Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Cutting Ceiling.




Suppose you were to sit down and copy this paragraph, word for word, sentence for sentence, with all the errors and ugliness in it intact. You might discover some eternal flaw in its structure while you were copying it especially if you were writing it out longhand. You might look at one of the sentences and realize it could be have made better by adjusting a comma or the exit of a word or two or perhaps even made better by the simple deletion of the whole affair in total. That would be depressing for me at the very least but it would not be the first time axed words have been declared acceptable losses in the name of readability.

So what was that paragraph trying to tell you? What did it say? Dog forbid but suppose that paragraph was the last remains of the last document written in English left for some other civilization to find? Suppose some cryptologist of arcane languages happened upon the parchment and from that had to discern the intent of the author, long turned into moldy dust and sentence fragments. Hell, is there enough there for you to see where I am going, much less someone who has never seen the English language?

If writing is a lost art then editing is the Atlantis of the writing world these days. I will be the first to admit my editing skills are somewhere between a slow train wreck and a bad snake bite. I finally realized, very late in the game, that poorly edited work is the same as poorly written work. Being a good writer means being a good editor. Writing well means editing carefully and I have to confess I am not a very good editor at all, yet. Becoming a good editor isn’t as hard as being a good writer but editing isn’t as much fun as writing. Writing is the party and editing is the hangover.

We should be so lucky if our civilization is judged by the skill of someone like Mark Twain. Yet suppose all that was found was a bit of “Huckleberry Finn” where the eponymous character was engaged in conversation with his faithful companion, Jim, the slave. Without any knowledge of the English language the future archeologists might very well believe the dialect spoken was the standard by which all English was written or spoken. The depth of the writing would be revealed only if the researchers could in fact discern how well the piece was edited. We should quake for how our civilization is portrayed if my editing is how they judge us.

I am one of the few writers who is not only fully self taught in the craft of writing but who is also a self taught editor. I went for many years believing good writing made up for bad editing but the reality is that writing does not drag bad editing up but rather bad editing drags good writing down. A confused verb or a misspelled word can stick in the mind of a reader like someone watching a Shakespearean play noticing one of the actors wearing bright red running shoes and a Britney Spears tee shirt. How many readers have stopped reading an essay once they’ve mentally corrected the first few errors? As a writer I am here to tell you these people are the target audience of those who aspire to write well. The best readers demand and they deserve, the best writing. These are the connoisseurs of the written word, picky consumers of the craft, and those most likely to fall in love with the ideal.  No matter how hurried or tired or even impressed with what has been written, please remember that it will have to be read, and judged, not only by content but also by that last coat of paint, and perhaps, only by that. No matter how well your house is designed if the paint job looks like it was applied by evil space monkeys then selling that house will be a bit of a problem.

The last work I sent out to be looked at by a professional editor came back with fewer errors than I feared yet more than I had hoped. I thought it had been combed over very well and considering out of ten thousand or so words fewer than a half dozen were edited I thought it was still pretty good. The downside to this is I made what I thought was a heroic effort to edit the material. Six mistakes out of ten thousand words may not seem important but if only perfection will do then only perfection should be done.

I do not understand editors. I suspect a lot of them are failed writers but so are most writers. I also suspect many failed writers are failed editors in some way, too. Yet I do know people who like editing and have no real need to write. That’s mystifying to me but it is not my place in the Universe to comprehend what other people enjoy. I must admit dealing with an editor is much akin to dealing with a butcher who is supposed to be pet sitting a sacred cow. That person may claim to know who much you love the cow and that person may profess a knowledge of how much the cow means to you, but at the same time this is the person who is going to very matter of factly discuss trimming away, nay, hacking away, a good piece of your cow and then tell you the best parts are now what’s left.  

