Friday, October 26, 2012

on editing: what is this piece about?

In my day-job as a science/fundraising writer, my favorite part is editing. I didn’t expect this, since I really didn’t know how to do it well before I started. My boss is a terrific editor with a keen eye, and smart as a whip. She asks me questions, states facts (even if they hurt) and tells me what’s missing. When we look at my projects together, I end up feeling a little stupid (why didn’t I see that?) and also schooled, but in a good way. When I finish the revisions, my projects read so much stronger. It’s incredibly satisfying, if also humbling.

I try my hand at editing, too, and am steadily getting better at it. It’s a skill that can be learned by asking simple questions of the piece (mostly, what is the writer trying to say? Does the piece accomplish that? And does each part, as well as the tone, work for it?). Basically, question everything.

Essentially, editing is shaping a piece with a certain goal in mind. I’ve been musing on this idea because in my writing class, I’ve been — almost subconsciously — editing my pieces to fit a certain expectation. Now I’m not talking about the same helpful, strengthening editing my boss has taught me. This kind weakens writing, waters it down like a weak cup of coffee that practically puts you to sleep. It fails on all accounts.

When I was just starting the class, I wrote that I wanted to be daring in my writing. The piece I referenced written by a Mormon woman has stayed with me because she wrote so fearlessly about her faith and how it’s impacted her decisions. Sometimes I hesitate to say that I’m a Christian, or to share that part of my life, in writing to a broader audience because I’m afraid that readers will see that one word as bigger and more important than all the other ones I’m writing, the ones that make up the real story. And yet, in a way, it is bigger, because my love for God, and His for me, really does determine all of my choices. I know a weakness of mine is that my stories lack emotion. While there are probably a few reasons for this, I know that one is because I shy away from exposing my true motivations, feelings, and experiences because I fear being misunderstood. The alternative, however, is being unread, which isn’t very exciting at all.

So back to the questions that editors ask: What is the writer trying to say? Or you could also ask, what is this piece about? People who stand out in their vocation do so because they put themselves into it. They allow who they are to influence the way they wait tables, make art, manage employees, mother children, assist an executive, teach children — and write. I suppose that anybody, then, could ask these questions of themselves as a practice in editing. Take out what’s not important, add what is, make everything work toward what you’re trying to accomplish.

1 comment:

  1. Good thoughts, Betsy. I've gotten a chance to edit several grad/med school apps this year and it's been kind of fun. Your boss sounds like a great editor...good for you for undergoing receiving all the feedback and letting your writing emerge stronger for it.

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