Eaton Hamilton

"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” – Lillian Hellman

Tag: on editing

The Adequate Writer: On Editing

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I just finished a travel essay, The Blind Warthog, about a trip I took to Namibia.  The essay grew too big for its britches, fast, and broke off into the possiblity of multiple essays, even a book of essays if I include other countries.  I pushed and pulled and snarled and snarked and moaned and groaned, tried this, tried that, and eventually, over days, a 2000 word piece strung itself together because writing is, at its essence, allusive, and the secret to getting the first draft is just staying put and getting any words on the page.  I didn’t ball those up, all those wrong words, and toss them.  I hung tight with them because one wrong word suggested another wrong word eventually suggested another right word in that freeway pile-up way words have if you let them have their heads.

Eventually, that gave me a schematic from which to go forward, a hint of a piece.  A friend offered an ear so that I could identify the flaws while reading aloud, always, for me, a productive process (because the embarrassment of having my mistakes seen by someone else highlights them for me).  A little too much this.  Not enough that.  Stylistic blunders.  Bits that got dropped in but not expanded.  Bits that need to be moved out.

Back to the hopper it went.  Squash this this way.  Squash that that way.  Tinker this, tinker that.  Absorb central metaphors; working?

Leave some time.

Rinse and repeat.

At that end of all that, I had a first final draft of just over 3000 words.  This is the one that’s good enough to submit.  This is the draft that’s like a small goat proinging through a meadow; all joy and exuberance.

But here is where the best person in my world comes in:  My editor.

I’ve had hundreds of these folks, and working with each is different than was the last, but working with each is also, always, deeply satisfying.  All those things that were suggested in your piece but didn’t make it to fruition because you were busy with nuts and bolts?  She will find them.  She will ask you to enhance them.  The things that kinda sorta worked but really didn’t?  She will ask you to turf them.

DO WHATEVER SHE ASKS is my rather-strongly-held opinion.  If you don’t trust her, keep a copy of your piece as it stood before the changes.  But make the changes she suggests with an open heart.  And here’s why:  Your editor is engaging your work with fresh eyes in a way that you have not and can not, and because of her suggestions, so will you.  It will open your work up.  You will learn things.  Your piece will very likely get much better.

You can see it as criticism.  You can see it as plundering.   You can see it as mean.

But trust me when I say if you participate, your work will come alive (and if it doesn’t, you still have that original to fall back on).  Understand that you and your editor share a goal:  to make the piece the best it can be.

Here’s how I see it:

An expert’s got her fingertips on my work–for free.  If she doesn’t pull her punches–please, editors, give me a hard edit–luckier still, the luckiest author alive.

I can’t wait.

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Writing Advice: First Read-Throughs

Make your first read an out loud read to yourself.  You’ll hear things you won’t in a silent go-through.

But what comes next?

Read to someone else.

The first time a new writer shares a piece, whether she’s handed over pages or a link or read her work aloud, her ears flare red and her heart thumps.  Every mistake (mistakes she was probably unaware of just seconds earlier)–a laboured image, an accidentally repeated word–feels as painful as a twisted arm.  Now her friend/lover/editor/agent knows what she suspected all along–she is bad, so bad that she should get aversion therapy, shocks every time she tries to slip envelopes into a post box or tries to hit “send” on Submittable.

What once was finished has grown fangs, turned and bitten her.

I used to drive my ex around the twist.  “What do you want from me?” she’d plead when I finished reading a new piece, and I was puzzled, too; what did I want?  Something, urgently, but what?  It was only over time that I discovered that I didn’t really need her reaction.  What I needed was just to hear myself reading the piece with someone else’s attuned (long-suffering) ear in the room, because this second set of ears became, by its alchemy of distancing, critiquing ears for me.  Then I could go back and rework.

And rework.  And rework.

Before critiquing and edits.


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