Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Artful Edit

For the second time in seven years, an outright pan:

The Artful Edit: on the practice of editing yourself.
Susan Bell  (2007, W. W. Norton and Co.)

     I thought I had a handle on this review: I would start with the spelling mistakes,
<< "Fitzgerald gave Gatsby the tick of calling people 'old sport'...>>
<< He wrote to the order of his muse and could not bring himself to edit the few precious words he managed to eek out each week.>> (Eek!)

move on to the errors of punctuation,

Daisy is distant from the reader because she is distant period.

and word usage,
<< The umbrage of former teachers and literary stewards was vital to Caponegro's writing life. >>  (I'm guessing Bell thinks 'umbrage' means something like 'sheltering shade')
<< The Catholic Church held strict rule over art for most of that time, and a suite of prudish popes and draconian Councils turned editing largely into censorship.>> (Suite?? How about 'succession', or perhaps 'series'?)

then turn my attention to the sentences--but there are so many breathtakingly bad sentences in this book, and they are bad in so many ways. A few failed more than one test for good sense. OK, deep breath.

     Susan Bell self-edited The Artful Edit, apparently, and the results are not a good advertisement for the practice. Since Bell has been editing others professionally for twenty years, I really hoped for better. One difficulty is that an editor should know a few things the writer doesn't know, which doesn't tend to be the case when they are the same person wearing two hats. What if neither persona knows where to put a comma, or what 'begs the question' means?

     Also, the ideal editor also stands at a dispassionate distance from the writing. Sometimes a writer can achieve this by putting a manuscript away for some period of time, and returning to it with a fresh eye, (perhaps in another room, with a printout and a colored pen.) So far, so good. Bell recommends this practice, and she puts in a good word for rooting out writing that merely retraces familiar ruts: "... writers may need to edit out favorite riffs to force themselves to really write--not merely record the verbal mannerisms stored in the brain."

     But she contradicts herself a few pages later: "When you edit yourself, the same danger exists; the writer in you may be intimidated by the editor in you. If you have the slightest suspicion that you are overediting, you, writer, need to stand up against you, editor." Then what, pray tell, was the editing for? Editing, whether for oneself or another, is not meant to throttle the writer's distinctive voice, but to let that voice be heard clearly. Why would the writer-self be opposed to that? If, as Bell implies, editing makes writing dull, you're doing it wrong.

     "When I go back into my text one too many times, a voice starts to rise in my head, a haunting litany that says, 'Don't fix it if it ain't broken.'" Oh, my dear Ms. Bell, it IS broken. Don't you see how hackneyed 'a haunting litany' is? --and you have the quoted expression backwards.

     Suppressing, for the moment, the urge to line-edit the whole book and mail it back to W. W. Norton, I will content myself with noting a few more of the peculiar contradictions I happened upon.          

     "Subtle is good, obtuse is not. Your reader should not tilt his head, squint, and say 'Huh?' because the relationship of one unit to the next is unclear or absent."  True enough, but that's exactly what's wrong with these: "Each word, not simply phrase, after all, means something. Every 'it,' 'at,' and 'for'--and where it gets situated--is a choice."  "In chapter one, we will learn to step back from our words to see them for what they are, not wish they would be." "Modifiers are often overused, vague, or superfluous, or all three. They mollify a sentence instead of strengthen it." "Details may be many or few,  but best not to shovel them in wholesale." Again and again, in the attempt to trim fat, Bell cuts sinew instead.

     Here's another good suggestion that Bell cannot seem to follow: "Commit to your ideas; be certain enough to write them without wordy precautions , announcements, or apologies.... The reader, by virtue of reading, wants those ideas, and not peripheral verbiage." Surely we could have done without 'by virtue of reading'.

     "Listen for whether or not your ideas sound organized or scattershot."  One 'or' or the other, don't you think?

     Now here's an idea-- "If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly."  Aye, but it does need to be written well. "Structure, then, is not a straitjacket for your words. It is an architecture that moves readers through and allows them to pause, not randomly, but with direction."  Pause, with direction: stop reading, and breathe four times, slowly. Now resume reading.

     "When you edit, check to see that you're using the long, curvaceous sentence to say something, not as a catchall for the numerous ideas you've been unable to tease out and trim. In works by writers such as Dave Hickey, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, convoluted phrasing, in essays or fiction, succeed at conveying  meaning as clear as glass."  Clear as glass! "As you edit, watch out for long-winded areas, where you lose track of and even interest in the content of what may be beautifully turned sentences." 
     Speaking of "may," this one should have been a 'might' (Chekhov having died nearly forty years before Walter Murch was born): "Chekhov may have appreciated Murch's method, at once esoteric and technical..."

     Here's one, alas, that applies to me today: "We often write two, three, or four times the ideas that our piece can effectively hold."

     "Avoid overwriting or pretention. Have you succumbed to a self-conscious choice of word or syntax? Does your work, or any part of it, feel artificial, effortful, irritating?"
     I'm sorry to say that the answer to those questions is an unqualified affirmative. Don't say I didn't warn you.

January 2008

1 comment:

  1. A Most amusing review, and your call on eek versus eke is brilliant (and will find it's way into my word pair test for potential lovers.)

    The great problem one confronts in editing one's own work is more knowing too much- too much what the other is trying to say. It is so easy to read our intentions, our memory of our thoughts, instead of what is actually on the page.

    Fate is a fearful foe, always lurking in the seemingly most secure places, so it's no surprise that it would wreak havoc with a complacent editor. Tut, tut.