Editing is selection. It’s choosing what stays and what goes, what can only stay if it changes, and which things are connected. Editing is not just sandpaper or scalpel, applied to remove the bad. Sometimes editing is a rubber mallet to bang out dents (or selectively add them). Sometimes it’s a wrench to tighten loose bolts. Sometimes, of course, it’s a blowtorch.
As I work over my NaNo material, I’m doing a little of all of those things, even though this is just a pre-edit intended to help me figure out what’s missing. (I probably need another 20-30,000 words for the novel to be complete.) I’ve run into some ugly knots—one with timelines occurs quite early—and a plethora of minor things that I’ve nudged about. There are some that I still need to decide on, too: capitalization of some things and just what the hell the monetary system looks like (I’ve referred to six or seven denominations of coins). ’Tis the season, even if it is not national editing month just yet.
It’s also a season for more abstract editorial projects. Whether it’s a Christmas letter or answering a well-meaning inquisitor at a holiday party, we select the bits of our lives that we feel are the best or the most relevant or sometimes just the least worst. We consider most of the same things we do when we edit our writing (fiction or non-): What’s our audience? What do they want to hear? How far should we bend things to fit into a pleasing shape? What might “sell,” and how interested are we in providing it? The break between calendar years is an opportunity for even more abstract “editing.” What are New Year’s resolutions if not attempts to edit the fabric of our lives? We want to keep the good and remove the bad. Carrying that out can be as rough as earnestly digging into our own work.
Editing is the way we put our best selves forward. I try to remind myself of that as I edit. When I have them, I remind my students of the same thing. Too often—and especially when we work on our own material—we reduce editing to mere proofreading. We want to catch our typos and mend our inconsistencies. Maybe we go a small step further and remove some passages that don’t work. If it’s a NaNo project, we might be more comfortable tossing the junk we piled up chasing wordcounts, but not necessarily. There are ready aphorisms about lightning and lightning bugs, about killing our darlings…but really, I think that good editing aims at the questions I cast as abstractions a paragraph ago. It’s up to the person wearing the writer’s hat to provide the final answers, but the editor ought to be asking those big questions. (That’s one of the reasons that finding somebody else to share the editor’s hat is so useful. They don’t think they already know the answers.)
Editing is a chance for us to really engage with a work, to figure out what makes it tick. That’s the challenge but also the thrill of it. It’s taking something cool (hopefully) and making it better. It’s using every tool in our kit to make our best choices. The consequences might not be as dire as picking the wrong cup in a Grail Knight’s challenge, but still, choose wisely.