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Amber Paulen

Editing and Writing

The following quotation is from the introduction to The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. A thin, helpful book on self-editing that I picked up a few weeks ago at The Almost Corner Bookstore in Trastevere. I imagined that it would be helpful in learning how to merge the writer with the editor in my own writing, and it has certainly provided lots of good insight so far.

Some writers are downright suspicious of editors. It is true: Shakespeare had no editor and, well, he wrote just fine. But at the risk of stating the obvious, we do not all possess Shakespeare’s gifts. Besides, Shakespeare penned his immortal lines in the relative quiet of sixteenth-century Britain, untempted by iPods and mobile phones. The blinding pace and complexity of the modern world may just keep writers from literally seeing all they need to in their manuscripts. Take computers. Nearly every author in the Western world, and a good many beyond, uses a computer—a device that makes the editorial enterprise both more appealing and more troublesome. People tend to think the computer is the supreme editing tool. Sure, editing on a computer is easy to do physically. But that gloriously easy machinery may well soften the editorial muscle mentally. For Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday, “word processors have made the physical act of producing a novel so much easier that you can see manuscripts that have word processoritis. They’re swollen and [the writing] looks so good, arranged in such an attractive format that how could it not be good? Well, it’s NOT good, and there’s too much of it!” When a writer had to deal with the laborious task of pounding out seventy-five or a hundred thousand words on a manual typewriter, Howard went on, he would “be a lot more careful about the sentences he allowed to get into manuscript form.”

At the same time, I read this article about structure by creative-nonfictionist John McPhee. His methods of devising structure (or an outline) before sitting down to write changed dramatically with the advent of the computer and a text-editor called Kedit. He was one of the rare writers who had a computer-software friend adjust a program just for him, matching his previous outlining methods to the computer. McPhee knew how he outlined best and applied it to the screen.

And that really seems the point, to allow yourself different ways of working—onscreen or off—to find the way that works best for the piece. Sometimes regression is good.


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