There are no famous documents with editing issues. No one ever discusses the spelling errors in the Declaration of Independence or the sentence fragments in “The Lord of the Rings”. No one speaks in glowing terms bestselling novels and then laments the lack of editing skills on the part of the writers.  The two go hand in hand; good writing means good editing. But do not confuse the issue here because good editing will not save bad writing. It can only condemn good writing to a discussion of what might have been.
Take Care,
Mike

7 comments:

  1. Interesting.

    However, I think you need to feel less awe for editing. My grandmother once spelled the word "Christmas" 5 different ways in a one-page letter, but this didn't keep her from being a fantastic story teller, and the stories she wrote about raising a family during the Depression are treasured by all who have them. Her word-stringing talent passed on to my father, who could write 3 pages about birds washing in a bird bath, and make you wish for more. He also had my grandmother's spelling, as do I.

    My mother on the other hand worked as an editor for a publisher for a while, and her spelling and grammar were both perfect. But there was no zing to what she wrote, no excitement, and she could never have been a writer.

    But that wasn't her job; hers was to fix the writing of those who can string words together with spark and zing without removing them, and that she did very well.

    Incidentally, the Declaration of Independence may have been written long enough ago that "official" spellings for some words have changed. As for Tolkein, he was a good enough story teller that readers are willing to overlook the minor faults. I'm less forgiving of many modern best sellers, in which problems with the writing are severe enough to derail the story.

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    1. Writing letters is one thing, Kyle but I am supposed to be good enough to write a novel. Christmas has got to be spelled right all the time in the book.

      That said, I would love to have read those letters and I bet they were better than most of the top ten sellers in the same year.

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  2. You are good enough to write & publish a novel, I think (I edited science fiction with Weird Tales for a number of years, a task that included reading and (mostly) rejecting stories -- maybe 1 in a hundred was publishable, and this was a magazine the professionals sent their stories to).

    Your job is to write something people have to finish. The editors then do their bit, and you make certain it is still something people have to finish when they're done. A good editor who likes the story will work with a good writer on the mechanical problems.

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    1. So, Kyle, can you help me get published?

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  3. Fraid Not. I was with WT in the 90s, when George Scithers was at the helm, and while it's still coming out everything has changed. Including my location (Italy), and I have no active contacts with the publishing world.

    I've heard interesting things about e publishing and will at some point have to look into it (no point in leaving a novel in a drawer), but for now I do just food & wine writing on the web.

    Kyle

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    1. I also have given thought to e publishing but have yet to find anyone who has tried it to good effect.

      Let me know if you make it work, please.

      And there is nothing at all wrong with wine and food writing!

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  4. An editor doesn’t have to be a failed writer, just someone who loves to read, is pretty competent in spelling/grammar, and is willing to deal with the crazies we call writers.

    My spelling is atroshus, but with a slew of digital crutches. If it’s not in spell check’s arsenal, and msWord can’t decipher it, you know damn well Google is your friend.

    Grammar is trickier, but forget hieroglyphics and a thousand years, you have to write for people in the here/now. Write so they can easily follow what your saying, even if they don’t understand why... yet or ever. Name a “great” writer, and you’ll find the meaning of their work discussed, nay, debated, ad nauseum. So if you want to write pieces that every single reader will clearly understand, write first grade primers.

    Something that a non-writer, bad-speller, … heh, almost said normal… make that ordinary schmuck like me might stumble on, like, “…claim to know who much you love the cow…”. But if the story is compelling, screw it, read on. I can’t read Shakespeare, it’s just not worth the effort to slog through the vernacular/spelling… I’ll wait for the movie.

    I’m always a little taken back when someone says a book was “crafted”. Sure, writing, editing, and printing are crafts, but to me that sounds like you’re designing a bridge. I feel writing shouldn’t have nearly the rules and restraints of a bridge designer. I suppose there are strictures for getting published, especially for the great unpublished. But remember there’s fifty shades of sparkly crap being published, so make it fun to read and they will come.

    Make it fun to write and it won’t matter.

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