Edit by half, the adage says, then edit by half again.
Are we that sloppy and verbose? Are our writings such undisciplined wanderings? Do we really suffer such extreme keyboard Tourette’s? Or are we just being stubborn?
For those of us who “write tight”, the edit—whether our own edit or that of someone else—is a combination of challenge, torture and maze-running. An exercise of hair-pulling. The fed-upedness of over-familiarity.
If we’ve written such an airtight piece that not word nor phrase nor dot of punctuation can be removed without dire consequences or imminent story-collapse, what have we left ourselves to do? Where is our judgment? Our sense of collaboration and our willingness to listen to learned opinions other than our own?
Writing (especially long-form) is fraught with perils. Being edited is pocked with the frustrations of exposure to those less skilled and more opinionated than we are. Everybody who ever took a high-school English class is suddenly an expert, free with their suggestions and their certainties about the right way to write.
And self-editing? It is emblematic of the dangers of self-love…the blindness of too-close-to-it; the inability to see the forest of pacing for the trees. The coddling fondness for an unworthy phrase. The ever-present possibility that the whole effin’ thing is plain crap.
Editing requires a certain distance from the work that can be very hard to come by. Anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to be edited by a master (or who has attained that masterful perspective for him/herself) will know what a wonder a great edit is. Anyone who has been edited professionally and well understands the editor’s miraculous ability to find the living thing amidst the rubble; learns the value in listening that can get one to a better place.
A great editor doesn’t demand—at least, not always. A great editor has respect for the intention and the author’s ownership. A great editor ups your game as a writer. A great editor suggests and leaves the final choice to you, mostly. A great editor is Fred Astaire to your Ginger Rogers. Editors make you look good. They teach you stuff.
And finding those qualities for one’s own edit…the challenge of the day.
By half. Sure. The fault is found in the adage, not the idea. Maybe it’s “cut by a tenth” or “cut by 80 percent.” Half. Pshaw.