on the page. There’s a certain amount of fussing that goes on. The trick is not letting that go on further. I try not to get involved in the editing process until the draft is complete. It’s a terrible self-sabotage to edit before you’re done.”

As the revision process progresses, the writer may choose to edit for different aspects with each subsequent draft. Craig believes that editing for sense and form often happens in the second or third draft, while more elusive aspects, such as voice, are often developed over time and become more apparent as the writer delves into the revision process.

O’Malley believes multiple drafts are necessary for the writer to become more objective in his edits. By the sixth or seventh draft, he says that the writer develops a greater sense of what should remain and what should be cut.

“Each draft is more of a focus of clarity,” he said. “You become less attached to your own work; there’s less ego involved. It’s when you’re speaking only solely for and from the work, and as a writer yourself, where you can be the most cruel to your own work.”

At some point, every writer must decide to finish the article or end the story, and depending on the kind of writing, this sense of completion comes about in different ways. For O’Malley, a book is complete when his mind is no longer generating material or ideas for his work.

“I feel the story is done when I’m not hearing in the middle of the night another part of the narrative being spoken to me,” O’Malley said. “I’m not going to bed thinking about it, or dreaming about it, or waking up thinking about it, but actually other stories are coming in, almost as if my psyche is opening up to new possibilities.”

For other kinds of writing, oftentimes the writer must end the process as a matter of necessity.

“It’s generally a process of surrender,” Craig said. “The editor or publisher are waiting on the deadline, or you’ve come to the end of the time and energy you have for this project, and you say ‘enough.’”

The relationship between a writer and his or her editor is essential to producing the ideal final product. Sharlet believes that the most effective author-editor relationships are ones in which neither person is afraid to argue with the other.

“[My editors have had] that intensity about what’s at stake and caring about the story and being able to survive the arguments,” Sharlet said. “With a good editor, it’s a collaborative art. Usually there’s some level of compromise, [but] I would say seven times out of 10, with the distance of time, I realize that the compromise was correct.”

While it may be easy to assume that those with the most writing experience make for the best editors, there are certain characteristics that distinguish great editors from great writers.

“Great editors have analytic minds,” Craig said. “Whether they’re writers or not writers, they tend to look at works with an eye towards understanding how the greatest components of structure and design harmonize with the most particular, minute components of language and expression.”

Sharlet echoed the thoughts of Craig and even more firmly believes that the best editors do not need to be writers themselves.

“Unquestionably, the best editors are not people with the same [writing] experience,” Sharlet said. “The editor has a perspective — a simultaneous sense of intimacy with that level of the sentence and the subject and the moment and a distance — that a writer might find in revision but doesn’t usually find in the act of creation.”

In contrast, with editing for creative writing, O’Malley believes that creative writers make the best creative editors. When O’Malley reaches his final draft, he often asks for feedback from a few trusted writers before bringing the copy to his editor.

“[Creative writers] understand that [creative writers are] reading beyond basic content and reading beyond basic language and meaning,” he said. “[They ask] if these sentences actually reverberate with what is happening psychologically, emotionally in this moment.”

Students may not have access to professional writers or editors, but there are still many ways they can improve their writing and editing. Sharlet’s advice to students in the editing process is to read their work out loud to an unbiased party.

“You need to read out loud to someone else … because that is more difficult than reading it out loud in the privacy of your room,” Sharlet said. “A mistake that students often make, and that writers often make, is that they find someone who likes them too much. My mentor would say, ‘Find somebody who loves you but not too much.’”

Additionally, Craig believes that students with good time management skills will have the greatest success in their writing.

“Editing simply doesn’t happen unless we make as much time for it as for the ritual of writing,” Craig said. “If editing becomes its own little ritual, it’s very satisfying, but if you always leave it to the last minute, it’s just harrowing and negative. In all writing, it’s important to accept the fact that revision is a crucial part of the writing process, and we have to respect that.”