Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Editing Etiquette

I like to edit.  Like may not be a nearly intense enough word.  I LOVE to edit.  Insert my ten-year-old son’s on the cusp of mastering a sarcastic voice saying “If you love editing so much, why don’t you marry it?”  Well were I not married to an incredible man, I’d have to give it serious consideration.  Mrs. Sarah Edit.  Perhaps. 
My red pen gives me chills.  There’ve been numerous studies that show humans (and particularly adolescents) do not respond well to papers corrected with red ink.  I wholeheartedly believe those studies, except they don’t apply to me.  I’ve brandished a red pen since I was six.  It was my mother’s, felt-tipped with a curved red cap, and when I held the point too long on one spot in my teddy bear picnic rip-off story, it looked like it was bleeding across the page.  The visual made a deep impression upon me.  Good writing hurts.  It bleeds.  It takes time and tears to perfect.  The rush of writing may be the creative buzz we get from the ideas scampering across the page, but for me the sustained thrill is the hours of editing to hone my craft and get the piece just right.  Lately, though, I do find myself asking one question over and over (and over) again.  Do I edit too much?
Editing does not have hard and fast rules.  How many times are you allowed to change a word before it’s so different from the original intention that it doesn’t count anymore?  When does a page become so familiar we lose any hopes of truly affecting change?  On average I read each of my pages ten or so times.  I have never in my life once read a page and found it perfect.  Even after publication I often see things that might be tweaked or polished or cut all together.  At that stage in the game it’s too late, thankfully.  But now as I work on a novel-length project, I find myself starting at Go and rarely making it past Baltic Avenue because the damn hotel could always use a face-lift.  Add a flowerbox.  Polish the handrail.  Except with Monopoly I can put all the pieces back in their slots in the box and call it a night.  My story, though, does not fit so neatly in its case.
I probably worry about the same things many writers do.  Are my characters speaking in unique voices?  Have I provided enough description without robbing the reader of the imagination latitude that we all delight in?  Ultimately did I strike the perfect balance between nouns, verbs, and adjectives to move the piece along?  The questions start to cloud my decisions.  The red pen flies around on its own.  I squint my eyes and try to rediscover things lost seven edits back but realize that some misplaced things stay misplaced.  And how do I move forward to page two when the voice in my head says there are still jobs to be done on page one?
The best analogy I can draw brings me to my closet of all places.  Every morning before teaching I pull out a dress.  Or seven.  A few skirts make their way onto what should be my writing desk.  T-shirts and blouses clamor on top.  All in all I’ve excavated ten to fifteen outfits and the mixing and matching begins.  The first outfit may have been the best but until I try every piece, strap on every shoe that might work, I can’t be at peace with the day’s clothing.  I feel this way about my stories.  There are always possibilities, and if I don’t explore them, I could be sending my story out into the world in tacky heels and an outfit none too flattering.
Over-editing can certainly be detrimental to one’s mental health, but if we don’t give ourselves the leeway to dig in and play around with both the mechanics and bigger issues, how can we be sure that the final product is truly what it should be?  Don’t be afraid to change but more importantly change back.  Often we don’t know it looks right until we’ve first seen what it looks like when it’s wrong.    

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