Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Editing skills, or lack thereof

I am writing a long encyclopedia entry this week.

It is putting me in touch with the naked fact of my inability to edit.

I've never been in a situation where I've needed to deeply edit my writing - at a structural level, I mean.

My mode has always been to edit as I go...I don't just freewrite and then go back and cut and rewrite. I write, carefully, once. I work sentence by sentence, deleting or restructuring individual thoughts at sentence level before I go on to the next thought/sentence. It has meant that I am not the world's fastest writer (nor am I, by any means, the slowest), but also that I have never had occasion to tear apart something I've written. Because I've gone over something so fine-toothedly at the micro-level, I effectively understand the finished product as...well, completely and forever finished.

In retrospect, I wish there had been significant structural problems with my dissertation, so that my supervisor or committee members had asked me to restructure. (Actually, I think there are structural problems, but nobody else ever said there were.) Rather, what feedback I got on this largest piece of my work to date, which could have made me an editing machine, was at the level of a missing reference here, an idea that needed pushing there, a context I might want to mention way over there. I didn't actually have a lot of revisions at all. And that was nice then, sure. But now it is leaving me flailing a little.

That conference paper I gave ten days ago? It is a mess, in terms of structure. I could feel this as I wrote it, but couldn't figure out what to do about it (possibly because I wasn't willing to just start slashing and burning, such an approach being too painfully novel to me). I showed it to a friend, and he said it was fine. But when I was giving the paper, I thought, "Oh dear. This doesn't work." I feel quite certain about this. But the task of fixing it is completely daunting. In the end, it will be okay with this work because what I'm going to do is significantly expand and lengthen it. And I feel as if that expansion will have a healing effect, so to speak. But if I had to just restructure in the context of the truncated work that it is as a conference paper, I wouldn't know where to begin.

And now I'm writing this encyclopedia entry, and the challenge I gave myself was to just write, and to worry about the big-picture structure later. To train myself in this. Could I do it? No. I still niggle over every sentence, line editing as I go, so that when I am happy with a sentence or paragraph, it feels as if it is effectively set in stone. But I know that this one, too, is going to have some structural problems. And again, how will I fix them? Argh!

I sometimes tell myself that it's okay, that this is just my style, and blah blah blah. But I don't think it is okay, because it's getting me in hot water lately.

If anyone has any fantabulous and less painful editing techniques they'd like to share, I'll be all ears.


Flavia said...

A related question came up a week or two ago on Tiruncula's blog--that post was really about writing methods from the get-go, rather than revising, specifically, but you might find some of the discussion useful.

As I say over there, I am, myself, a reviser par excellence. In fact--and this may be a distinction without a difference--I tend to think of myself as not actually a very good writer (which is to say that I find the process of birthing text from scratch incredibly painful and awful), but a damn good reviser.

Hilaire said...

Flavia, I envy you!

And yes, yes, I meant "revise"...I kept thinking that I didn't mean "edit". Good god - I couldn't even think of the word revise! What does that say about my writing?!

There are some good tips at Tiruncula's - I will write my allotted word count, and then may try your on-the-floor-moving-bits-of-text-around routine. Thanks!

Flavia said...

I'm glad some of that was helpful!

I should add that I don't necessarily think being "a great reviser" is in fact a great way to be a writer--I really hate the fact that I go through 8 or 9 or 10 drafts of everything, and that it never seems any good until late in the process. I envy my partner, who (after much research and thought) can sit down and write 50 pages in 5 days, and they're coherent and interesting and well-organized.

negativecapability said...

I'm going to follow Flavia's link because it sounds like I am just like you! (and her partner)

It's served me well until now, but I don't think I can sustain writing the whole dissertation this way.